The Lunar New Year of 2020 struck Chinese people as unprecedented as Coronavirus forced Wuhan to go into city-wide lockdown the day (January 23) before the New Year’s Eve, and the rest of China soon transitioned into travel restrictions of various degree. Wuhan commanded the attention of people all over China as they anxiously waited for the spread of the virus to slow down. Chinese director Wang Chong’s online production of Waiting for Godot, aired in two parts on April 5 (Act 1) and 6 (Act 2), cogently grasped the defining ambience of the lockdown by presenting the frustration and futility of a confined life. Produced by the Guangzhou Opera House in collaboration with China’s tech giant Tencent, the production attracted 180,000 spectators on the first night and 110,000 on the second night.
In Wang’s staging, or rather, adaptation of Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir are a heterosexual couple separated by the pandemic. Fufu (Vladimir, played by Li Jialong) is cooped up with his parents and younger brother whereas Ganggang (Estragon, played by Ma Zhuojun) seems to be living by herself. While waiting for Geduo (Godot), they encountered Bozhuo (Pozzo, played by Cui Yongping) and Xingyun’er (Lucky, played by Li Boyang). Bozhuo is a businessman who, with the help of Xingyun’er, participates in live commerce (advertising and selling products through online streaming), a business model that rose to immense popularity in China during the lockdown. The boy in Samuel Beckett’s original is transformed into a disembodied voice (Chen Yangyang) trapped in a gadget, one that resembles Siri.
Covid-19 loomed large in the production. Members of the cast and the production team were scattered in various cities in China, and the entire production process took place online. A thermometer in hand, Fufu is constantly taking his and his family members’ temperature. The moment Bozhuo starts coughing, both Fufu and Ganggang visibly panic and hurriedly reach for their masks. Towards the end of the play, Bozhuo eventually comes down with the coronavirus. Xingyun’er, enjoying his new-found freedom, goes for a drive. Through his camera, spectators all over China saw the empty streets of Wuhan, the epic-center of Covid-19, as well as its landmark Huanghelou (Yellow Crane Tower).
The production received critical attention and mixed reviews in China, and a heated debate on the nature of online theatre followed suit. As seen in his “Online Theatre Manifesto” (see below), Wang has no intention to use online theatre only as a choice of contingency but plans to tap this format’s potential further. This is a recent update from Wang.
Online Theatre Manifesto
April 20, 2020, published online
English translation by Wang Chong
The ancient Greeks probably could not have imagined that the public forum they called theatre would still exist more than two thousand years in the future. They absolutely could not have imagined that, more than two thousand years later, a plague like the one in their play Oedipus Rex would suffocate theatre.
Performances have stopped; venues have closed; theatre has disappeared.
Theatre disappeared. Only video-recordings of theatre are left on the internet. But of course, video recordings of theatre are not theatre. They are merely bad copies, passing shadows, and vague memories of theatre.
Theatre artists became jobless and started suffering and complaining. In fact, the worst part is not that they lost their jobs; it’s that they have been forced to realize the cruel reality of the twenty-first century: theatre is non-essential.
Among all businesses, theatre was the first to be shut by the pandemic and will be the last to reopen. Theatre is non-essential.
Restaurants must go on; factories must go on; music must go on; Netflix too must go on. Only theatre is non-essential.
Theatre artists only realized that theatre is non-essential once the plague was everywhere. In fact, theatre became non-essential long ago. Theatre stopped connecting humans and gods long ago; theatre stopped being the only light during the long night long ago; theatre stopped enlightening people long ago. Theatre is not public forum anymore. Most theatre has nothing to do with our times.
While cellphones and the internet have become new organs of the mankind, and the age of cyberpunk is at our doorstep, theatre is one of the last few places that doesn’t allow the internet. While global news reaches people in seconds, theatre still takes a year or two to go from page to stage. While most people in the world have access to the internet, theatre remains the pretty plaything of the privileged few.
Theatre is tourism; theatre is consumerism; theatre is capitalism. Theatre is non-essential, because theatre stopped being public forum long ago. It is neither public nor a forum.
Yet the online world is public and a forum. This world has sharing, participation, and billions of people. This world has stages, auditoriums, and open-air squares. This world has bodies, spaces, and beating hearts. This world has energy, light, and zeitgeist. The online world is not a mirror of the world. It is the world.
In this world, theatre artists can start from scratch with just their bare hands. We can define all time and space; we can control all language and symbols; we can create all the currents and futures. In this world, it is easier for us to find the Dionysian spirit or the “immediate theatre” imagined by Peter Brook.
Online theatre is absolutely not a stop-gap measure during this plague. As in Oedipus Rex, the plague will pass at last, and the hero, through life-and-death experiences, awakens to the truth. Human society will soon be full of virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and artificial organisms. So will the arts. Humans will at last redefine “human,” and also “theatre.” Theatre artists, having experienced “the death of theatre,” shouldn’t and can’t stand by awaiting our doom. Online theatre is no death knell for theatre, but a prelude to our future.
We, I and my friends, stayed up all night, only because the prelude has started.
Stand still, or join us.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.