Theatre: FILE O ICA, London

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The Independent Culture
There's something comforting about watching others going about their work while you talk to a third person, like hearing adult voices when playing as a child. Not so in File O, by Peking-based Xi Ju Che Jian (Theatre Workshop), in which the crashings, bangings and showers of sparks from a welder on stage aggressively interrupt the action. Action, admittedly, is here a loose term. It consists of Wu Wenguang, a young documentary film-maker, standing in front of a workbench cluttered with ancient film spools, confiding in the audience in a direct and touchingly formal way about his lousy relationship with his father. The welder is not the only interruption. As Wu battles valiantly on with his story, a silent young woman (Wen Hui) officiously switches on a tape recording of a poem, "File O" by Yu Jian, which inspired this piece of theatre. In the end the welder (Jian Yue) comes forward and, dogmatically reading aloud from scribbled notes the story of his first love, successfully sabotages Wu's narrative. In post-Tiananmen China, not everybody's story can be heard.

Xi Ju Che Jian was formed in 1987, full of democratic hope, the first independent theatre company in China since 1949. Eight years later, the company can only perform abroad: it is still considered subversive to form a non-official theatre company, worse still to stage non-socialist realist work. Presumably, to talk about your father, as Wu does, is condemned as Western decadence, even though to us decadents the intimacy still seems rudimentary.

This context helps to sweeten the unrelenting formalism of the piece. In the end, the work of the welder is revealed as a forest of metal rods, on to which Wen Hui plants apples and tomatoes to create a stunning image of the man-made and nature oddly reconciled. Perhaps this is an allusion to the attempt of Maoist Communism to re-fashion human nature; in any case, just as the last rod is topped with an apple, a big old rusty wind machine is switched on and the two men furiously hurl fruit at it, creating a futile carnage of vegetable matter. Wen Hui, still silent, calls a halt to this protest by turning off the machine. The crisis is over and daily life goes on - but who's going to clear up the mess?

n At the ICA, London SW1 to 25 June (0171-930 3647)