Beckett's art imitates life for Chinese

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THE PULSING music was techno-beat. The costume was a black vinyl jacket and skin-tight satin trousers, with a clinging velour top. And once the young woman had strode on to the stage, she threw off her hat and proceeded to gyrate in an erotic dance with a stool. Here was Vladimir as never before - and that was before the strobe light was switched on.

It hardly seemed like Waiting for Godot. Even more surprising, this production was in China, where bitter laughter in the face of the existential abyss was hardly acceptable until recently. Chinese audiences are more used to socialist upliftment, but the first production of Samuel Beckett's classic in China attracted near-capacity audiences last week.

The director, Ren Ming, has chosen to "stand in the shoes of contemporary youth", no doubt calculating that the younger Chinese will be more receptive than their elders to the play's message - or rather lack of one. Vladimir and Estragon - normally played as wretched, tramp-like figures and definitely male - have been transformed.

Vladimir's sparkling nail polish was co-ordinated with glitter highlights on her cheeks. Estragon, also played by a woman, sported baggy trousers and braces, but of the sort usually seen on inhabitants of Kensington, not cardboard boxes. Pozzo appeared in a white bow-tie as a mafia gangster, while Lucky the slave was a female tailor's dummy - or at least some of its body parts - wheeled around in a bath-tub. The boy arrived on roller- skates. Music ranged from Carmen to rock.

What Beckett would have made of it can only be guessed. While he was still alive, a production in Paris was banned from playing music and bathing the stage in pink light during the performance, as the director proposed. But it is worth remembering that when Waiting for Godot was first produced in the early Fifties, Maoist China was gearing up for the brutal political purges of the anti-Rightist movement. However far the play has evolved in this Chinese production, China itself has come a lot further.

Most of the audience was from the generation that has grown up in the Deng Xiaoping era. They are living in a society partly stuck in its Communist past and partly changed beyond recognition. For them, the confusions of life are all too vivid, and Vladimir and Estragon's whiling away of the hours with perpetual questions, quarrels and musings struck a chord.

"My understanding is that many people in modern society are confused or perplexed by sophisticated things, and are looking forward to some better things," said a 25-year-old military college graduate. "They feel hopeless. Present [Chinese] society is quite chaotic, so you find this feeling." Using two young actresses helped to express it, in his view.

Who or what was Godot? Certainly no one seemed to think he might represent Karl Marx. "It is hope," said a 21-year-old woman who worked for an American computer company. "Godot symbolises hope, maybe the reason for everyone to keep on living."

What did she think about using actresses instead of men? "The meaning is the same, no matter whether they are male or female. Maybe young people in Chinese society have the same feelings as the old tramps. One part of the play is very important - that everyone is faithful to habits. Finally, life is paralysed, because everyone is faithful to habits."

One man in his early thirties said it was the first time he had seen such a modern play. "The two characters are waiting for something which existed in the past. But because these days they always think about the past, they don't go forward." Much the same might be said about a whole layer of Chinese society, which has been left behind in the reform process because it cannot adjust.

"I understand this play," boasted a 19-year-old student. "Everything about life is vanity. People feel they know nothing about the future, the answers, or themselves. And they want to give vent to this perplexity. That's why the two characters dance." And dance they do: sometimes pogoing, sometimes bumping and grinding, sometimes smoochy and slow.

But was Beckett's play treading on familiar ground? One of the few relatively old people in the audience seemed loath to admit that Beckett might have had something new to say for China's younger generation. "Two thousand years ago in China, the philosophers Laozi and Zhuangzi had these kinds of feelings expressed in drama," he claimed. They just did not write such good plays.