Dis-Orientations: A Chinese gay revolution?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

A new play in London aims to tell the tale of modernisation and self-expression in developing areas of China, PinkNews.co.uk’s Marc Shoffman asks if this production can help challenge the country’s taboo attitude towards homosexuality.

“We will have to turn the lights down on the gay sex scene,” Dis-Orientations’ artistic director Michael Walling admits when asked if his new play, which attempts to merge Chinese Opera and British theatre, would work in China.

Hardly a screaming endorsement for gay rights in the Far East, but this production highlights the difficulties facing the country’s major cities attempts at modernising and welcoming new ideas.

Dis-Orientations tells the story of Julian Lucas (Tony Guilfoyle), a British man who arrives in China searching for his missing daughter, however his search takes him on an unexpected journey into a hidden world of rent boys, vice and a country’s struggle for self identity.

Set in 2006, the play is cleverly juxtaposed with the Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers performed by the Shanghai Yueju Opera House.

The Butterfly Lovers is a story of a Chinese girl Zhu Yingtai, who dresses as a boy to gain an education, she develops a close friendship with a fellow pupil Liang Shanbo who arranges for her to marry his sister, only to discover Zhu is in fact a girl, which leads Liang into depression and he eventually dies.

Zhu, whose arranged marriage to another man chosen by her mother is obstructed by a whirlwind, visits Liang’s tomb and is sucked in, the pair emerge from the grave as butterflies.

The legend depicts a battle against conservatism and cultural values which easily translates into this beautifully produced tale at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London.

The audience meets Sammy (Ku leng Un), a gay Chinese man dressed in Western clothing, who tells Julian of his desire to be free like a butterfly. However, he is clearly hindered by the country’s conservative attitude to homosexuality and forced into underground clubs and being a rent boy.

China removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001 and this play depicts the stigma and taboo attitudes which still surround it.

He appears to prefer expressing his sexuality by dressing as a woman, not that this is wrong, but is this type of cross dressing or getting paid for gay sex real freedom or is he hiding his true feelings by pretending to be someone else?

Self expression is central to this play, how can one person love another if they are not sure about how they feel about themselves?

This emerges in the dialogue, Western obsessions such as botox are transposed with ancient Chinese traditions of Daoism which concentrates on aspects of spirituality and finding happiness from within rather than under a knife.

Dis-Orientations visits two of China’s major cities, Beijing and Shangai, seen as the central areas where the country’s economy and culture is set to grow, this is aptly reflected in the play with dance music creating a parallel to the operatic style of the ancient story of the Butterfly Lovers.

The story reflects China’s historical battles with change, particularly paying reference to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s where citizens were told how they must think and behave through Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

Red Guards, who enforced the rules, regularly march onto the stage brandishing the book to provide a historical context to how references to lesbian and gay relationships which the audience are witnessing may be viewed back in China.

Dis-Orientations provides an insight into the country’s attachment to history and tradition and how much further it must go in its quest for self expression and identity, but also shows through Julian that Westerners still have a lot of inward thinking to do.

It depicts a country looking to spread its wings, but like a butterfly it must wait until it is ready to emerge from its cocoon.

Unfortunately for the gay community and characters like Sammy, more tolerant policies are needed faster to ensure protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and to stop homosexuality from hiding underground.

Dis-Orientations helps raise the issue of freedom of expression, and the quicker Chinese audiences welcome the play and its themes, the better.

Dis-Orientations is on at the Riverside Studios until October 1 2006. Tickets can be purchased at riversidestudios.co.uk, or by calling 020 8237 1111