Fri, Sep 28, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Demand for free speech led to Ibsen play being pulled


Chinese officials pulled a tour by the German theater star Thomas Ostermeier earlier this month when audience members in Beijing shouted slogans demanding free speech, the director said.

Ostermeier, director of Berlin’s famed Schaubuhne theater, said the Chinese tour of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People — in which a local doctor fights political corruption — was abruptly cut short by the authorities “because of technical problems.”

His acclaimed version of the 19th-century classic by the Norwegian playwright, which played at the Opera House of the National Center for the Performing Arts near Tiananmen Square, includes a scene where the actors and audience interact.

“When the authorities realized [after the first of three planned performances in Beijing] that it included an interaction, they did everything they could so there would be no scandal,” Ostermeier said. “But the news had spread like wildfire on social media.”

State control of the Internet has been drastically increased under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), with the Web regularly purged of criticism or content judged politically sensitive.

The authorities moved quickly to censor all mention of the scene, “erasing everything that had been said on social media”, said Ostermeier, who is in Paris to premiere his new staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Comedie Francaise.

Ostermeier said he was told to cut the scene, but instead replaced it with an announcement saying that “we would have liked to have a discussion with you, but the actor who was to do it has lost his voice. Has that ever happened to you?”

“Then the whole troupe came on stage and there was two minutes of silence. The audience understood immediately,” Ostermeier said.

“Some started shouting out their support of free speech and individual liberty,” he added.

Ostermeier, who has toured China with his troupe many times before, said he had been told by fellow directors that it “wouldn’t be possible” to stage An Enemy of the People in the country.

The play tells the story of a provincial doctor who discovers that the waters of a spa are contaminated, but when he reveals the scandal he is forced out of his home after being accused of trying to ruin the village.

Ostermeier said he thought that by inviting him to stage the play in China, the authorities wanted to show their openness.

It was only later that “we realized that they had not seen the play in advance, and that from their point of view, there had been an error,” he said.

Further performances in Nanjing were canceled “because of technical problems.”

Ostermeier has shown his adaptation in about 40 countries after it was the hit of the Avignon festival in France in 2012.

Since then he has filmed the scene where the public are invited to speak in every city that it plays for a documentary he is making called Mapping Democracy.

The Beijing show was also filmed although the recording was later confiscated by officials.

However, Ostermeier said that he still has a copy.

“It’s delicate,” he said. “They wanted to watch it to see who had spoken out.”

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