Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fight the Landlord: Show panders to political winds

Fight the Landlord

Safe bet: Fight the Landlord features three actors wearing panda suits who play China's favourite card game, which emerged in the 1980s.

In China, dou di zhu (fight the landlord) is a popular card game, sometimes played on the streets and on trains, usually by three people, and often betting small amounts of money.

"I'm the most terrible card player," says Zhaohui Wang, the artistic director of theatre troupe Square Moon Culture, whose latest show Fight the Landlord casts three actors in panda suits playing dou dizhu, singing and speaking Mandarin.

People say the way you play the game is the way you live your life. 

"But it is the most popular card game in China, and it is very easy to play."

Fight the Landlord

An actor playing the game dou di zhu.

In the game, one player becomes the landlord and the other two players team up, but the power balance constantly shifts. The landlord is always more powerful: if he wins, he takes more money from the other two players.

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The game seems to echo China's shifting political winds post-1949, when Chairman Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic and the landlord class was reviled for profiteering. But Wang says the game only emerged in the late 1980s and '90s, after the shift to a market-based economy, "when the landlord became the goody".

Fight the Landlord, set amid faux foliage and twinkling lights, with some audience interaction, has been staged in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei as well as Chengdu, where pandas live on reserves. 

Ostensibly, the play, directed by Gavin Quinn of Dublin's Pan Pan Theatre – the company's second collaboration with Square Moon Culture – is not a political production.

Instead, the panda-suited actors spout broad aphorisms – "a formulaic life leaves no room for love", and "conformism – do we self-regulate?" – and sing absurdly repetitive lines about sexuality, love and art. 

Australian critics who have seen the play in Melbourne, Darwin and Brisbpane (with English surtitles) are prone to read it symbolically: that the panda outfits, for instance, represent China's one-child policy.

Wang laughs: "Not really. There are panda suits because the panda is the image of China, and diplomacy. Also, the panda is very cute, and fragile, and very sensitive."

Western audiences tend to be amused by the show, while Chinese audiences react more wistfully to the actors' simple homilies such as, "people say the way you play the game is the way you live your life", Wang says. 

The Chinese melancholy stems from recognition of their lives being sung about on stage; the "sentimental" acknowledgment, for instance, that only "mediocre" jobs are on offer in the booming Chinese economy for many.

"But at the same time, it's funny; very black."

But what of the country's artistic censorship? "Actually, the censorship in China is very relaxed," Wang says, diplomatically. "Because the audience for theatre in China is very small."

But Square Moon Culture's last production raised eyebrows in Beijing. An audience member complained about scantily clad prostitute characters. So two policemen attended the previous show. They both laughed when they saw the play, Wang says. No cover-up was required.

Fight the Landlord is at Carriageworks,  October 2 to 5.


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