Luminato 2011 Review: LU XUN blossoms

The physical and vocal performances in LU XUN blossoms are impressive. The show is a collaboration between Canada’s Theatre Smith-Gilmour and China’s Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. It’s easy to see why Smith-Gilmour founders Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith are drawn to the work of the Shanghai artists.

Gilmour and Smith have a reputation for eschewing set conventions  to create productions based mostly on movement. Similarly, Chinese theatre is known for its physicality and the movement of the Chinese performers in LU XUN blossoms incredible. Smith and Gilmour held their own despite being further advanced in years.

Each performer plays a number of characters, animals, and set pieces during the show but I was never confused as to who or what, they were portraying at any given moment. With a simple, smooth, quick motion, a marble statue of a lion turns into the First Wife of the household or a gang of children looking for food in the street turn into a bunch of drunks hanging out in a bar.

We don’t need any words, spoken or projected, to announce the change of scene or characters – it is all transmitted coherently and beautifully through movement.

There is dialogue, spoken in English by the Caucasian performers and in what I assume is Mandarin by the Chinese performers. (There are other dialects in Shanghai but my ear isn’t attuned to tell the difference, but Mandarin is most likely.)  The non-English is translated on screens on either side of the stage.

I loved this at first; I delight in plays and movies that slip between languages, a skill that seems far more common for people raised outside of North America than within. By the end however, I was irritated at the number of times the Mandarin that was spoken was exactly the same as the English that we had just heard, or vice versa. I assume that there are small differences in translation that can only be appreciated by someone fluent in both languages.

I was also annoyed a couple of times when someone would unleash a two minute string of (presumably) Mandarin and the translation would be two words. This could have been played for laughs, as it’s a common phenomenon in Asian B-movies in North America. But the humour in LU XUN blossoms was far too high minded to stoop to B-movie parodies. It was all set firmly in the time that Lu Xun was writing, the early 20th century, with no anachronisms.

Lu Xun is the Chinese writer who penned the stories that this play dramatizes. He is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature, so it’s not surprising that LU XUN blossoms is a big hit in China. However the stories don’t seem to translate too well and I’m not talking about language.

After the show I went to a birthday party where I ran into a couple who happened to have seen the show the night before. I asked them what they thought without disclosing any of my own opinions at first, and we all agreed: the stories seemed disjointed. We couldn’t see what one had to do with the other; we could not comprehend a cohesive theme.

There seemed to be a number of moral points being made but what we could understand of them seemed to be distasteful. For example: if someone kills a pet you love, you should forgive them only when they buy you a book you want.

There has to be more going on there, but it is too steeped in Chinese culture and tradition for us three average (though university-educated) Canadians to understand.

The most jarring moment was a wedding night rape that is immediately followed by a scene where the same woman is in love with her rapist husband and mourning his terminal illness. Later on, looking back, we can understand that time has passed between the two scenes and in that era women were expected to submit, and could grow to love their husbands for being providers as they were completely dependent, etc. However, in the moment  it is too discombobulating for us to feel any sympathy for the woman. Sympathy is obviously what we were supposed feel, as the rest of her story piled tragedy upon tragedy.

The same sort of misogyny and sexual-marital subjugation is also a historical reality for Western cultures, but our modern representations certainly do not portray it in the same way.

I’m positive that the rave reviews of LU XUN blossoms from the Chinese press are sincere and justified. I’m sure this show is wonderful for Chinese-Canadians with a strong sense of their ancestral culture. But, for the rest of us, it’s an amazing display of physical and vocal prowess with a very disjointed storyline.


– LU XUN blossoms played as part of the Luminato Festival June 15th-18th, at the Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West.

Photo credit: Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre