The modern maxims of Mindfulness counsel attending fully to each small, lived moment. “When doing the washing up,” I was once told, “Take time to really focus on just washing each item in turn.” Why, I petulantly wondered, would I want to think about the washing up when, by the power of imagination, I could be practicing my Booker Prize acceptance speech or having really great sex? Dreamers get a bad rep, but I consider them the heroes of our planet, the mind-wanderers with better things to do that concentrate on not chipping (another) glass.
Gecko’s collaboration with the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, The Dreamer, fuses together two dream-obsessed texts: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion. In the latter of these, a Governor’s daughter living a highly regulated existence ventures unsanctioned into the garden. There, she dreams of meeting a young scholar and falling in love with him under a plum tree. Upon waking she becomes obsessed with her lover from the dream. The woman soon dies of a broken heart, but is eventually reincarnated and connected with the real version of the scholar. And yes, they do live ‘happily ever after’.
Fragments of The Peony Pavilion are transmitted through the pages of a book the lead character, Helena (Yang Ziyi) is reading and transformed into images using beautiful, but fleeting, moments of shadow play. The Shakespeare, meanwhile, is more overtly used, bleeding into Helena’s waking life in a Shanghai office. Or at least, I believe the Western text is more openly employed but this judgment might be the result of my own familiarity with Shakespeare rather than Tang Xianzu. Performed in Mandarin, the production challenges an English-speaking audience to receive the story through images, sounds and movement as much as spoken language. It may well be the case that I missed the significance of how the Chinese tale is embedded.
The motif, however, of two different texts pooling together like coloured dye in the clear water of Helena’s mind, is a lovely way of exploring how the culture we consume (in book, television, film or theatre form) percolates into our subconsciousness. The waking and sleeping minds are difficult to separate; I often dream-write reviews (far better ones, I’m convinced, than those I actually write) only to forget them entirely on waking. Colours, sentences and emotions drip from one plane of consciousness to the next, and then back again.
Watching the work in Mandarin draws more attention to Gecko’s emphasis on movement as communication. For fans of the company, there are many recognisably Geckoesque motifs here. The 2012 work, Missing, springs to mind in particular. Not least in the way it depicts modern life – corporate jobs and after-work partying – as devoid of something deeper, something more earthy and basic within our psyches. There’s also some similar work done with the city slick group of performers creating rectangular formations that by some witchcraft conjure the sensation of stasis through movement.
Like all of the best real-life heroines, Helena in the end rejects the clichés of femininity presented in canonical texts – in this case Shakespeare. It’s an undeniably accomplished and creative piece of theatre, yet somehow the whole thing retains the dream-like quality of being a collection of shadows that never quite solidify. Still, if there’s one company whose dream-world I never mind stepping into, it’s almost certainly Gecko.
The Dreamer was on at Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Click here for more details.