Chairman Mao used the metaphor of ‘sugar-coated bullets’ to warn against the corrupting influences of power and greed which he feared could undermine his revolutionary aims. Looking at the state of modern China, you have to give him some credit for his understanding of human nature.
Anders Lustgarten’s epic and uneven new work charts the changing face of the People’s Republic. The first act, essentially a complete play in its own right, introduces us to the peasant inhabitants of the poor, rural community of Rotten Peach Village. After embracing the new Communist order, a briefly-prosperous honeymoon period swiftly dissolves into a desperate famine as they fail to meet their ludicrously overblown production quotas.
Then the second act kicks off with strobing neon and camera-phone flashes, jumping forward to the present day for a series of snapshots from around the country. There’s a lot crammed in to this second half, which trades off some of the show’s tight focus for a more dynamic, more diverse view. It also trades away some of its complexity, relying increasingly on anecdotes and broad strokes. Amongst a barrage of convincing examples of exploitation, a megaphone-wielding property developer chanting ‘trust the Party’ is maybe just a bit too on the nose.
Anna Leung Brophy – who recently appeared in the similarly communism-and-corruption themed P’Yongyang – stands out amongst a solid cast as the steely Lotus Blossom. Elevated out of desperate poverty, she becomes a real force in her community, keeping the ideals of socialism alive as they are extinguished all around her by graft and incompetence.
Steven Atkinson’s direction is bold and occasionally bombastic, to the point that the production sometimes feels as though it’s about to morph into a musical. It never quite does, though we’re treated to some impressive flag waving and anthem-singing, At other times, the play comes to resemble a Brechtian farce, as apparatchiks race to move grain between starving villages, struggling to stay one step ahead of a series of surprise inspections. Then there are glimpses of the backstage squabbling at a Chairman Mao lookalike contest, which definitely deserves be the basis for a separate mockumentary. Then there’s some silent video footage of Donald Trump.
A sense emerges from all of this of Lustgarten as an enthusiastic scholar, breathlessly explaining a favourite subject. After nearly ten years of study, his fascination and frustration with China is evident, as is his desire to include every idiom and scrap of information he’s picked up. For all that, his script offers some real insight into a profoundly complex country which is too often dismissed as simply inscrutable. Instead, Lustgarten confronts the collision of social organisation and self-interest, along with some particularly Chinese characteristics – the legacy of cultural pride inextricably intertwined with an overwhelming shame of failure.
At one point, a character tells us ‘China is the mirror in which the West looks for reassurance she is beautiful.’ Their particular revolution faltered, Lustgarten asserts, because the Chinese people pushed too far too fast, chasing an ideology in spite of contrary evidence and human cost alike. There’s probably a lesson in there that speaks to our own political circumstances, too.
The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for tickets.