The Autumn of Han

Red Dragonfly productions' first play of innovative three-year project set for NI tour 

An intriguing piece of theatre, based on a 2,000 year-old Chinese legend, is about to begin a tour to Northern Ireland, building bridges between communities here as well as reminding local Chinese people of their own rich cultural heritage.

While its roots may emanate from a far-off time and place, Red Dragonfly’s touring production of The Autumn of Han has an unexpectedly home-grown feel to it.

In 2011, producer and cast member Michelle Yim appeared in the Theatre at the Mill’s production of The King and I, directed by Andrea Montgomery, who was born in India and spent much of her childhood in Thailand.

In February 2014, Yim returned to take part in Arrivals, a quartet of plays developed and presented by Montgomery’s Terra Nova company, whose artistic cornerstone is built upon collaboration with people of different cultures.

'I really enjoyed working with Andrea and in Northern Ireland,' says Yim. 'Northern Irish people are open, wonderful, warm and welcoming. My research for Arrivals led me to realise there was a large and prominent Chinese community there – and of course you have Anna Lo, the first Chinese female MLA.

'Northern Ireland may still have teething problems with racial acceptance but Chinese people seem already part of and accepted by the wider community and that motivated me to bring over The Autumn of Han.

'Unlike some places in England, venues on your side of the Irish Sea were enthusiastic about the proposal. One venue did point out that this is something they had never put on stage before and was uncertain with the audience response, but would be happy to give it a go, despite the risk. We are very grateful for all their support and excited to see what the response will be.'

The England-based company, formed by British and British East Asian artists, specialises in bringing stories from the Far East to the stage. The Autumn of Han was premiered at last year's Edinburgh Fringe and is the first play in Red Dragonfly's innovative three-year project, which will include future productions of two other much-loved Chinese stories, Diao Chan and Monkey: A Journey to the West.

The central character of this tale of love and revenge is the beautiful concubine ZhaoJun. When she refuses to supply the corrupt minister MaoYanShou with the kind of hefty bribe to which he is accustomed, he makes it his business to ensure that she is hidden out of sight from the Emperor.

However, he reckons without ZhaoJun’s determination and resourcefulness. To MaoYanShou’s fury, she engineers a chance meeting with the Emperor, who immediately falls in love with her. Her actions set in motion a chain of events, which will change their lives forever.

'There's a wealth of wonderful stories from the East that have never been seen on a British stage,' says Yim, one of the company co-founders.  'We want to give audiences from other ethnic backgrounds a chance to experience them. They also provide a great opportunity for some of Britain's very talented East Asian actors, who are often overlooked by casting directors, to showcase their work and their talents.'

The task of adapting this quintessential old Chinese tale to the tastes and sensibilities of 21st century European audiences has fallen to former actor-turned-writer and director Ross Ericson, author of the critically acclaimed Casualties, a play about two bomb disposal experts on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Ericson has worked in Saudi Arabia and the Far East and agrees with Yim that, within UK theatrical circles, the casting of work emanating from the Far East continues to be problematic. 'Quite by coincidence, both Michelle and I noticed that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of The Orphan of Zhao had only two or three Chinese actors in the cast, which did not feel right, given the nature of the piece,' Ericson observes.

'We knew that there was a treasure trove of stories that could be adapted for the European stage and could be beautifully told by actors whose roots are in that part of the world. I have worked in China and the Far East and am very interested in these ancient cultures.

'This legend was originally entitled Autumn in the Han Palace or The Sorrow of Han. It was written down in the 13th century but is based on a real-life historical character dating back to 33BC. It was translated into English in the 19th century, when there was a major movement for acquiring and collecting oriental and Chinese art.

'That influence spread into theatre, with wonderful plays like The Good Woman of Setzuan going on to inspire Brecht’s masterpiece The Caucasian Chalk Circle.'

The tour dovetails neatly with the programme at Queen’s Film Theatre for the 2014 Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, which is built around a century of Chinese cinema.

'We Europeans often find classical Chinese film and drama quite impenetrable and culturally we are so very different,' Ericson comments. 'There have been various adaptations of this particular story in China but it is the first time that it has been staged in the west. My job is to come up with a structure and language that is familiar and accessible to European audiences whilst retaining the authenticity and spirit of the original text.'

Ericson believes that theatre is a universal medium which can introduce audiences to new experiences, new art forms, new characters, and new plights that may relate to their own worlds, histories and traditions.

'Cultural differences are crucial to our respective interpretations,' he argues. 'Chinese people know these characters so well. They don’t need explanations about why a character behaves in a certain way or takes certain decisions.

'I had to give the characters genuine motivation, otherwise audiences would be wondering why on earth did they do what they did. Their actions would otherwise seem so foreign and irrational. European audiences would have no idea, they would be scratching their heads with bewilderment.'

Indeed, to a western sensibility, The Autumn of Han’s core theme of offering a woman as a gift might appear offensive and politically incorrect. Equally, the conferring of the title of concubine or courtesan upon a woman could register as far from desirable but, as Ericson explains, this is to ignore vital subtleties, which give the story its colour and richness.

'There is a crucial difference between a courtesan and a concubine, which Chinese audiences would discern straightaway. In a similar way to a eunuch, for instance, a concubine held a privileged position in the court of the Empire. These were powerful, often highly educated women, who knew exactly what they needed to do to protect themselves and prosper.

'ZhaoJun is just such a woman. In real life, she showed admirable strength and intelligence, ruling in her own right after she was widowed. In contrast, the men who ran the court could not hold a candle to a woman like her. They were one as dumb as the other – very similar to today’s politicians.'

The touring of The Autumn of Han is the start of a three-year project, which aims to educate not only western audiences but also modern-day young Chinese people to their history and culture. Dragonfly productions have drawn from a growing pool of indigenous Chinese actors to tell their story.

'Chinese families put great emphasis on education and studies and, as a result, young people come to acting a little later in life, often after they have graduated,' Ericson adds. 'It is good to be able to put an authentic ethnic mix on stage. It makes for such a refreshing change.

'Theatre in London these days is so white and middle class, the result of inherent classism rather than racism. It is just so damned expensive for young people to go to drama school that the best actors often don’t make the cut. As an actor myself, it’s thrilling to see these young Chinese performers bringing their own culture to a wider audience.'

The Autumn of Han is at the Market Place Theatre Armagh on 5 November; Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on 6 to 8 November; Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick on 9 November.