The Leeds University production “The Sun is Not for Us” departs Edinburgh today, after spending the week at the Spaces on North Bridge, and a review in these circumstances is now perhaps as useful as a parasol in moonlight. The only remaining spoiler is the play’s absence. “The Sun is Not for Us” was certainly a welcome enterprise – a play comprised of several intertwined storylines from the works of one of China’s most prestigious playwrights, Cao Yu. Not only have the words been translated into English but also the actors, an overwhelmingly Caucasian cast from Leeds.
Cao Yu is sometimes called “the Shakespeare of the Orient,” and since Chinese theatregoers have been captivated by Shakespeare for decades, it might be at least politic for our culture to return the compliment. The scholar Frances Wood, writing for the Guardian last year after the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, fathoms the depths of our ignorance:
…Dickens, Conan Doyle, Balzac, Stendhal and the Russians were translated in the early 20th century and soon became household names. Many Chinese, including political leaders, take pride in being well-read. By contrast, how many English people, let alone political leaders, could name China’s foremost 18th-century novelist, or the great poets of the 8th century?
Yet Cao Yu was ultimately a devoted student of Western literature and particularly keen on Ibsen, or so it at least seems from the evidence of “The Sun is Not for Us.” The play is like little peeps through the window of a dolls’ house. Aside from the opening scene, in which girls’ feet are crushed to make them smaller, these stories could be set anywhere and they are mostly set in a Doctor Seuss world outside of identifiable time and space. Moreover, the play is far more feminist in its concerns than Chinese.
However deeply the title “The Sun is Not for Us” may resonate with an Edinburgh audience, this play explores the darkness at noon of China’s women. There are spare, stark accounts of lonely women, whose hearts are broken by well-meaning but wandering men. The men of the play revolve around the women, drawing near and then shooting away again like comets, and we see them obscured through a veil of female paranoia and uncertainty. The foot-binding is the ultimate in female oppression, making women acceptable for the marriage market but leaving them often literally unable to walk.
Curiously, the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed in China was The Merchant of Venice (in 1913), and the character Flower in “The Sun is Not for Us” at one point recites lines similar to those of Shylock’s famous “Hath a Jew not eyes?” address. If you pinch Flower, does she not hurt? Yet as with Shylock none of these women are pure victims – they each make terrible misjudgements – and the only time that they ever come together in anything approaching solidarity is through song.
The cast at first appear amateurish and studenty, but several performances of real power gradually break through the hubbub on stage. If some scenes are occasionally evoked in silhouette, however, the play’s 3D scenes are often of a similar depth. A sketchy storyline which ostensibly involves incest and hysteria is so scribbled that we may scarcely discern what has happened. The cast at times work wonders with what they have, but we are only glancing at the characters, peeping into the dolls’ house. Yet it is self-evidently futile to complain that a truncated crash course in Cao Yu’s theatre does not have the complexity of true drama. A lifetime of ignorance cannot be corrected in an hour.