Bus Stop struggles when it patronises the audience

Open Theatre Society’s production of Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian’s Bus Stop is not good. A commentary on social classes and the development of cities in modern-day China, the one scene long play might have intrigued the audience if the cast hadn’t failed to impress.

The title gives a hint as to what is to come: eight characters wait at a bus stop for an hour and a half, and even with a stylishly executed frozen in time interval, this is simply too long.

Mundane on the surface, Bus Stop is actually banned in China. In an interview with us, director Lily Craig, who spent her year abroad in Shanghai, calls the contemporary theatrical production a “stab at the government”. Producer Tash McLintock adds that “British audience members may not realise how controversial it is”. Craig tells us she wanted to keep the Chinese elements without appropriating the play too much to a Western audience.

Admirable as this is, a little adaption might not have been a bad thing. Without it, a ‘Western audience’ is as frustrated as the characters at the bus stop. The evening is filled with oversized intellectual heads, trying to create something which seems a little patronising to those watching.

Sometimes, with the cast standing with their backs to us in darkness and suddenly turning for effect, the adaptation does possess a confident grace. But acting is half hearted and even interesting personalities like Glasses (Kate Barkley) and Old Woman (Lauren Elcock) lose their focus as the evening progresses. Composer Thys Hartley´s fish bubble music sends us into a surreal time stand still, pulling everything together without moving anywhere.

It is only convincing Girl (Emily Strachan) who voices what the audience feels: trapped and unable to take any more. Development of Chinese cities has left countryside folk stuck, waiting for progress in their regional areas; Girl truly longs for the city, which Craig comments is thought to be “a giant world where everyone’s different”.

Stuck in my seat, I wait too – looking for any sort of progress and improvements from the play. Theatre usually takes you out of the dreary waiting game, but maybe this production intends to hold us back; to impatiently wish for something to happen, to wait forever with the cast for a bus, to understand the characters impatience; so, maybe something was successful here.

Caitlin Mayall

Image: stage@leeds

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