A SCRUTABLE TAKE ON CHINA
This is a beguiling 70-minute solo show from the actor, writer, wandering maverick entrepreneur and China pundit Mark Kitto. He plays three parts in sequence. First he is requiring us to visit the year 1912, becoming a be-tweeded Sir Claude Macdonald, former Minister Plenipotentiary to Peking (as it then was called) with a silver-topped crane and lantern slides. He is remembering the immense siege of the Legation during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion: a populist uprising of resentful, anti-Christian bandits in which 2800 foreigners and locals survived 55 days in the diplomatic compound . They lived, he cheerfully recalls, on “horsemeat, rice and champagne” , the latter having lately been delivered.
Reflecting on the brutality of the Boxers, and demonstrating with an aged pistol how peasants were deceived into thinking their spirituality would make them invulnerable to bullets, Sir Claude’s serious point is “We have got China wrong”. He is condemning the Europeans’ harsh tendency of carving it up for profit over decades, the Opium trade and shortsighted colonialism, and pointing out that foreign improvements – railways, churches, telegraphs – were always a mixed blessing to many. The portrait of the siege itself is fascinating; the insurgents creeping closer one barricade-brick at a time, and at one point a letter from a later massacred child read out in her memory, the old man growing sentimental.
But then, hobbling off, he returns in the guise of Rong Lu, a sophisticated, weary Chinese commander in the Empress’ court. He is ordered to send local soldiery alongside the Boxers, but knows what a bad idea it is to massacre Europeans, and is deliberately taking it easy – “Have you any idea how difficult it is NOT to win a one-side battle in 55 days?” . Foul-mouthed, contemptuous, intelligent, this is the fascinating central character. Irritatingly, some theatres won’t take the show on because a white man – however good his Mandarin and his knowledge = mustn’t impersonate a Chinese one. Though heaven knows the Chinese commander is the brightest of the three.
Finally, Kitto becomes a bemedalled sergeant of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, remembering the relief of the Legation and the subsequent, wholly disgusting, looting by legation occupants themselves and military of various European nations (“Russians and Japanese, like a bit of executing don’t they? And the Germans, destroyed whole villages which had somehow escaped the Boxers”.
China is complicated and always feels alien, its individuals often estimable, its potential immense, but its systems strange and seemingly terrible. Especially right now, with the crazy zero-Covid lockdowns in Shanghai, the enslavement and abuse of Uighur Muslims and its troubling response to Ukraine. Kitto – who lived and founded a business there before leaving and being “very very banned”, does a q and a afterwards: that is equally fascinating, but he does not have any simple answers, and nobody will. Still, this is a show to see because these moments of history absolutely matter as pieces in anyone’s mental jigsaw of our hyperconnected modern world.
The show is wandering around, sometimes in one-night stands like the one I found near Beccles in Suffolk. One of our audience was a chap who, as a boy, knew one of the relief troops. It’s not that long ago, not really. Try and catch it.
www.chineseboxing.co.uk has tour details