Writer: Anders Lustgarten
Director: Steven Atkinson
Reviewer: James Bartholomeusz
Some of the least surprising revelations from the Panama Papers have been those relating to the ruling elite of China. The world already knew about the high-profile case of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, in which the latter poisoned the British businessman Neil Heywood in his hotel room to avoid exposure of the family’s dubious dealings. To the list of those with vast offshore wealth we can now add Deng Jiagui, brother-in-law of premier Xi Jinping, Cheng Dongsheng, husband of Mao Zedong’s granddaughter, and former premier Li Peng, notorious for his violent crackdown against the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Of course, it is entirely coincidental that these details have emerged just as Anders Lustgarten’s The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is premiering at the Arcola Theatre in London, but if anything it shows how much the writer is on the money (both figuratively and literally). The play presents two contrasting moments in modern Chinese history in the life of a single village, named Rotten Peach: the early Maoist period from the end of the Civil War in 1949 to the Great Famine a decade later, and the present-day reality of state and party corruption, corporate exploitation and arbitrary land-grabs.
Contemporary commentators tend to go in one of two directions when it comes to the state of China, either eulogising the nation’s rapid rise to dominance since the ‘open and reform’ premiership of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, or (rare in the West, but prevalent in some Chinese circles) idealising a Maoist past when the Communist Party governed in the interests of the majority and presided over social harmony. Lustgarten avoids both of these tendencies, presenting the gains and losses of both eras. He is able to do this in part because he resists the urge to turn Rotten Peach into a simplistic cipher for changes in the wider country, with characters playing out the stock roles of Chinese society. The villagers – from prostitute-turned-cadre Lotus Blossom to her factory-worker granddaughter Xiaomei – are fully crafted individuals, acted with verve and humour.
There are some shaky moments here – like the lesbian subplot that emerges in the last few minutes and feels bolted on to the rest of the script – but on the whole Lustgarten and his director Steven Atkinson ace it. A conceit that works especially well is the proliferation of competing Mao impersonators, who capitalise on nostalgia for the revolutionary years for both monetary and political ends. And nor is Lustgarten above jibes made closer to home, directed at the West’s starry-eyed admiration for a market economy lacking the inconvenient inhibitions of human rights legislation and organised labour.
With over 11 million documents from Mossack Fonseca now available, the Panama leaks are far from over. Fortunately, Lustgarten has speared the essence of modern China so well that, whatever revelations are around the corner, this play will remain relevant for a long time to come.
Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image:Nobby Clark