This year marks not only the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but also that of Chinese Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu. Physical theatre company Gecko is one of a number of theatre companies that saw the coinciding anniversaries as the perfect opportunity to explore the work of these two contemporaries. The result, a co-production with Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre entitled The Dreamer, has just finished its run in Shanghai.
“Gecko has a strong relationship with the SDAC,” says director Rich Rusk. “We have been looking for opportunities to collaborate. Through Shakespeare Lives [the British Council’s programme of international events to mark the 400th anniversary], we finally got a chance. The SDAC is running a celebration of Shakespeare’s work as part of a year celebrating Tang Xianzu.”
Rusk continues: “The funding of the show was organised in the same collaborative fashion as the rest of the project. We received research and development funding from the British Council’s Shakespeare Reworked fund to develop the project in September 2014. We were then one of four companies awarded full project funding to take the idea through to production. Our funding budgeted all of Gecko’s costs – creative team fees, travel, accommodation, etc. SDAC then secured funding locally for their costs, including performer fees and production fees.”
Gecko is no stranger to working internationally. Missing, a previous production, toured to Russia, Georgia, Malta, Colombia, Mexico, Hong Kong and China. It has had five shows in the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase. The Dreamer, though, was made in China with a Chinese cast, which has been a new experience for the company.
“Working with a completely Chinese cast and crew has been an incredible privilege,” says Rusk. “These actors take their work extremely seriously and were open to our pretty unusual working methods. Devising a show on this scale would be a challenge in the UK, so to be working in our way, growing all elements of the show together – performance, lighting, set, sound, costume – was eye-opening to our Chinese team.”
Movement director Chris Evans agrees: “China has a different way of working. Deadlines are completely different. You turn your back and suddenly the whole set has been built in two days. It’s dizzying. We usually take two years to knock out a show. This time, we had a writing period of three weeks, then four weeks to make the show, tech the show and get everything done.”
5 things you need to know about Gecko
1. Gecko shows take an average of two years to make. Shows continue to develop during their runs and tours.
2. In 2015, the entire production of Missing was lost in a fire at Battersea Arts Centre. Ten days later, the company had rebuilt the whole production following a hugely successful fundraising campaign.
3. A Gecko show features about eight different languages. Gecko doesn’t use words as the primary source of the storytelling; it uses spoken word as an extension of physicality.
4. The company’s social media channels are run by its artists, not by marketing professionals, and feature insights into Gecko’s work and processes.
5. Gecko won the Equity ensemble award at the 2016 Peter Brook Awards earlier this month.
That said, Rusk is clear that there are “more similarities than differences”. He continues: “The main difference is scale. In the UK, our creative teams are highly skilled, multitasking theatre professionals. In China, each person has a specific skill and we ended up with a huge group of people working on the show. A large team obviously multiplies the complicated challenge of communication and quality control. I like to have a personal relationship with every single member of my team; in China that simply wasn’t possible.”
Both commented on the speed and efficiency with which SDAC got things done. “It’s just so incredibly organised and orchestrated,” enthuses Evans. “There’s a whole other show going on backstage, basically. Everything moves seamlessly.
“In London, the opportunities to make work at that level seem quite spread out over a number of theatres. SDAC has a very high concentration of work all rooted in one place. We felt a bit like we’d stepped on to a conveyor belt, moving towards this deadline. It was hard to be stressed when everything was moving so quickly.”
Shakespeare Lives has been the catalyst for many new productions this year but, for Gecko, the work of Tang was equally important. “It was the perfect opportunity to bring together the connections. Tang Xianzu has equal responsibility for connecting the UK and China through the arts,” says Evans.
He continues: “We were excited about bringing these two worlds together. We spend a long time making shows specifically so that they can be interpreted very differently. These playwrights are both epic in their own right, so it was quite a daunting process to bring together two enormous stories. The Gecko style and language of telling stories just felt like the perfect way of making these two stories into a new show.”
The Dreamer is a mash-up of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tang’s The Peony Pavilion. Tang’s play follows Du Liniang, a young woman who falls in love in a dream and wastes away with longing, before being resurrected and eventually marrying her beloved.
“One of the things we got very excited about was the story of Helena [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream] and the connection that makes with Du Liniang – she’s also a woman taking hold of love and refusing to let anything get in the way,” says Evans. “This is a woman’s story, which makes sense in the context of what’s happening in China; we came across this concept of a ‘leftover woman’, which is coming up a lot in China around the social pressures of being a woman needing to get married, have children and keep moving through life in this stage-by-stage way.
“Being a ‘leftover woman’ is a very lonely, alienated place to be. This really caught our attention, and became part of who we wanted Helena and Du Liniang to be. There’s this idea that you can find your love through magic or potions, or in a dream. But what happens when the person who’s in love with you is essentially drugged? Where is the truth? Where is the real love? And if you’re confronted with somebody who is in love with you through magic, is that better than nothing? Or would you rather be on your own, standing on your own two feet?”
Evans continues: “There’s definitely a moment in our story where we’re telling a Helena/Du Liniang mash-up, and we sort of launched from the point where A Midsummer Night’s Dream ended. There’s this moment when the chaos settles, and all the doings get undone, and then you realise that Helena is happy with Demetrius, who is still drugged. She’s got this man she’s wanted forever, but he’s got a face full of potion. Where’s the moment she wants to depart from that narrative and have her own story?”
Having finished its initial run in Shanghai, what’s next for The Dreamer? “SDAC wants the show to have a life,” says Evans, and so does Gecko. “The next thing – the hope, anyway – is that it lands in Edinburgh next year. I would just love the opportunity to get this show into a tour-able place – to streamline it and get a nice, robust show that’s tour-ready.”
Evans also mentions missing the “luxury” of revisiting the show and going through a longer rehearsal process.
This is something that Rusk picks up: “The Gecko process always involves us moving in and out of rehearsal. We work intensively on a show and then perform the work; we learn about the show and then take those discoveries back into the rehearsal room. This show will be no different. The plan is to take it back into rehearsal before it is performed again in Shanghai as well as around China and internationally.”
“I’d love for it to exist and move around in China,” agrees Evans. “From my experience of touring in China, lots of theatres there can handle a mid-scale touring show. My perfect wish would be to take it to theatres that are less used to seeing anything in the realms of physical theatre. It would be nice to go a bit further than Beijing or Shanghai. I’d love to see other areas. It’s a very Gecko show with a very Chinese story at heart.”
Profile: Gecko Profile
Artistic director: Amit Lahav
Executive producer: Rosalind Wynn
Founded: 2001, London
Number of performances per year: about 50
Audience figures per year: 19,300 in 2015-16, plus 90,600 on BBC and iPlayer
Number of employees: Five full-time
Turnover: £534,500 in 2015-16
Funding levels: £220,000 from Arts Council England
Key contact: Pippa Fox, company administrator; email@example.com 
For details of future performances of The Dreamer, visit geckotheatre.com