Theatre of Cruelty: Performing Gay History and Queer Desire in East Palace, West Palace
13: 20-13: 40 CET 28/05/2021
This paper examines East Palace, West Palace (Donggong xigong), the first exility queer-themed and publicly performed Chinese-language play in contemporary China. The play was based on the late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo’s script, directed by French director Xavier Froment, produced by le Théâtre des Trois Oranges with a Chinese cast, and performed at the Hart Arts Centre in July 2005 (later restaged at the Star Live Theatre in Beijing in January 2009). East Place, West Palace revisits China’s queer history in the 1980s and 90s when homosexuality was still a criminal offence and cruising gay men were frequently subject to police harassment before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997. The play dramatised an overnight interrogation of a cruising gay man by a policeman at a police station. In the play, the gay man narrates his own experience and sexual desire, seduces the policeman, and even makes the policeman doubt his own sexuality. Through paying heed to the theatre of cruelty tradition and by enacting sadomasochism on stage, the play depicts the harsh lives of queer people in those years and reveals their longing for love and acceptance. East Palace, West Palace paints a nuanced picture of the queer desire not simply by proclaiming the legitimacy of gay love, but also by complicating it with acute attention paid to the intricate relationship between power and pleasure, the Chinese state and queer people. As an example of avant-garde theatre practice in China, East Palace, West Palace staged taboo topics and issues in a dramatic form in China; it also challenged contemporary China’s theatre scene largely dominated by the Stanislavsky style of performance, traditional Chinese opera, commercial theatre and propaganda theatre.
Hongwei Bao is an Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is the author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press, 2018), Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, 2020), and Queer Media in China (Routledge, 2020).