May 18, 2012 / 4:34 AM / 5 years ago

Broadway play's echoes of Bo scandal may prevent China staging

NEW YORK (Reuters) - China’s biggest political scandal in two decades is likely to have dashed playwright David Henry Hwang’s hopes of bringing his Broadway play “Chinglish” to mainland China anytime soon.

Playwright David Henry Hwang is pictured in this undated handout photo received by Reuters May 18, 2012. China's biggest political scandal in two decades is likely to have dashed playwright Hwang's hopes of bringing his Broadway play "Chinglish" to mainland China anytime soon. REUTERS/Handout/Lia Chang

In a case of life imitating art, the comedy has so many similarities to events surrounding deposed Chinese politician Bo Xilai that Hwang says he doesn’t believe it would be acceptable to the authorities to allow a production to be mounted.

In the play, which premiered in Chicago last year before the Bo scandal erupted, an American businessman has an extramarital affair with a sexy Chinese female official and her boss is arrested on corruption charges.

There is also a British consultant “fixer” who arranges for the son of a Chinese official to go to a school in the UK. Beneath it all lies a power struggle, and there are many funny linguistic misunderstandings along the way.

In the real-life scandal, there are allegations of corruption surrounding Bo and his beautiful wife Gu Kailai, now a suspect in the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. He had been a former family friend who had among other things arranged for Bo’s son to attend an exclusive school in the UK.

There is an elusive French architect who appears to have shared both an affectionate and close business relationship with Gu. And beneath it all, a power struggle, with the ambitious Bo climbing his way toward the pinnacle of the Communist Party.

“It has always been my dream that the play could be done in China proper,” Hwang, a 54-year-old Los Angeles-born Chinese-American writer, said in an interview.

“However, the Bo Xilai case and the fact there are these similarities probably makes it less likely that the play could be performed in China, at least in the near future.”

He said the play could be mistaken for criticism from overseas. “The Chinese don’t like to feel an outsider is criticizing them - it’s ok if they are criticizing themselves.”

CRACKDOWN

Still, Hwang says he does expect the play to be produced in Hong Kong in the next 6-12 months, though even that might be a test of the territory’s more liberal environment.

There is now little hope of a theater production on the mainland for at least four or five years, he said.

“There are still pretty firm freedoms of civil liberties and freedoms of expression in Hong Kong, but the question is whether the play could ever be done in China,” he said. “Right now given the high profile of the Bo Xilai case, it is probably unlikely.”

He once had hopes of taking his Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly”, which was turned into a movie by David Cronenberg, to China but the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 stopped that plan, Hwang said. It still cannot be produced on the mainland.

Some Chinese may get the chance to catch a movie version of “Chinglish”, with plans for it to be directed by Taiwanese-American Justin Lin. But they are more likely to eventually see the film online than in Chinese cinemas, which are subject to tight restrictions on the number and type of foreign movies.

CULTURAL CONFUSION

Hwang received a barrage of excited emails from theater lovers struck by the similarities between his play, which debuted on Broadway in October, and the Bo scandal.

Fans have approached the dramatist and observed, “Wow, the Bo Xilai case really reminds me of your play,” Hwang said.

More broadly, he said, the play and the real-life case of Bo showed that Westerners were no longer such rare or respected characters in Chinese life.

“A Western businessman going into China now, A, is only one fish in a pond with a lot of other Western fish and B, doesn’t command the same kind of authority and respect that he or she would have 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

However, Chinese art and life remain culturally far removed from Western ideals, he added. “Yes, China is changing and is becoming more like the West but that doesn’t mean it is like the West - that is an important distinction.”

Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Martin Howell and Mark Bendeich

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