Yue and Clare are positioned amongst corrugated metal sheets, the stark set for the theatre’s current production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, which conveniently helps conjure the narrow maze of alleys – hutongs – of 60’s Beijing. Yue’s leg is in plaster due to a recent footballing injury (he says he still feels like the eight year old Little Leap Forward inside, and he certainly has the exuberance of youth both on and off stage). Behind them there’s a screen showing old photos, interspersed with some of Helen Cann’s beautiful illustrations.
Clare reads poetic passages from the book and Yue elaborates on the story with fascinating details of his childhood, explaining how being very poor did not stop him and his enterprising friends from having fun: inventing games using apricot stones and making kites with their mothers’ message paper. I’m starting to reminisce about my Blue Peter days now, but I’m sensing a certain amount of panic from the younger members of the audience – is someone about to confiscate my Nintendo?
From an early age Yue wanted to be a musician and begged his mother for a violin, a cello, and finally, a more affordable bamboo flute; threatening to lie down in the deep snow until she relented. He now has a case full of flutes of varying sizes, some with jade tips, which he plays entrancingly, but it’s a tune on his first penny flute which gets the biggest cheer from the kids.
At one point Yue demonstrates how to catch a bird using a chopstick, a bowl, a piece of string and a very fast reaction. In the story, Little Leap Forward keeps his wild songbird, Little Cloud, in a small cage (a common practice in China until very recently) but despite his best efforts he can’t get it to sing to him. His friend Little Little, now living under the frightening new order imposed by Mao’s Red Guards, has a great empathy with the bird and asks, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be free, just for a day, than spend a lifetime in a cage?’ No prizes for guessing what happens next.
By the end of the session the theatre full of children and their handful of teachers are feeling entertained and educated in equal measure.
Cathy Bolton, Festival Director