China back on stage in London

The London theatre scene has developed a fascination for China: in the last years, Young Vic’s Wild Swans, Chimerica and The World of Extreme Happiness have brought Chinese stories to the London stage.

Truly conceived as artistic collaboration between China and UK, METIS in co-production with the Young Vic, New Wolsey Theatre and Company of Angels present World Factory at the Young Vic after a short run in April at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich. This is directed Zoë Svendsen, a theatre director, dramaturge and translator, and designed by Simon Daw, stage design and visual artist.

"World Factory places its audience at the heart of the dilemmas produced by the conflict that often occurs between treating others well and making money," Zoë and Simon said, describing the project.

The show explores the reality of the fashion industry raising questions on consumerism, ethical trade and capitalism. The focus on China comes from the artistic collaboration between METIS and Grass Stage, a Shanghai-based company, established by Zhao Chuan writer, art critic and theatre-maker.

Metis is a Cambridge-based performing arts company/network that creates interdisciplinary performance projects created through rigorous research. Grass Stage (Cao taiban), established in 2005 and following the model of the itinerant grassroots troupes, promotes the involvement of non-professionals in non-mainstream theatre in China.

Talking to Zhao Chuan, Zoë and Simon found a historical parallel between 19th century Manchester’s capitalist conditions of textile production and Chinese contemporary mass production.

Zoë explained, "our conversation turned to communism, capitalism, clothing and factories. I thought of the ‘Made in China’ labels on her clothes. Zhao Chuan was talking about Manchester in the 19th century—and the capitalist conditions of textile production that provoked Marx and Engels to write The Communist Manifesto.

"It was fascinating to realise the interconnections between China now, and our history in Britain as the origins of the form of factory system that dominates mass production today."

This led to exchange visits between Britain and China. Zhao Chuan and another Grass Stage member Wu Meng visited Cambridge and Zoë and Simon spent time in Nanjing and Shanghai Universities to run workshops; Simon took part, also, in a Grass Stage residency in a gallery space in Shenzhen, Southern China.

It is during these visits that Zoe and Simon realised that behind the clothes we wear there is something more, an economic and social system that needed to be understood.

"So we decided to get a shirt made in a Chinese factory," Zoë revealed.

Part of the project and the research process, in fact, was to have a shirt made in a Chinese factory in Shanghai for which they also created an app that tells you about the story and the process behind the making of the shirt. An artwork in its own right, this shirt has barcodes on it that can be read by the app, which redirects you to short films.

Behind the technology, the final product is highly theatrical, one that combines Zoe’s inclination for a research-led process in theatre and Simon’s visual conception.

Without revealing too much about the show, that promises to be both unusual and enjoyable, audiences can expect a fully immersive theatrical experience. Inviting us to think a bit more about our attitudes towards consumerism and fashion, our lifestyles, this production wants to show us that after all, we are all in it together, and not only in Britain or in China.

Zoë Svendsen and Simon Daw’s World Factory runs at the Young Vic until 6 June.