By Min Zhang and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) – A tour of a 136-year-old political drama by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was cut short in China after some members of the audience in Beijing shouted out at the performers and called for freedom of speech.
Berlin-based theatre company Schaubühne was to kick off two performances of “An Enemy of the People”, which deals with issues including corruption and manipulation of the masses, in Nanjing in Jiangsu province starting Thursday.
But the theatre cancelled the shows, citing “technical reasons on stage”.
During the first of three shows at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts last week, some members of the audience stood up during an interactive scene with performers and exclaimed that a lack of freedom of speech is China’s biggest problem, a witness said.
“‘The family name of our media is the Party’, someone else also shouted,” the theatre-goer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Chinese media is regulated by the Communist Party-ruled government, which also exercises tight control over the internet. China maintains a strict censorship regime that bans access to some foreign news outlets, search engines and social media.
Critics say the high level of control severely restricts freedom of speech, and is an effort to prevent criticism of the Party.
“Long live freedom!” someone in the audience shouted during the interactive scene on the second night in Beijing, two theatre-goers told Reuters, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Some reviews of the play that had circulated on China’s social media have since disappeared. Even a Weibo post by the Jiangsu Art Centre expressing its excitement over the staging of the play in Nanjing has been deleted.
A spokeswoman for the Berlin theatre company confirmed that the play had indeed been called off but did not elaborate.
The play tells the story of Thomas Stockmann who fought to expose corruption in a case of water contamination in his town, but was later treated as a public enemy as the town turned on him, fearing for the local economy.
Ibsen has been influential in Chinese literary circles for nearly a century, and his plays have been popular for highlighting social problems.
Besides the cancellation of the Nanjing leg, a planned salon discussion on Ibsen and modern theatre has also been canned, according to co-organiser Goethe Institut China in a statement.
“I received a phone call from Jiangsu theatre staff who told me that the play is off and they will return me my money as soon as possible,” said a user on Weibo.
“As compensation, the theatre will give out a folk music show ticket.”
(Reporting by Min Zhang and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in BERLIN; Editing by Nick Macfie)