In Shanghai the air was cleaner and our accommodation considerably more comfortable, but by this time China had taken its toll…

Richard was diagnosed with bronchitis and Kath was also badly ill. Janine, Christian and myself were all showing various digestive or flu-like symptoms (Phil had to wait for Sydney for his bout). As a result, of the four performances scheduled, only one went ahead as a full performance.

Richard in particular really struggled through the first show, but still performed brilliantly, showing his real professionalism. However we had to consider what we were doing to all our health by just charging on regardless. After intense discussion, some changes were made. We still did another three, but they were shortened versions of the full show, and one of the dates of the performance was shifted.

Of course these changes and the uncertainty that followed was difficult for the venue, the festival organisers and the audiences, as well as our company, and there were some tricky negotiating between all parties. In the end, we performed one version of the show with 20 minutes cut of the end (nicknamed by me “Gilgarini” or “Gilgarette”) , which ended at the death of Enkidu, and we also did two 35 minute versions.

The 35 minute version was Gilgamesh – without the inclusion of the character of, er, Gilgamesh. Yep, performed by only Kath and myself, with the welcome inclusion of…. Christian reading narration and some of Rich’s lines from the sideline! Doing that show was an almost surreal experience, as I did several of the scenes normally done by Richard and myself – but without Richard there. I compared it at one stage to Hamlet without Hamlet – Gilgamesh is such a dominant character in this piece! Actually I think what we delivered was surprisingly good given the circumstances. At least we gave audiences a taste of the Uncle Semolina style. And personally, I think it really upped my confidence – if I could do that, solo, I could do anything.

On the other hand, I think our experience raises broader questions about Australian theatre practice. Many other performing art forms in Australia allow for the inevitability of illness or injury. Opera, stage musicals and dance all have systems in place in case a performer can’t perform, and use casting and budget to cover the risk. And at one time we were told that Chinese theatre shows do have understudies, meaning it is expected that a performance go on even if a major actor can’t perform that day. But there are no understudies in Australian theatre shows, and so when eventually someone can’t perform– and illness is particularly common in international touring – it becomes a disaster with serious financial implications. What is the answer? Well the obvious answer is bigger budgets that allow for spare performers. But of course for a 3 person show with actors of both genders this means an additional 2 people – a huge increase in budget that would make the tour unsustainable. So I don’t know the answer, but I sure know that it’s a problem.

Finally, this commentary wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the constant presence of cameras, video and still, including mobile phone cameras and even bigger telephoto lenses, that Chinese audiences had trained on us throughout the show. Any attempt to stop it felt rather doomed given the obvious cultural acceptance. Personally they didn’t bother me too much, possibly because I felt a little flattered. I guess we benefitted from the lack of copyright laws by getting those cheap “Gucci” bags, but it came back to bite us on the ass!