A Dream of Madness

During a tour of the Pearl River Delta region of China, for one night I stayed at a place called the Ocean Spring Resort. It’s a new holiday resort surrounding a famous hot spring, with hotels, a theme park, spas, health centres, water features, pretty much everything that a resort needs. Oh, and it’s massive. There are vast, vaguely disturbing stretches of concrete in which restaurants and shops occasionally emerge out of. Since it still had a couple of months to go before being finished, there weren’t many people around, which made the place feel like some deserted alien planet.

Still, the facilities were generally very good. The hotel was good, and more importantly, the hot springs were absolutely incredible. When I think of a hot spring, I think of a place like Bath, where they probably have a few fairly full pools of varying size inside a building. This being China, I expected something perhaps two or three times as big. Instead, not only was the building itself rather vast, with at least a dozen large pools, but there were also something like 30 or 40 pools outside. Plus an enormous lagoon. A multi-level lagoon. And the pools were variously scented with coffee, chocolate, oils, and so on. Basically, it was really quite amazing and made me review my opinion of Chinese resorts.

This was a good thing, because a couple of hours earlier, we’d gone to a theatre performance there. It too was quite amazing, but in a way that left me dumbfounded and reeling.

The performance was called A Dream by the Sea. As we settled down near the front, I noted that there were at most only 60 people in the audience, in a space that could easily take 1000. That’s got to be all kinds of depressing for the performers, who almost outnumbered us.

Anyway, the story got off to a fine start: a boy called Misha lived by the sea with a girl, and after some dancing around and throwing of paper airplanes, he decides to go to the city. My ‘heavy-handed Chinese moral message’ detector immediately began blaring, but I’d gotten used to this kind of thing by now and the whole thing struck me as charming, even if it was rather kitsch.

So Misha goes off to the city. I knew this because the theatre had surtitles not only in Chinese but English; pretty cool, although literally a pain in the neck if you’re sitting up front. And then my seat began moving. My sense of alarm gave way to open-mouthed surprise – I felt like I was on some Disney animatronic ride, as our entire group of seats rotated around to face the centre of the auditorium. Lots of people started dancing around, and then the seats returned to their position where they faced the stage again. Huge sets displaying some metal factory began moving above and below the floor while people did a synchronised dance. Cool, I thought.

After this strange interlude, Misha turns up in a stock exchange. He appears to have transformed from a young Chinese boy into a guy who looks exactly like Jon Heder in Blades of Glory. In fact, Misha looked so different I didn’t even figure out who he was until much later, by which point he’d been played by a whole host of actors whose only common feature was wearing a blond wig.

More bizarre, unconnected scenes followed, and then Misha spots his girl in a bar; he recognises her ‘by her voice’. Seats rotate, and we are confronted with… Britney Spears. Or at least someone who looks like her, and is singing up a mix of her greatest hits – and who said the Chinese had no respect for intellectual property rights? Still, the singing wasn’t bad.

After Ms. Spears had disappeared, some very good Chinese gymnasts appeared on a dais in the middle of the auditorium, surrounded by falling water. I thought this was marvellous stuff – how did they manage all of that water, I wondered. The gymnasts were pretty good as well, although by this point they had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

And then came the clowns. Clowns with whistles, throwing presents. Clowns attempting to distract us while they prepared the stage for some impressive action on the stage. I found this pretty annoying myself – we’d already been to the circus the night before and I really didn’t want to see any more clowns mucking about. In fact, by that point I could’ve done with a break, but what can you do?

It turned out that the clowns had been covering for the assembly of a giant spherical cage on stage, in which four motorcycles zoomed around. Very cool indeed, especially when the top half of the cage rose up while the motorcycles were still in it, but again, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the show had truly reached the height of weirdness.

I was wrong. The seats began rotating and faced the sides of the auditorium. Curtains parted to reveal… a giant glass water tank containing two mermaids! Whoa! What the hell is going on? I had no choice but to concede defeat to the masterful auteurs who’d created this wholly unpredictable spectacle, and just sit back.

The end wasn’t far away though. The seats rotated back, there was more ballet from Jon Heder, and the finale began, complete with multiple Mishas on stage and two sailing ships (with a Misha each) flying over the audience, blowing bubbles. I am stunned into silence.

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