Bo Xilai Starving Himself, Growing Beard for Role as Prospero in Jailhouse Production of The Tempest

Bo Xilai

Reuters incorrectly reported this week that former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai has staged hunger strikes and grown a beard to protest his treatment in jail. Miniharm has the real story.

by Wang Xiaoming

Wang Xiaoming is the editor of Ministry of Harmony.

BEIJING — When Bo Xilai walked onstage at the beginning of Act II, he was unrecognizable. Clad in scintillating regalia, clutching a bamboo staff and stroking his chest-length beard, the former Chongqing party secretary had fully transformed himself into Shakespeare’s recalcitrant wizard Prospero.

Indeed, Bo was so captivating that I forgot I was sitting in a prison auditorium.

Qincheng Penitentiary for the Politically Insane is located an hour northwest of Beijing and guarded by three rings of electrified fences. The penitentiary has housed some of the most hardened political criminals in China’s history, including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping during the Maoist era. Even Bo Xilai’s father Bo Yibo did a stint in Qincheng during the Cultural Revolution.

Today it is home to the likes of Liu Zhijun, the former minister of railways and Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s erstwhile police chief.

Although heavily-armed guards patrol the campus, Qincheng’s security belies the leisure of life within. The compound has a full gym, private self-criticism rooms and a large lending library stocked with Marxist-Leninist writings. Inmates are encouraged to make friends, join clubs and find the right pace of life for them.

But when Bo Xilai entered Qincheng in October of last year, he had a hard time adjusting.

“It’s hard, you know, going from the penthouse to the big house. There’s less women, for starters,” Bo told me. “But it’s been good for me. Without all the distractions, I can finally focus on myself and what I want to do.”

One of the things Bo wants to do, he says, is acting.

“Acting has been a lifelong passion for me. In fact, it’s why I decided to get into politics in the first place.”

Lei Zhengfu is rumored to make a cameo as the deformed monster Caliban.

Lei Zhengfu will make his theatrical debut as the deformed monster Caliban.

So during his first month at Qincheng, Bo joined the jail’s Shakespeare Troupe.

“I actually joined the mahjong club first, but they kicked me out when they discovered I was hiding tiles in my pockets,” he said.

“Then one day I was walking down C block and saw [Wang] Lijun. Of course we’ve had our differences in the past but I’m not one to hold grudges. We had lunch and he mentioned he was auditioning for The Tempest and encouraged me to try out.”

Though he hadn’t prepared a monologue, Bo’s bold audition caught the attention of director Liu Zhijun, who is serving time at Qingcheng while he awaits trial.

Liu had previously directed Waiting for Godot and Arcadia, both of which received critical acclaim from the penitentiary press. Liu says it was “a tough decision” but ultimately decided to give Bo the lead role over several senior inmates like Li Jiating, the former governor of Yunnan who was given a suspended death penalty in 2003, and Tian Fengshan, the former land and resource minister who was sentenced to life in prison in 2005.

“Bo was mesmerizing,” Wang told me during one of my visits to Qincheng. He had landed the role of Prospero’s compassionate daughter Miranda and looked forward to working with his old boss again. “He delivered this extemporaneous soliloquy about being exiled and plotting revenge upon those who had usurped his rightful kingdom. I don’t know where it came from but it gave me shivers.”

“Originally, I was pissed at Bo when he got the role,” said Tian Fengshan. “I was going to send one of my guys to shank him in the showers, but changed my mind once I saw him rehearse. His intensity, the honesty he brings to the role—I tell you, that guy is going places.”

For his part, Bo was incredulous when he first learned he’d been chosen to play the exiled Duke of Milan.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought the other guys were pranking me because I’m the new fish,” he said.

But once he realized it was for real, Bo cleaved to the role.

“I really understand where Prospero is coming from—having been so powerful and then betrayed by those closest to him,” he said, his hand curling into a fist.

Bo wanted to portray Prospero as a tortured soul and show his anger physically manifest itself. Taking a page from Christian Bale, one of his favorite actors, Bo decided to alter his physicality for the role.

To achieve an impossibly gaunt figure, he maintained a restrictive diet for months, eschewing the three-course meals offered to former party chiefs and slimming down considerably to an anorexic 96 pounds. (Doctors at Qincheng assured me that Bo is completely healthy, has ready access to food, and has never been force fed.)

Bo also refused to wear a fake beard and began growing one himself.

“That’s just the way I work,” he said. “I’m method. I have to become the character.”

For opening night, Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, will be bused in from nearby Jiang Qing Women's Prison, where she is serving a suspended death sentence.

For opening night, Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, will be bused in from nearby Jiang Qing Women’s Prison, where she is serving a suspended death sentence.

The Qincheng Shakespeare Troupe’s production of The Tempest opens next week but pre-sale tickets are already sold out.

But this wouldn’t be the first time a Liu Zhijun production has had to extend its run. Godot ran for an unprecedented six months.

“The audience really responded with the themes of Godot. Many of them don’t know when they will be released or actually charged with a crime, myself included” Liu told me.

This week, the company was putting on full dress rehearsals. Liu would finally see if all the months of hard work had paid off.

Though there were minor technical issues in the first act, once Bo entered at the start of Act II, the ensemble found its rhythm.

Wang Lijun gave a stirring performance as Miranda. Lei Zhengfu portrayed a truly monstrous Caliban and I was surprised to learn that no prosthetics were used. Tian Fengshan, who ended up playing Ferdinand, created a palpable chemistry with Wang.

But the most extraordinary part of the production was, predictably, Bo Xilai. His Prospero was both frightening and pitiful, a man wracked by pain and loneliness. It was riveting to watch him transform throughout the play into the person who ultimately forgives his betrayers.

At the end of the performance, after everyone else had exited, Bo—no, Prospero—walked downstage to deliver the epilogue. He leaned on his cane as the strength drained from his frail body.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,

He went on, becoming somber with resignation. And, as he delivered the play’s final lines to me and the few prisoners in the audience, a gentle tear rolled down his cheek.

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

The Tempest runs from March 3-24 at the Qincheng Penitentiary for the Politically Insane.


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