The first thing you will notice about this incredible production, when you enter, is the large tank of water in place of a stage. A fun fact about the water used in the show is that during rehearsals and testing, cast and crew had to be given hot water bottles to keep themselves warm between scenes. With no traditional stage in any of the space, the first two rows are in the splash zone, but this use of water as each actor wades through the troubles of their life is both poetic and a fresh change in the Malthouse Theatre.
The show came about from a collaboration between Lachlan Philpott and Beijing based director Wang Chong as part of Asia TOPA. Philpott has had a long fascination with only children, and China’s one child policy, so he suggested to Chong that they make a play that explored the impact of humanity’s largest social and demographic experiment. Philpott’s writing is influenced by much research, from many conversations with child of the One Child Policy, learning mandarin and reading as much as possible about China, as well as flying to Beijing to work with Chong.
The show follows Kevin (played by Yuchen Wang), a child left behind or ‘saved’ under the policy, left to boarding school in Hong Kong. It explores his relationship with his older sister and his mother, and the clashes and differences between his ‘home’ culture of China and the Australian culture he lives in, and the expectations that come with both.
Performances by the cast are stellar, emotion and incredibly relatable and honest. Diana (Xiaojie) Lin portrays a heartbreakingly sad and sick, but over involved, Chinese mother to her daughter, played by Alice Qin. Qin is a harried but passionate single woman, who works hard, misses her brother and worries about her mother. She is nagged about being single and being set up, and feels the constant pressure and guilt of being the first born child, saved from the policy by being sent to her grandmother’s village when her brother was born and her relationship with him and her family, before and after he was left at boarding school.
The only Anglo-Saxon member of the cast is Liam Maguire, who plays a beguiling, but charming gay Australian guy and acquaintance of Kevin. He’s cheeky, not quite politically correct but curious and caring about his soon to be paramour Kevin. Wang, who plays the central character, is a powerhouse of emotions; he captures the hurt, the confusion and the torment he feels from his family’s treatment, and how the rest of the world sees him. He plays into the stereotypes of Asian and Australian perspectives, of money, culture, work ethic and much more, and is manic with his grief and emotions, as well as walled, closeted and unable to give anything away to family and friends. The performances in this show are five star, with not a flaw in sight.
Aside from the water, the technology is the other really notable thing about this show. Much of it is told through projection and video camera. The show is half in Mandarin, half in English, with subtitles for both languages projected onto the set at all times. The show is also told from two countries and through an array of Skype calls, which are filmed and projected live from all over the stage and back stage, and projected onto the backdrop. The backdrop, which is printed in Chinese writing and is sliced up into strips allow the cast to move back and forward between the stage and the backstage area at any point.
The subtitles feel a little distracting at times, as you must read and concentrate, as well as watch and give the performers your full attention as they deserve, but the show is well paced so you can do both with comfort, and don’t feel like you’re missing too much. The ever changing language of the show, back and forth from Mandarin and English, helps build the pace to the show, as well as has a lovely undulating rhythm to it.
Dealing with the notion of suicide and cultural differences between China and Australia are only the part of the serious emotions the play delves into. Watching your parents shrink from the giants they were in your childhood, as we all grow older, is a universal challenge across all cultures, that we all deal with differently. The show is bright, bold and brutally honest about the reality of these issues; the toughness of Chinese mothers, the struggle about China’s government and policies, being gay in Asian cultures and feeling trapped between two worlds where you feel you don’t belong in either. It’s about home- where you call home, where you feel is home, where you are from and where you are going.
The costuming is simple but appropriate, and is also well managed by the cast when it gets sopping wet on the stage. They manage costume changes well, and navigate the stage either by wading through the water and splashing around, or by walking almost stilt like on tiny chairs and using them to step through the water. It gives the show nice levels, as well as some comedy to the staggered movements through the water.
About once to twice a year, I see a show I know I am going to rave about for years to come- it’s early in 2017 but this is my hot pick for the show I cannot forget, and cannot stop talking about. Don’t miss this culturally significant, beautiful piece of theatre at the Malthouse Theatre until 26 February.