Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Little Emperors, Feb 14, 2017 ***

By Lachlan Philpott, Malthouse Theatre, Asia TOPA 
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until Feb 26, 2017  
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 14, 2017 
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Wed Feb 15, 2017, and later in print. KH
 Alice Qin & Diana [Xiaojie] Lin
The actors in Lachlan Philpott’s Little Emperors perform ankle-deep in a murky pool of water that heightens the physical and personal struggles of their characters.

Wading through this emotional soup, the four Chinese and Australian characters shift through myriad moods as they splash each other playfully, stumble or drag themselves with laboured movements through the resistant water, or fall face first into the shallow pool like drowned souls.

Little Emperors, a play that deals with the repercussions of China’s One Child Policy that ended in 2016, is the result of a Malthouse Theatre collaboration between Philpott and Wang Chong, a young director from Beijing.

Philpott’s script, set in Melbourne and Beijing and performed in English and Mandarin by Chinese and Australian actors, explores the personal experiences, memories and stories of some of those affected by China’s social experiment that aimed to control population.

In Beijing, Huishan (Alice Qin), a single, 31-year old woman, wrestles with her fraught relationship with her fragile but demanding and emotionally manipulative mother (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin).

Meanwhile, across the world in Melbourne, Huishan’s ‘illegal’ brother, Kaiwen (Yuchen Wang), struggles to direct and devise an experimental play for the ChuFest, a Chinese university theatre festival; a play-within-a-play that echoes the theme of the One Child Policy.

 Yuchen Wang (R) Alice Qin (on screen)
On both sides of the world chaos ensues as characters reveal dark secrets, unleash personal attacks, challenge each other’s world views and face the repressed emotions arising from the consequences of the One Child Policy.

Diana Lin is compelling as the Mandarin-speaking mother, creating a poignant and complex character who agonises over her unmarried daughter’s circumstances, avoids her own serious illness and pines for her absent son, Kaiwen.

Lin brings a depth and range of feeling to the mother’s wrenching stories about her childhood during the Cultural Revolution, her husband’s iron-fisted control, and her grief over her past, enforced separation from her ‘illegal’, second child.

The scenes performed in Mandarin by Lin with Qin as her daughter, are the strongest as the two grapple with their love that is tainted by miscommunication, the opposing aspirations of two generations of Chinese women, and a mother’s desire to live vicariously through her daughter.

The English language scenes are less successful when Kaiwen, known as Kevin in Melbourne, tries to direct his muddled play but is left with only the sound technician (Liam Maguire) when all the actors abandon the project and Kevin reveals his arrogance.

The dialogue and action between Yuchen Wang and Maguire is awkward, laboured and not credible, particularly in their seduction scene, but Yuchen Wang’s final scene in Mandarin is his most believable and moving when Kevin/Kaiwen finally lets down his guard and reveals his anguish.

Wang Chong’s direction uses a non-naturalistic style that is a counterpoint to the generally naturalistic dialogue, and he heightens the abstraction with live video of the mother and daughter projected on a huge, curtain of Chinese newsprint suspended behind the pool (design by Romanie Harper).

Despite the unevenness in the performances, Little Emperors provides us with some intimate insights into the repercussions of the Chinese One Child experiment.

By Kate Herbert

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