Written and directed by Stan Lai. Stan Lai and Performance Workshop in collaboration with Wang Weizhong. Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. OzAsia Festival. October 25 – 26 2019.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
Stan Lai returns to OzAsia with another epic memory play that tells the story of three families, exiled as refugees to Taiwan after the failure of Chiang Kai Shek’s conflict with Mai Ze Dong’s Chinese Communist Party. This sweeping drama, encompassing more than fifty years in the lives of the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families and three generations who lived, were e born and were raised in the Military dependents’ Village in provincial Chianyi in Taiwan
Lai approaches the stories based on real people’s lives with a searing commitment to the essential humanity of his characters. What emerges is an overpowering humanity, a dynamic and heart rending and heart-warming tale of struggle and survival, love and painful devotion, disappointment and disillusion.
In this production each character embodies the universal truth of human endeavor, forged in the roles that society and gender expectation demand of them. Expecting only to remain for a few years, the families find themselves welded to a community that melds into the Taiwanese way of life, dreaming of escape but bound to an overriding commitment to family. For three hours traffic on the stage the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families live out their loves between the younger generations, their rivalries with the neighbor ,their secret loves and forsaken dreams, their private sacrifices and painful longings.
Throughout the production on Austin Wang’s framework set design and in Lizen Michael Chien’s evocative lighting, Grandma Lu moves slowly and statuesquely across the stage, harkening it seems to the ghostly spirits of the ancestors and a world they have left behind. The eventual return to the homeland is awkward, fragmented by a forced separation that has rent the families in both countries asunder. It is the human tragedy of politics, war, conflict and human greed and ambition. We cry at their plight and laugh at the irony of their everyday lives, like attempting to install a flush toilet. There is such simple truth in every performance. Lai directs it for heightened reality, where passion overflows and actors breathe the fire of commitment in telling the story of the displaced refugees.
Unfortunately, the production was in Mandarin, and English speakers relied on surtitles to follow the dialogue. The surtitles should have been placed above the actors on the Festival Theatre stage, but for some reason they were placed on large screens on either side, as they might be at a rock concert. Consequently I didn’t know where to concentrate my focus, - on the script so that I would understand who each character was, their place in the saga and what they were saying. Or should I focus on the action and interpret meaning from the heightened realism of their performances and the passion of their voice and gesture. Neither solution was satisfactory and as a result I was left to be content with the laughter of the Mandarin speakers in the audience.
This vast drama that has been touring for two years deserved better. Stan Lai’s previous production at OzAsia, another tender and moving love story, Secret Love in Peach Bloosom land which I reviewed a couple of years ago had no such split focus to detract and I remember it as a wonderful depiction of human nature and the moving depiction of Lai’s emerging theme of forced separation and denial of true love. It emerges again in The Village and reminds us all of he impact of forces beyond our control and the devastating fracturing of innocent human lives. At a time when the world is engulfed in conflict The Village is a poignant reminder of the value of family and compassion.