Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, Fri 9 Nov.
A contemporary play from Taiwan that has become one of the most popular pieces of modern theatre in China – that is a large divide to cross, especially politically! The stage is set, unset, reset and then divided in both space as well as in time when two plays are double-booked for rehearsals for their opening nights. Thus there are three main divisions of the cast.
First for Secret Love – the story of love lost when the lovers are separated by Chinese New Year, then by the Cultural Revolution and the decades pass with the terminally ill man placing an advert in the paper for his long-lost lover in a Taiwanese newspaper, having heard that she may well have escaped to Taipei as he did. Clearly this is an extended tragedy, though it does have humour and plenty of pathos.
The second play, Peach Blossom Land is set as a comedic farce and includes some hilarious physical theatre that could rightly be described as clowning around. This part of the play is more traditional or perhaps more back-country Chinese. Tao, a fisherman whose wife is more interested in his boss, heads off on a trek likely to cost his life, but it takes him to Peach Blossom Land, something of a fantasy place of peace and tranquillity. When he returns, to him only shortly after leaving, to them years later, somewhat a changed man, he is mistaken for a ghost.
The third part of the cast is the theatre support staff – and given that they are not only part of each play, but often in the middle when the casts are conflicting – they do have significant roles. There is a fourth element; a girl looking for a boy who has made promises who keeps cropping up with often amusing interactions, but again, tragi-comedy.
Very clever writing has the lines of one of the plays being completed by the actors in the other and there are significant parallels throughout. However the writer clearly is issuing a passionate plea for us to remember the past as it was, even at a distance, or we will be unable to advance the future. At one stage the sub-titles got lost and while many of us realised our dependence on them, that part of the play was so well acted that we had no doubt as to what was happening!
I was flippantly thinking that the playwright had thought to include every type and style of scene into this play, it certainly is impressive in scope and the variety is amazing, from surreal to acrobatic, comic, physical theatre, and slapstick, to death-bed meetings. And none of it seems out of place; all of it has a part to play in building to the conclusion.
Though it is also fair to say that while the human dimensions and stories are clear and there are resolutions of sorts. There are also a few more levels to this play; the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China is clearly among them. Which brings us back to the first point – this is such a well-constructed piece of theatre, and loaded as it is with political dimensions, that it is not only popular in Taiwan, but also with the people both of the mainland (and is not censored). Further to this, it provides a great insight into both Chinese cultures, accessible to us foreigners – I will have no hesitation in seeing any of Stan Lai’s other works.