May 35th

Candace Chong Mui Ngam
Stage June Fourth, supported by Amnesty International UK
Southwark Playhouse Elephant

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May 35th
May 35th
May 35th

May 35th—there is no such date, not even in a leap year, but the subterfuge is simple: just count on from the end of the month and it is 4 June, and that is when back in 1989 the tanks drove into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and many were massacred. That may have been 35 years ago, but even now, if you are old enough, you’ll remember the image of a young man standing in front of their advance that you saw in the news bulletins.

In Candace Chong Mui Ngam’s play, an elderly couple set out to give their son, who was one of those the state murdered, the ritual they were never allowed to perform. It is based on interviews and the real stories of parents who lost children that day.

Siu Lum and his wife Ah Dai are now both octogenarians; she has cancer and only months to live, he is also ill. For three decades, they have preserved his room as he left it. In China, discussion of the events of 4 June for decades was forbidden, records moved from the Internet and for their own safety Dai has made them keep their heads down, but Lum has never stopped feeling the bitter pain of the loss of her passionate and outspoken son, Chit, and is now taking out his possessions and giving away his books and his cello as a way of passing on his memory. She wants to take a candle to Tiananmen and honour Chit at the place where he died. Dai tries to dissuade her, even paying a relation to help him do so.

May 35th originally premièred in Hong Kong in 2019, where it won awards, but since the introduction of the National Security Law of 2020, it cannot be performed there. Its producer and co-founder of Stage June Fourth now lives in the UK, and its translator, cast and creatives are credited under pseudonyms to avoid risk for their families in China. It is clearly a political play and an outspoken one, but it is also a play about an elderly couple and the convincing performances those roles are given that makes it work.

As scenes move forward in time or back in memory, Siu Lum becomes successively more frail; like a typical wife who takes responsibility for managing their lives, she worries how Dai will cope without her, reminding him about insurance policies and of money stashed away in odd places. A silver surfer, she gives Chit’s cello to a young man she met online. Ah Dai may seem a bit spineless to those who have no experience of his situation—he even resorts to tying-up Lum at one point to stop her rushing out and attracting attention—but it becomes increasingly clear that his actions are done to protect her and rooted in real love. Both of them skilfully handle passionate soliloquies direct to the audience. A third actor plays all the other roles.

The setting is stark, the couple’s home not seeming architecturally viable in the way rooms lead off it; it seems more symbolic than real (but then, I have never been in China). Dull green walls become crumbling concrete as they rise higher, topped with what could be a great forked tree branch (or is it a bone) that I can’t interpret; is it in the shape of a significant Mandarin character? Sharp eyes will notice a portrait of Mao that is present in some scenes, a calendar with a changing date, but the bland background helps Kim Pearce’s production to flow freely from detailed realism to bold theatrics, with music carrying scenes forward that reverberates like the tectonic plates of history colliding.

A chorus of young people are a final reminder both of the students and workers of 1989 and of more recent demonstrations in Hong Kong. In a way, that is itself memorial and protest. This première production of the English version of May 35th has only very short run at Southwark Playhouse Elephant venue and deserves to be seen much more widely.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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