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The Pilgrimage of the Heart

Simon Wu, based on a story by Eileen Zhang
Etcetera Theatre
(2008)

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Eileen Zhang was a Chinese writer, particularly known for her stories of the relationships between lovers. Growing up under Chiang Kai-shek and beginning to write during the Japanese occupation, from the mid-1950s she lived mainly in the USA. At least ten of her novels have been turned into films and, with her original screenplays, some twenty movies have been made from her work - most recently Ang Lee's Lust, Caution.

This is an adaptation of one of her short stories, set in pre-war Shanghai and it looks at the over-close relationship of a man and his adult daughter. We see them on the daughter Lin's twentieth birthday, the girl laughing hysterically at the dress her mother has bought herself for this special occasion, declaring that she looks like a drowned geisha - they have been caught in the rain after going to the cinema to see Garbo in Anna Karenina. In Anna's defiance of the mores of Russian high society Lin seems to see a pattern for herself while mother Mei Fong, an avid reader, quotes the novel's opening lines: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

At 20 Lin seems to have no boyfriends. Life centres around her father and Jamie Zubairi's gentle, slightly pedantic Fengyi is just the sort of parent to inspire devoted affection. She is also the apple of his eye, but is he complicit in her ridiculing of his wife? He seems a devoted husband and with Mei Fong he plans a brief holiday to visit the mountain temple where he first proposed marriage to her. We are asked to accept that the strength of Lin's filial feelings and her need for her father's affection have made her increasingly jealous of her mother, though we are given no background and little motivation for the shrieking vitriol of this posh little bitch, though her intention of participating in a political demonstration - 'Down with Communism! Down with Imperialism! both' - does suggest a possible 'new woman' rebelling against traditional respect. The implication is that Lin wants to replace her mother in the matrimonial bed, and Mei Fong catches Fengyi and Lin almost embracing in a compromising manner. What are Fengyi's feelings?

Lin suddenly announces she's engaged to a young political activist to make her dad jealous and accuses her father of having an affair with one of her friends to hurt her mother still further, but this is a play that presents a situation rather than explores it. There is a calm intensity about Tina Chiang's mother, occasionally revealing an undercurrent of unhappiness and resentment that makes the shock of her discovery effective; and an enigmatic quality to Zubairi's father that the plot does not take further. The possibilities are limited by the lack of any real erotic charge between him and Chok's Lin - they waltz together with no sense of each other's bodies. I may, of course, have missed something in the dialogue: Chok's spoilt brat alternates between temperamental shouting and such rapid delivery that it lacked articulation, making her sometimes difficult to understand and, seen only in confrontation, she has little chance to present more than a one-dimensional character.

Shan Ng's production keeps things fast moving, sometimes too fast perhaps, though she boldly slows things down for an effective purely physical sequence for the two women. It is all simply and beautifully mounted by designer Bronia Housman using a gauze screen wall, that allows characters to be seen approaching, and an overhead light-fitting that establishes the mid-thirties period. A scattering of light bulbs behind the gauze are perhaps intended to suggest the bright lights of the world outside, the Shanghai to which Lin seems devoted and, in a gimmick of director or lighting designer Sherry Coenen, these glow more brightly when father and daughter are together, often matched by an increase in the light on the actors. When they are not together life is more dreary, I presume is the message. However, I'm not sure of this for on press night the operation of the lighting plot seemed rather erratic and perhaps this was not the intention.

This play made me think about why a writer should adapt existing work for the stage - and a great deal of recent work seems to be adaptations. Sometimes it may be simply commercial reasons: the popularity of the original and an assumed box-office appeal, and there is nothing wrong with that if the result is exciting theatre; sometimes because a story is so obviously dramatic that it calls out to be acted. It may be an impulse to make a text available to a wider audience or - and this is especially so of short stories, because there is an opportunity for further exploration. You have only to look at versions of Henry James The Turn of the Screw or an earlier Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain to see how interesting this can be. I could not help wishing that, instead of this snapshot of a situation, Simon Wu who is clearly a very capable dramatist, had developed this story further and given us some background to this family under pressure, exploring these relationships to give us a full evening’s drama instead of the 60 minutes or so that he presently offers.

At the Etcetera until 22nd June 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton