The Ballad of Mulan
Grist to the Mill and Red Dragonfly Productions
Gilded Balloon Teviot
The tale of Mulan is one that is rather solidly cemented in the Western public consciousness, in part through the various cinematic adaptations in the last quarter century, as well as through its proximity to the French tale of Joan d’Arc. But while most tellings lean heavily on the heroism and spectacle of the battles or the comedic and dramatic possibilities inherent to the then transgressive identity swap, few really get deep inside the head of Mulan.
The Ballad of Mulan tells the inner story of the famous Chinese warrior general, as she ponders the meaning of her life and her future, seeking answers and meaning during the night before the final crushing battle of the ten-year campaign that has been her entire life since running from home. Ross Ericsson’s adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan, based on the 6th century folk song from which the earliest known account of the story derives, pulls liberally from the beauty of the poetics there to echo the facets without ever losing the flow.
Michelle Yim portrays Mulan with a ferocity and steely militarism that befit the harshness of her life and decade of bloody duty. This is a Mulan who is hardened by battle, wise from experience and pensive about the future.
Yet it’s the quiet moments, the pauses between mouthfuls of noodles and sips of wine, when the hard shell cracks and pain and fear shows through the bravado. It’s here, in the reminiscing about home and fallen comrades, with the fear of an uncertain future, that the piece resonates. Not that it lacks for tension, or humour, as the ribald recollections of the early training days, and drunken nights and the vivid scenes of the battlefield offset the quieter moments.
It’s a brilliant performance, thus proving that both Red Dragonfly and Grist to the Mill can reach and exceed the high bars they have set in previous years, and that there is always new wisdom to be found even in the oldest of stories.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan