Yellow Earth Theatre
At the Greenwich Theatre this week Yellow Earth Theatre has been staging its sixth annual Typhoon Play-reading Festival showcasing contemporary East Asian theatre writing. It attracts work both from the countries of East Asia and from those of East Asian origin who are part of the world diaspora. This year brings plays from China, Singapore, Vietnam, America and the UK.
As well as the play readings themselves the festival opened on Sunday with a story-telling session for the young and an opportunity to meet Philippe Cherbonnier and Jonathan Man, Co-Artistic Directors of Yellow Earth, and listen to live music from Tsukasa Kataoka in the bar. On other nights there are pre-show talks on Yellow Earth's educational and outreach work, on the relationship between writing for theatre and writing for radio and TV, a look at British East Asian experience from the viewpoint of women, refugees, lesbians and gays and a consideration of British East Asian role models in the arts and media. Each evening after the show there are post-show talks with members of the creative teams, comedy performances and DJs spinning the latest East Asian sounds.
Unable to fit in the whole festival I sampled Tuesday's offering: a double bill directed by Philippe Cherbonnier, the first of which came from Canada, the second from a Hong Kong Chinese resident in Britain. The plays run about 40 minutes and 50 minutes and both are presented as works in progress not as final scripts.
Filial by David Yee, actor and associate artistic director of Asian Canadian theatre company fu-GEN, is a two hander that presents a meeting between a father and his estranged, pistol-wielding son that reruns their encounter some half dozen times, on each occasion making changes to its development and outcome, succeeding versions revealing more detail about their story. In Larkin's words 'they fuck you up your mum and dad' and in this series of tense confrontations, the son keeps giving his single-parent father just 15 minutes to answer the charge that it is he who is responsible for the boy's fucked-up life.
Even though holding scripts and in this token staging the actors grasped the opportunities offered. Gradually escalating his performance, Jay Oliver Yip as the son and Jamie Zubarie as the gentle natured father, who has a scene of drug-induced bemusement that adds a welcome lighter touch, gave this a dramatic tension. There are perhaps too many repetitions and re-runs without adding enough new twists or material to entirely hold the interest. I found mine waning - and then came the drugged version which re-concentrated attention. It is a piece that arouses thoughts about parental and filial responsibilities without itself exploring them very deeply. A little shorter it would make a splendid curtain-raiser for a programme of short plays.
The Two of Us by Simon Wu, a writer who has already had plays produced in London and Hong Kong, on BBC radio and on TheatreVoice and been awarded support by the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, is in effect a 40-minute monologue, performed here by Ashley Alyman. It uses the recording of a video message as a device to rationalise direct address to the audience by a young man who says he is Sam, a twin whose brother Eric is so identical that no one can tell which is which. Their links are very close and there is a strong bond between them. They sometimes pretend to be the other, even sharing a girlfriend without the girl realising she is sleeping with a different brother. But such strong love has its opposite. In any close and passionate relationship frustration can make the much loved the target on which to release hate and vent jealousy and so it is with these two twins.
It demands a great deal of a single performer to hold attention with such a long monologue. In production this might be made a little easier by some passages which are presented as video inserts and which appear to feature the other brother, Eric, but is it really he? Although the play describes rather than actually staging its dramatic incidents, Wu's skilfully contrived script soon has us wondering which brother it is actually talking to us - and is it always the same one? Are we really to believe that one twin actually kills the other? Whose blood does the speaker see reflected in a mirror? The man himself begins to be unsure which of the twins he is.
The script gives us no idea for whom the video message is intended and Cherbonnier's direction has the actor moving well out of range of the camera on which it is being recorded. Is this a message or simply an excuse to show a man reasoning with himself? -- a man who may be descending into madness.
Wu's stage directions describe a set with a multiplicity of mirrors, some facing each other so that an image is repeated to infinity, which would give an endless replication of the single person on the stage. Although in its present form the play seems to suggest there are actual twins there is a sense in which this is also an exploration of two sides of a single personality, one in conflict with the other, or the multiplicity of possible patterns a person may chose to follow. It is an intellectual concept rather than a dramatic one but Wu has given it a structure that can be staged theatrically.
"Typhoon 6" runs Sunday 21st - Thursday 25th June 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton