Brighton Fringe 2017
One of the best things about a Fringe Theatre festival is that we get exposed to material that we wouldn’t otherwise see, and probably wouldn’t search out for ourselves. Productions which give their audiences an insight into different countries and historical periods, exposing us to different cultures and political systems.
Grist To The Mill do this very well. I was very keen to see ‘The Empress and Me’ after seeing their production of ‘The Unknown Soldier’ at last year’s Fringe. (‘Outstanding Show’ – Fringe Review). That one took us back to the aftermath of World War One, exposing the cynical machinations of politicians and the breaking of promises that had been made to the working-class Tommies who had fought and suffered. What would ‘The Empress and Me’ be about?
A very simple set on The Rialto stage – just a black-lacquered Chinese screen at the back, a heavy armchair made from some Eastern hardwood, teak maybe, and a couple of steamer chairs on the other side of the acting area. And then there she was – Princess Der Ling. Lizzie Der Ling; daughter of a high-ranking Chinese diplomat, educated in French and English, who spent several years at the beginning of the last century as the chief Lady-in-Waiting to the Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler of China. Gosh!
Michelle Yim is of medium height, but she made Der Ling look tall and commanding in a floor-length robe and an enormous gold headdress. A robe in red silk, picked out in gold thread, with a gold-embroidered peacock over most of the front; it took a few minutes to notice the white block shoes just visible under the hem, their wooden cubes adding at least another three inches to Der Ling’s stature.
So far it looked rather like a spread from ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, and this impression continued as Der Ling recounted the daily rhythm of the Dowager Empress’s life inside the Forbidden City in Peking. The clothes, the rituals, the imperial audiences, the elaborately costumed eunuchs – detail after exotic detail gushed out in a tale of riches, privilege and exclusivity. The Summer Palace. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasure. She talked about the realities of government, too – the Emperor Guangxu had ascended the throne at only four years old and the Empress Dowager, who had been a concubine of the previous Emperor, ruled in his place as a powerful and politically astute Regent.
Der Ling’s delivery was a little stilted, though – it felt less like the lady was speaking to us personally, and more like she was delivering a lecture. Then suddenly there was loud applause (on a soundtrack) and it became obvious that this was in fact a talk that Der Ling had been giving. She moved across the stage to take off her enormous headdress and revealed that we were in Twin Falls, Idaho, on a lecture tour of the United States, and that all those events in Peking had been several decades in the past.
Lizzie Der Ling had a remarkable life, and to tell each different phase she would retire behind the screen to change her clothes. So we saw her in a green silk kimono as she recounted travelling to Japan with her diplomat father and the rest of her family as part of the Chinese legation in Yokohama. Then later, when she was fourteen, he was posted to Paris, as the Chinese Minister to the French Republic. Her father believed strongly in the equal education of girls and boys, and Lizzie and her sister Nellie received an important part of their schooling in that city. She studied dance with Isadora Duncan, and met Sarah Bernhardt.
Michelle Yim’s movements and gestures were always elegant and evocative.
When Der Ling relived her encounter with Isadora, her raised arms swayed like a willow in the wind as her body seemed to remember movements she had made decades before. It was beautifully done, and so evocative of the photographs we know of the great dancer.
Then she changed into a dark grey western-style dress as she told about meeting “T C”. This was Thaddeus C White, who she eventually married. Hence the American lectures. She told of her travels and talks all across the United States. In Idaho she was wearing a brown coat with a luxurious pale fur collar as she confessed to being happier among Europeans than with Chinese. It’s an interesting thought that Der Ling’s upbringing and education had left her deracinated, not fully at home in any country, while at the same time her aristocratic social status cut her off from any meaningful contact with the great mass of the Chinese people.
When her father was recalled to China, she began the two years in Peking with the Dowager Empress in The Forbidden City. We were told about the political situation of the times, with the Boxer Rebellion by anti-foreigner and anti-Christian elements in Chinese society, and the eight nation European/American invasion force which defeated them and restored order. There was a lot of foreign penetration into China – remember that the Opium Wars, forcing China to accept the import of British opium from its Indian empire, had only taken place fifty years before.
The weakness of this production is that, in the final analysis, it actually is simply a lecture being delivered. Michelle Yim changed her clothes and always moved beautifully, but all she did was – talk. She didn’t put dates to any of the events that she mentioned, either. I’d heard of the Boxer Rebellion, but I had no idea it took place between 1899 and 1901. Similarly, she talked of there having been a war with Japan, so a lot of hostility when the family were in Yokohama, but there was no detail of what happened, or mention of when that might have been.
Later she mentioned the anti-Chinese racism in America, and the difficulties with the US immigration authorities – plus ça change – but it was not made clear that this was the 1920s, when Der Ling was doing her lecture tours, by which time she was Mrs Thaddeus C White.
Even with these caveats, though, ‘The Empress and Me’ was absolutely fascinating – a window onto an early twentieth century culture now lost for ever. But in the twentyfirst century we have Google, and a few clicks opened up a mine of information about Der Ling and her life. And that’s the point I made at the beginning – I wouldn’t have learned what I now have without seeing the show.
So thank you, Grist to the Mill.