Edinburgh Fringe 2014
"China. 1969. Mid-summer. Cultural Revolution. Snow starts to fall. YingYing and Mulan meet in the harshest Chinese work camp. Surrounded by cruelty and sadness, the two women find strength in each other. Based on her family’s experience, Heather Lai tells a tale of injustice, of companionship and enduring love."
We enter to find Heather Lai humming quietly to herself as she distributes plain white flour around the stage. It’s not a half-baked concept. On this makeshift canvas Lai will draw out the threads of the story she has to tell. It’s a weave of mind-bogglingly massive socio-cultural upheaval, spun alongside individual narratives arching upwards and downwards as the traumas unfold.
It’s spellbinding. Lai flits about the stage, morphing in and out of the carefully crafted personas she has bestowed on each witness to the tragedy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Chinese characters: alphabetical, political and familial; are sketched in the flour. It’s theatrical punctuation accentuating the daring lines of her dialogues and monologues.
Tea Time Story is a beautifully conjured tale of two people in love. Lai’s grandparents had the great good fortune to find their soulmates in one another, and the supreme bad luck to find themselves amid the rage and fury of ruthlessly administered moral anarchy.
My Great Aunt was a venerable auld lady, a game old bird free and easy with her cheer and merriment. Lai’s was a true believer, a Maoist partisan in the struggle to rid the People’s Republic of anyone who might speak or think out of turn. The discord between Lai’s Great Aunt and Grandmother was much more than a sibling rivalry. On stage it is a potent metaphor for the superseding of bourgeois family life in a brave new world. You can’t make an omelette without breaking heads.
Hand on heart, I can’t promise that I’ve understood every twist and turn of the plot. I never completely lose it, but there is a sense that the script has been concertinaed to fit the time allowed. I should love to see it expanded, able to take the deep breaths needed between each sprint.
The zodiacal inferences of the flour canvas are supported by a heavyweight bevy of lighting and sound cues. This is a tech savvy show, capish? There are plenty of tricks deployed to define and shape the introspective, retrospective and extrospective. But behind the innovative mechanics is a very human performance and a very gifted performer.
Lai built her script on a foundation of interviews with the people she portrays. She does them proud. Her movement is graceful. Her pacing is well-judged. Her engagement with her audience is sincere. That unspoken conversation will shape, soften, refine and redact the script as the run runs on.
The binding on that copy of Wild Swans (which has been nesting on your bookshelf since the 90s) might be well-creased, or it might not. In either event get yourself down to Zoo and see this cygnet-ture production.