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Brighton Fringe 2024

The ballad of Mulan

Michelle Yim. Grist to the Mill and Red Dragonfly Productions

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Feminist Theatre, Fringe Theatre, Historical, International

Venue: The Rotunda Theatre. Regency Square, Brighton BN1 2FG


Low Down

The buck bounds here and there, 

whilst the doe has narrow eyes,


When the two rabbits run side by side, 

how can you tell the female from the male?


(lines from ‘The Ballad of Mulan’, a sixth century Chinese poem)


Who remembers ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’?    Erich Maria Remarque’s novel gave its readers a sense of modern warfare close-up – from the perspective of the ‘poor bloody infantry’.

Not some birds-eye view of the grand strategy;  but down there in the mud, pushing forward with your comrades, crammed together, shivering with fear, shielded only by the man in front of you – and when he’s killed, his body slumps away and you can finally see the enemy in front of you,face to face.


And when at last you see them, those enemy ‘monsters’ – they’re mostly frightened boys, just like you are …


The stage at The Rotunda is all black, and there was just the sound of the wind as the lights came up and we saw Mulan for the first time.   She’s a foot-soldier in some sixth-century Chinese army – Black plates of armour over her red surcoat, and long leather boots, well scuffed.   Her hair is tied up in a red topknot – and she’s holding a halberd that’s almost three metres long.


A formidable weapon, that halberd.  Michelle Yim knows how to use it, too.  She showed us how she and her comrades trained – “Thrust !” – “Parry !” – “Back !” – “Again !”   Thrusting the shaft, with its vicious hooked point, out towards us.  I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that …


And again !.   And again !.   That’s the training that teaches soldiers not to think for themselves, simply to obey the orders and work together as a mass.    Now she’s in a battle, pushing forward against the enemy lines, feet slipping on the muddy ground, waiting in trepidation for the shower of arrows that will certainly come over …   


And then they do! – and the man in front of her goes down with an arrow through his neck, and they still go forward, and push, and push, and finally the enemy line breaks, and the battle is won.    All the while she’s recounting this she’s almost drowned out by the sound of battle, the shouts and screams of men, and what she can’t forget, it seems, is the screams of the horses …


But there’s still the next battle to be fought …


So what is Mulan doing there?   She’s a woman, after all.   We next see her sleeping in a chair, sword across her knees, and as she wakes she tells us her story.    Michelle Yim and writer Ross Ericson have drawn heavily on ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ a sixth century Chinese poem (as they acknowledge in the play’s title) but they’ve given it a distinctly modern interpretation of its feminism.


In the poem, Mulan has to join the Emperor’s army because her father is too ill to serve, and her brother is too young.  So she disguises herself as a man, and becomes a soldier.


Yim gave us a lot more back-story to Mulan’s life, and the expectations of Chinese women of that era.    From the age of seven or eight, boys were sent to school to be educated and trained, but the girls had to stay at home.   There were domestic tasks to be done, and then later when they were old enough they would be married off, hopefully into a wealthy family – “We were a commodity to be traded”.


But Mulan was a bit of a tomboy, and her father indulged her: teaching her to use a bow, and to hunt rabbits.  Also, he instructed her in how to ride – these were people of the horse, who lived on the Northern Plains.  He taught her how to fight, too – at one point she bested a village bully.   So when the call to arms came to their village it seemed a natural course of action for Mulan to follow.    She had to do it secretly, of course – for a woman to step out of her traditional role would have brought disgrace on the whole family … and probably cost Mulan her head.


So she joins the recruits, and dons male clothing as she falls in with fellow soldiers who become comrades, and some of them become friends.   She has to sleep on a hard floor with just a bit of straw for a mattress, surrounded by men and kept awake, at first, by their snores – and by the smells that accompany other sounds …


Like the original story, this is a very feminist piece – but it’s also about the horror and squalor of war.  Mulan loses comrades, and her battered leather boots made me think of poor Kemmerich from Erich Remarque’s book.  He and his friends had joined the Kaiser’s army as patriotic schoolboys, and after Kemmerich was killed, his boots were passed on to a member of the group.  And on, and on, as one by one the doomed youths met the same fate.


Yim makes the point that, although she was a woman, her beardless state wasn’t overly noticeable, as many of the soldiers were still too young to shave.  Poor bloody beardless infantry …


It’s hard to define Michelle Yim’s performance – on one level she’s an accomplished storyteller, keeping her audience entranced while using a minimum of props (apart from that halberd),  but she’s also a very expressive actor, giving us the vigorous movements and expressions, as well as the voices, of a whole host of characters.    And there’s a lot of humour in the piece, too – Yim’s stories of how she survived being alongside men without being found out, and the discoveries she made about how men view sex, brought occasional gales of laughter from the audience.


At the end, it becomes apparent that after twelve years in the army, Mulan has risen through the ranks to become a General.     General Mu Lan.   After the war is finally won, she can go home.  But to what?   What awaits a woman who’s abandoned her traditional role?.   Michelle Yim’s production leaves that question hanging …


Forget the Disney version – If you want to see a powerful performance by a great actress, and writer, go and see ‘Mulan’


Better still – take your daughter!