Shakespeare constantly asked his audience to supplement his words with their imagination in order to cram a universe into his ‘Wooden O’; the tiny stage of the Etcetera Theatre and Simon Wu’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story demonstrates the art of bringing a complete city into a room.
The strength of this play, as with Chekhov’s theatrical masterpieces, is in combining an intimate family drama with a haunting sense of time and place –in this case 1940’s Shanghai. The writer who believed that ‘history is found entirely in trivial things’ reminds us that personal destinies are inextricably bound up with larger political and economic events.
Best known as the author of the book on which Ang Lee based his film Lust, Caution (Si,Jie) (2007), Eileen Chang reiterates the themes of destructive desire and romantic betrayal. That she manages it in a drama lasting just over an hour seems like a minor miracle.
A note of impending doom is struck at the start of the play with a voice-over of Greta Garbo as the suicidal Anna Karenina saying goodbye to her lover. Returning to their apartment after a celebratory cinema visit for the twentieth birthday of daughter Lin, Mr and Mrs Xu exist in a marriage from which the sparkle died long ago. From their flirtatious manner as they tease the mother, Mei Fong, calling her ‘a half-drowned geisha’, father and daughter might almost be lovers.
The idea of forbidden love in the sinful city is constantly associated with the seductive daughter Lin, whether she’s inviting her father Fengyi to join her in an impromptu dance or asking him to free the zip of her skin tight blouse she’s worn because it’s his favourite shade of blue. Recalling their stroll along the Bund he remembers the romantic mix of ‘Shanghai, the sky and you’.
When Lin refuses to be sent to visit to an aunt in distant Szechuan, so that her parents can revisit their honeymoon destination, the audience wonder along with Mei Fong, the mother, how long Fengyi will hold out against temptation.
The deceptively simple set with its few items of furniture and opulently-patterned wallpaper is subsumed into the city when the walls are backlit by a starry sky, complementing Fengyi’s descriptions of Shanghai’s neon-lit attractions.
In Shan Ng’s well-directed adaptation chief acting plaudits must go to mournful-eyed Singaporean Tina Chiang as the mother living in her beautiful daughters’ shadow. Talented Vera Chok as the self-willed daughter has a contrasting breeziness occasionally at odds with her vampish role, and a too-posh accent that sometimes strays from Nanjing Road in the direction of Knightsbridge.
Much the most challenging role is that of the angst-riven patriarch torn between duty and desire. Jamie Zubairi strikes the right note of indecision but is handicapped by his youthful appearance. Despite this he keeps the audience guessing as to whether he will fall for his daughter’s flattery, rekindle romance among the temples of Puduo Mountain with Mei Fong or simply lose himself in his work. Lin may successfully ruin the holiday plan but unless he comes home occasionally her scheming is pointless.
The prospect of Lin joining an anti-government demonstration promises retribution for the wayward girl, but a surprising twist and bitter ending follow a surprise discovery. Like all great denouements, it is not only completely convincing, but one that is signalled earlier by a forgotten but important clue.
The Etcetera Theatre, and its fifty-seat auditorium may more resemble a black box than Shakespeare’s ‘Wooden O’, but this production will leave audiences begging for more of Eileen Chang’s mesmerising dramas.
The Pilgrimage of the Heart plays until June 22nd at the Etcetera Theatre, The Oxford Arms, 265 Camden High Street, London NW1 7BU (near Camden Town tube)
Should be Eileen Zhang, not Chang