Escape attempts

Sally Sussman: Lachlan Philpott, Little Emperors

Alice Qin and Diana (Xiaojie) Lin, Little Emperors, Asia TOPA

Alice Qin and Diana (Xiaojie) Lin, Little Emperors, Asia TOPA

They sit in their high chairs, their fat little faces feasting on morsels delivered by a circle of devoted family—mother, father, grandparents—all fixated on their precious only child.

These so-called “Little Emperors,” born of the strictly enforced one-child policy in China, have grown up. They feel burdened by family expectations to marry, reproduce and care for their aging parents. In this skillfully constructed bilingual play written by Lachlan Philpott (Sydney) and cleverly directed by Wang Chong (Beijing), we see them struggle to define who they really are.

Kevin (Yuchen Wang), now living in Melbourne, is a “ghost-child,” who officially doesn’t exist. The second child born illegally during the one-child policy, he was hidden away in boarding school in Hong Kong. His elder sister, Huishan (Alice Qin) is ‘on the shelf’ at 31 and harassed by her mother Baohua (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin) to marry and have children.

Kevin stands calf-deep in a huge rectangular pool of water which covers half the stage. His mother and sister in Beijing are seen behind a curtain of strips covered in hand-written advertisements posted in Beijing parks by parents seeking marriage for their only daughters and sons. In Skype conversations filmed in real time and projected onto the curtain, Huishan begs Kevin to return to China to take part in their mother’s 60th birthday celebrations. Meanwhile Kevin directs a student play in which masked performers wade through the water with gifts for a Little Emperor doll’s birthday. As his frustration mounts at their incompetence, the actors one by one mutiny. Dressed in the Emperor’s traditional yellow robes, he is left to perform his unsanctioned tale of the one-child to an audience comprising his mother and sister.

Yuchen Wang, Little Emperors, Asia TOPA

Yuchen Wang, Little Emperors, Asia TOPA

Yuchen Wang, Little Emperors, Asia TOPA

The play switches fluidly between English and Mandarin and between on-screen and live action. Angry outbursts propel Huishan or her mother through the curtain in an attempt to reach the increasingly cagey Kevin.

The text is smattered with absurdist touches of a world Baohua no longer understands: an online post of a cat goes viral; a whale in Huishan’s office is “good for business.” Onscreen, Huishan struggles to zip her mother into her party dress, using gaffer tape, safety pins and finally a hammer. Baohua brushes her daughter’s hair with increasing violence. Wang Chong uses many comic gestures to signal underlying tensions.

He directs wonderfully executed actions in the pool: tiny children’s chairs become stepping stones placed by performers to negotiate a difficult conversation. Kevin and his gay lover splash each other in a simulation of foreplay. Wading through the water in her party dress, Baohua escapes her 60th to deliver a desperate tirade on her humiliation in front of her sisters. It climaxes in a spectacular face plant into the water.

Little Emperor slides into Chinese soap opera by upping the stakes way too high. Does Baohua really need a terminal illness to make her case for progeny and does Kevin really need to be gay to show how unlikely he is to provide it? It is however a remarkable collaboration of writer, director and audiovisual designer with a skilled locally-based Chinese-Australian cast.

Asia TOPA, Malthouse: Little Emperors, writer Lachlan Philpott, director Wang Chong, dramaturgy Mark Pritchard, design Romanie Harper, lighting design, AV consultant Emma Valente, performers Diana (Xiaojie) Lin, Liam Maguire, Alice Qin, Yuchen Wang; Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, 9-26 Feb

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017

© Sally Sussman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

8 March 2017