Little Emperors

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Little Emperors
Photograph: Tim Grey
Diana (Xiaojie) Lin

Award-winning Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott teams up with avant garde Beijing director Wang Chong to tell a story about China's pampered only-children

The facts alone are fascinating: China’s one-child policy was implemented in 1979 and only began to be phased out in 2015, resulting in millions of single-child families, countless abortions and cases of infanticide, and the rise of the coddled and indulged generation known as ‘little emperors’. But facts can only take us so far; to get inside the experience of these families you need dedicated and brave performers, an intelligent director and a hell of a playwright. Thankfully, Malthouse Theatre’s new production, part of the Asia TOPA festival, has all three. It’s a brilliantly staged and poignant insight into the effects of the state on the individual, and on the ways social policy can brutalise the family unit.

Playwright Lachlan Philpott, in collaboration with director Wang Chong, has fashioned a deceptively prosaic and telescoped narrative from the raw data of experience he collated from a trip to China and from workshops with Sydney’s Cathay Theatre. The play deals with a single family as they attempt to negotiate the troubled waters of their shared history, one that includes a hidden second child, forced separation, and deep wells of regret and shame. The initial tone is almost flippant and conversational, and for a while the choppy, fractured structure seems alienating. But engagement creeps up on you, and eventually the piece packs a powerful emotional wallop.

The unnamed mother (Diana (Xiaojie) Lin) and daughter (Alice Qin) live in Beijing, intermittently communicating with son Kevin (Yuchen Wang) via Skype. Kevin lives in Melbourne, and is directing a play called ‘Little Emperors’, although his belligerent management style is putting his actors off. This meta-theatrical device feels almost superfluous at first – especially the discursive sexual dalliance with the sound guy (Liam Maguire) – but it has such a direct and satisfying payoff late in the piece that it ultimately justifies itself.

So too the ingenious set design by Romanie Harper. The stage is made up of a large shallow pool which the female actors traverse by moving miniature chairs around, as if unwilling to delve into the murky waters of the past. Kevin has no such qualms, but does tend to petulantly splash water around when he doesn’t get his way. Eventually the characters will submerge themselves willingly, as if in search of purification or absolution. Emma Valente’s dynamic lighting plays off the water’s surface beautifully, and the audiovisual effects are witty and relevant. It is easily one of the most technically dazzling productions the Beckett theatre has seen.

The performances, like the piece itself, grow in stature and efficacy as they progress. Qin is lovely as the sister burdened by past actions, and Wang is particularly strong as the narrative moves into the polemical but heartfelt play-within-the-play. Lin is magnificent as the mother, struggling with her own mortality, oscillating wildly from nag to confidante; she seems to embody the dilemma that parents of the one-child policy had to face, namely to love just enough. Her monologue describing the forced abandonment of her child is devastating.

Philpott is without doubt one of Australia’s most talented playwrights, as anyone lucky enough to see The Trouble with Harry as part of the 2014 Melbourne festival can attest. This collaboration with Chong, himself an immensely sensitive and supple theatre maker, is tentative at times but eventually rich and highly satisfying. The subject matter is as complex and expansive as the country that bore it, but in concentrating on a single family – pointedly leaving the father offstage – the creative team have managed to distill and sharpen the emotional impact. The perfidious and crippling effects of this massive social experiment are only beginning to reveal themselves, and art like this has a powerful role to play in the healing process.

By: Tim Byrne

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