Thursday 16 February 2017

Little Emperors review

In was in 1979 when - in order to control its population - China implemented a One Child Policy per family. While there were a number of ways that families could still have a second child, there were strict rules and regulations that had to be adhered to. In a society were males were more favourable, this law resulted in the murders of many female babies or families having to keep the existence of a second child a secret. In 2016, the Chinese government formally ended its One Child Policy.

Presented as part of Asia TOPA, Lachlan Philpott's Little Emperors is a look at one such family - while being representative of many - and the impact this law had on their lives and continues to do so. Alice Qin - making her Australian stage debut - is the standout as Huishan, who is in her 30s, single and still living with her mother in Beijing. Qin finds a delicate balance of guilt, frustration and resentment at the pressure of being the eldest child and the expectations placed upon her: that she marry and produce a grandchild for her mother, played by Diana (Xiaojie) Lin.

Lin's skilful depiction of the mother has her showing her true feelings and emotions in nuanced ways. Her facial expressions and body language paint a clear portrait of a woman who has endured a lot more than she can ever tell her children. The heartbreak she has experienced over the last thirty years is felt throughout Lin's performance. Similarly, Yuchen Wang as Huishan's younger, gay brother Kevin - the ghost child - who has been living in Melbourne for a number of years is able to find the anger and the inner conflict he feels at being displaced from his birth country in an honest and sympathetic way.

Philpott's exploration of the effect this policy had on these three individuals is sensitive but raw, and includes some unexpected heart-wrenching moments being performed. Swapping between scenes being spoken in English and Mandarin allows for a deeper level of authenticity from both the actors and the story. The Australian writer has teamed up with Chinese director Wang Chong, himself a product of the one-child policy. Chong's use of the space and the way in which the characters interact with each other reveals the overpowering influence this "social experiment" has had on their lives.

The stage is literally a pool of water in Little Emperors, as the actors perform in just over ankle-deep water. Romanie Harper's set design brings to mind various symbolic meanings including the drowning of many young girls, the tears shed from the unthinkable choices families had to make, and the ocean of water between brother and sister and mother and son. Emma Valente's lighting design and James Paul's sound design expertly support the changing tones of the show from comedy and light-heartedness to the more emotional scenes that play out.

We may only be in February, but Little Emperors is one of those shows where everything really does come together flawlessly, and is a performance that will definitely remain in my highlights of theatre in 2017.

Venue: Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank 
Season: Until 26 February | Tues 7pm, Wed - Sat 8pm, Sat 3:30pm, Sun 6pm
Tickets: $69 Full | $49 Conc
 | $35 Under 30s & Students 
Bookings: Malthouse Theatre

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