In the early 20th century, London was developing as a global cultural mecca as international influences, particularly from eastern Asia, were growing in popularity for audiences of poetry, literature, and theatre. From amongst this atmosphere came Lady Precious Stream by SI Hsiung, a play “in the style of traditional Chinese theatre” and based on Chinese folklore. But despite its hit status in 1930s London, the classic has since fallen into obscurity.
Before the play had started, a slideshow above the stage displayed a dozen photos from previous productions of Lady Precious Stream throughout the 20th century including the program from the last known performance in Australia in 1961. Seeing cast after cast of white actors done up in traditional Chinese clothing and makeup, proudly posing with their fans and swords, was an immediate introduction to the overlapping cultures involved in this production, considering the play’s origins as an English script written by a Chinese immigrant in London now recontextualised for a contemporary Australian audience by Asian Australian artists. Director Tiffany Wong, influenced by Hsiung’s interest in Shakespeare, reimagined the classic original text by injecting elements of Peking Opera and jazz and re-setting the action with 1930s Western costuming. The fusion of influences and cultures worked to generate a globalised atmosphere that centred no particular nation without diluting the impact of each chosen influence. There was an air of deliberate consideration and curation to the reimagining which was a refreshing approach to making contemporary a classic text with complex cultural origins.
It was clear to see Hsiung’s Shakespearian influence even in the condensed new script but, while Hsiung himself compared the work to Hamlet, the plot resonated with other works like King Lear or even the Odyssey, which both consider family, loyalty, love, and wealth. Prime Minister Wang Yun (Tim Lim) has three daughters with his wife Madame Wang (Chloe Ho), Golden Stream (Steve Lu), Silver Stream (Mym Kwa), and Precious Stream (Susan Ling Young). While Golden Stream and Silver Stream are happily married to honoured generals Su (Kwa) and Wei (Lu), Precious Stream has yet to accept one of her father’s chosen suitors. As such they make a deal that on her birthday she will throw an embroidered ball into a crowd of suitors and marry whichever one the ball hits. What her father doesn’t know is that Precious Stream has conspired with the poor gardener Hsieh Ping-Kuei (Enoch Li) that he will catch the ball and marry her. It’s a favourite love story plot where love prevails over all including status, wealth, and one’s own family.
A video appearance of a prim British intellectual (Zoë Crawford) introduced the play and the somewhat unusual approach to the simple set design by Rachel Hui with six chairs, a stool, and wracks of clothing for quick character changes. Other design elements were more striking like the vibrant blushing makeup by Bonnie Huang on each performer or the use of live music with Jolin Jiang adding tones of the guqin just off-stage. Equally interesting was the introduced influence of Peking Opera with elaborate displays of acrobatics, martial arts, and dance when each of the characters was introduced and in moments of physical displays of strength or combat. This physicality added much-appreciated texture to the dry and often stilted tone of the script with its heightened, old-fashioned English. Wong, from the design to the structure, melded together disparate or unusual elements for a varied and unpredictable production of a rather straight-forward plot.
The performances of the ensemble alternated between sweet and hammy, in-keeping with the fable quality of the story. Lim’s Wang was stern and strict but Lim was able to show-off his comic side as a wily elderly suitor which drew great laughs. Ho and Ling Young were reserved in their performances but that didn’t bely their strong wills and particularly Precious Stream’s quick, witty mind, which made the match between the soft poet-gardener Ping-Kuei and Precious Stream an easy one to root for. Combined with Jiang’s cameo as Precious Stream’s maid, the three women portrayed the traditional image of the strong, quiet woman archetype well. On the other hand, the humour of this old school rom-com was carried by Kwa and Lu who played both the sisters and their opposite husbands as a clever and confusing gender-bending duo. Lu was at times the understanding and supportive Golden Stream, at others the proud and domineering General Wei, whereas Kwa balanced the sneering Silver Stream against the solid and graceful General Su. The use of fans and repeated gestures served to mark the swap between characters and the task was impressively handled between the two performers.
There is a lot of history bearing down on Lady Precious Stream as a cultural artefact and theatrical text. While, at times, the condensed script of this production seemed to struggle under that weight, this new work from Slanted Theatre opens up an exciting and playful realm of historical, cultural, and theatrical exploration on Australian stages.
Lady Precious Stream ran at the Flying Nun from April 1st – 2nd
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