The cast of The Village.

Festivals, Stage

The Village review (OzAsia Fest, Adelaide)

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The 2019 OzAsia program has been notable for its significant returns. Artistic director Joseph Mitchell has said that while he is very energised by the new artists he has brought in, he is also committed, in his fifth year at the wheel, to bring back artists who have already made their mark with the OzAsia audience.

So we are seeing the return of the dancer/choreographer Akram Khan, another production from the enigmatic Japanese theatre maker Kuro Tanino and, represented last year with his major work Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, more from Chinese playwright and director Stan Lai.

The Village is his epic narrative of the cataclysmic political events of 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Red Army routed the Kuomintang forces of General Chiang Kai Shek and forced his defeated supporters to exile in Formosa, now known as Taiwan.

Over three hours, a crucial period in Chinese history is given very specific reality.

Spanning sixty years from the retreat from the Mainland to the first decade of the 21st century and the opening of the Chinese border for exiles to visit their former homeland, The Village is an unfurling story of cultural and economic displacement. In particular, the play examines its effect on three generations of the Zhao, Zhu and Zhou families who arrive in 1949 as air force servicemen and their dependents and live in the transit camp housing Village #1 in Chiayi, Taiwan.

The play opens at a refugee checkpoint where anxious lines of people await allocation to temporary housing. Some have no papers, others have deliberately obliterated their identities, all are traumatised by war, upheaval and the abrupt separation from the various parts of mainland China that have been home. All believe this is only temporary – Mao will soon be defeated! No one could imagine that the ramshackle Village #1 could be their address for fifty years.

Stan Lai’s play, written in collaboration with Wang Wei-Chung, draws on actual stories from the Villages. The comradeship of the air force pilots and crew is strongly established. There is consternation when the war hero Li Zikang goes missing, said to have defected to the Maoists. His shamed wife Leng Ruyun is taken in to the house of Zhou Ning, a melancholy solitary former comrade of her husband; eventually they have a son.

Next door to them is Zhu, a likeable opportunist who contrives to close in the space between two huts and make one for himself and his wife, an enterprising baker of Tianjin buns, using a recipe she learnt from an elderly neighbour. Zhu also manages to siphon electricity from the pole next to his hut, and sell it to others for profit.

The third main household is that of Zhou, a kindly, plain-spoken man who looks after the family and the neighbourhood. When an elderly “Auntie” dies, Zhou bargains with a carpenter, Huang, to make her a coffin for much less than the usual price. Huang honours his request and they become lifelong friends. When Zhao dies, his son asks Huang if he will now make a coffin for his beloved father.

The stories entwine over decades and generations. The children grow up away from their parents’ culture and traditions. With the US military presence, Taiwan has rock and roll, and teenage antics. Pop songs form a narrative refrain – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and hauntingly, the 1962 Skeeter Davis hit Don’t Say No it’s the End of the World. When one of the families gets a TV set, they all gather around to watch one of the Village kids enter a music quiz show- with a wretched lack of success.

Stan Lai has created a sprawling wordy saga, a sometimes-formulaic mix of laughter and tears, but compelling and poignant nonetheless. Designer Austin Wang’s set (sympathetically lit by Lizen Michael Chien) consists of the framework of the three huts through which the characters constantly flow – in lives without privacy or solitude. In this endless commonality, inner turmoil is the more harrowing.

In Act Three, the set recedes as the destinies of the younger generation take them to the US and Taipei, to good fortune and academic advancement, or to a GI Club as an escort, covertly earning money to support the family. For some of the original Village group there is the chance, after 1987, to return to China and see lost family, separated spouses and the graves of dead comrades. There is anger and regret and, when some return as if from the dead, the tragedy that a reunion is now too late.

The cast of 21 actors present dozens of characters, but some performances are especially memorable. As Zhao, Chu Chung-Heng is a steady presence and his long-lost letter to his infant son is a dramatic highlight. Teng Chen Huei, as his withdrawn, dementing wife, blossoms when she hears a gramophone recording from her distant past. Feng Yi-Kang is vivid as Mr Zhu, selling electricity straight from the pole and Fan Jui-Chun as his wife, selling buns to happy customers, is also a vibrant presence.

As Zhou Ning, Sung Shao-Ching captures the dilemma of a gay man unable to reveal until near the end of his life that his heart stopped when his pilot friend died in 1949. And Hsiao Ai is also excellent as his “wife” – the abandoned Leng Ruyun, forced into servitude when her husband disappears and is then declared a traitor.

Over three hours, a crucial period in Chinese history is given very specific reality. These hidden stories have proven a revelation to Chinese audiences over hundreds of performances and it is a privilege and a rare opportunity for OzAsia audiences to witness this major work of contemporary Chinese theatre.

The Village played the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, October 25-26.

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