By Renee Liang
Directed by Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson
Auckland Chinese Lantern Festival 2014
Musgrove Studio, Auckland | February 10-15
It’s always invigorating to see people in a theatre who don’t usually go to the theatre. Far too often you see the usual suspects—especially in an industry that is as frankly isolated and thankfully supportive as Auckland’s is—but when you see people who are seeing their first play in ages or perhaps ever in an audience, you feel like you’re in for something new.
A play by Renee Liang, Lantern is something new. Or more appropriately, something old and something lived. I’ve seen some of the things that play out in Lanterns, in other media and in real life, but Liang’s script grounds what could be a storm of clichés in a keenly felt reality. It tells two stories. It tells the story of Jen and Ken, two New Zealand born Chinese children as they make their ways through the travails of being in your mid-twenties in a country. The other story it tells is the courtship, and eventual disintegration, of a marriage between a Chinese immigrant and his New Zealand-born Chinese wife. The latter couple are the parents of the former.
All the characters in this story are played by Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque. It’s no small feat for these young actors to play characters who are decades older than themselves, but to also switch to playing characters closer to their own with only a lighting change, and sometimes as the play progresses even less than that. The play rests lightly on their shoulders, allowing them build these characters throughout the seventy minute or so length and they have a chemistry that is very easy to watch. Huang’s Rose is a particular triumph—an indelible construction of reclaimed dignity and reclaimed life.
Directors Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson lend their own comic sensibilities to the play; there are definitely flashes of their previous work in this production, which give it another layer of personality. But ultimately it rests on Liang’s script, and the ambition of it, to carry this production successfully.
And the production is largely successful. The comic moments spark, the dramatic moments hit—especially the courtship of the married couple we already know is doomed to fizzle out—and although the play touches on a few situations we’ve seen too much, the ending leaves us with an affecting portrait of a family that is just like any other.
It seems immensely condescending to say that Lantern is just a play about a family that could be any other family. It’s also missing the point: Lantern is about a Chinese-New Zealand family having experiences that any family could have, but also having experiences that only a family from that background could have. What is unique, and important, about Liang’s play and Pretty Asian Theatre’s production of it, is that it’s telling a story that we know but haven’t seen.
Which is a tremendously powerful thing to be a part of; seeing people see themselves onstage, recognise their own lives and experiences, perhaps for the first time and hopefully not for the last time.