Multi-faceted look at Madam Mao

REVIEW / THEATRE

REVOLUTIONARY MODEL PLAY 2.0

Theatre du Reve Experimental, Zhao Binghao/Lasalle College Of TheArts

The Singapore Airlines Theatre, Lasalle College Of The Arts/ Wednesday

Revolutionary model plays, or yangbanxi, are operas used to glorify the Communists during the Cultural Revolution in China. These propaganda plays were overseen by Jiang Qing, the wife of Chinese paramount leader Mao Zedong and a former actress.

These works are the inspiration behind this collaboration by Lasalle acting students, director Wang Chong of China's avant-garde Theatre du Reve Experimental and New York-based Chinese playwright Zhao Binghao.

The story follows a writer Yu Zhongkai (Raphael Lecat), who is trying to write a play about Jiang with the help of American biographer Roxane Witke (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai).

  • BOOK IT / REVOLUTIONARY MODEL PLAY 2.0

  • WHERE: Singapore Airlines Theatre, Lasalle College of the Arts

    WHEN: Today, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $25 to $45 (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Go to sifa.sg

Commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, this self-reflexive play has largely succeeded in challenging the boundaries of expected forms and conventions.

While genre-defying, those looking for a portrait of Madam Mao will also be disappointed as the production presents fragmented views about her and tackles too many themes, such as whether the masses or the leaders should be held accountable for the bloodshed in a revolution.

As befitting a 2.0 version of a yangbanxi, a screen with multiple panels showing perspectives from four cameras was a feature of this multi-layered play.

At the beginning of the play, a montage of classic yangbanxi scenes also played.

Actors often addressed the cameras, blurring the lines between stage and screen performances.

It might be a play about Chinese history, but it was performed mainly in English, with characters using another tongue such as Korean, Tamil or French, to express their more private thoughts.

Jiang Qing, vilified for fanning the flames of the Cultural Revolution, a period of social tumult from 1966 to 1976 when young people were encouraged to rebel against traditional culture, is portrayed by Lasalle student Kathy Han as a young punk in Red Guard costume not shy about rubbing out eye goop or brushing her teeth publicly.

When put on trial after Mao's death in 1976, she had famously said that she was Mao's dog and would bark when he wanted her to bark.

Here, this piquant soliloquy is delivered in Korean, which reminds one of North Korea where traitors are apparently fed to the dogs.

The use of different languages and ethnic costumes is meant to highlight the universality of the play, but it does not always work.

Having a character who wears the tudung, or Muslim headscarf, seems rather random for instance.

The use of many languages also means that one often had to read subtitles on either side of the stage, while keeping an eye on what is on the screen and stage.

The unclear enunciation of some words by one or two in the cast also made one look towards the subtitles more than necessary.

There were some nice touches, though. For instance, characters farcically "announced" their deaths by showing audiences the bag of fake blood in their hands before smashing it against the stage.

The play ended with a flourish, with an energetic scene depicting the manic tearing and shredding of a giant newspaper.

Overall, it is an enjoyable piece of theatre clocking in at about one hour and 40 minutes.

However, despite having multiple characters talking about Jiang Qing and multiple points of view about her role in history, Madam Mao remains an enigma in this ambitious play, which strove to be universal but did not ultimately delve deep enough into its main character.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Multi-faceted look at Madam Mao'. Print Edition | Subscribe