BWW Review: OZASIA FESTIVAL 2019: THE VILLAGE at Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

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BWW Review: OZASIA FESTIVAL 2019: THE VILLAGE at Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival CentreReviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 25th October 2019.

A three and a half-hour long epic performance, The Village, from American born director and playwright, Stan Lai and Performance Workshop, in collaboration with Wang Wei-Chung, who provided the true stories on which this work is based, introduces the audience to three Taiwanese families, and tells of their lives over a period of over fifty years. The production has been staged over 200 times worldwide since its premiere in 2008.

In the later part of the 1940s, Chinese Nationalist Party soldiers were defeated by Communist troops, gathered their families, and escaped to set up 'military dependents' villages' in Taiwan, officially known as The Republic of China. They anticipated that this would be a temporary move and that they would soon return to mainland China and drive out Communism. It never happened and, seventy years on, the Communist Chinese government is still trying to claim Taiwan as part of its property, and wants to bring these free Chinese under their control, as they are also now trying to do in Hong Kong.

On their arrival in Taiwan, formerly known as Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) under the Portuguese, the people are lined up, each waiting to be assigned a small hut in Formosa Village #1. As names are called, any that go unanswered brings forth desperate families claiming to be the absent person. In unit 99, we have one of these families. An officer, a pilot who, for reasons of his own, chooses not to go to the officers' village, accepts unit 98. Another man and his new, pregnant wife, set up camp between the two units. These are the three families whose lives, hopes, and dreams we will follow over the years.

Initially, everybody assumes that, in a very short time, their leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, will plan a counterattack, marshal his forces, and retake mainland China. Even the most optimistic would have been shattered by his death on 5th April 1975.

The first act shows them setting up home, establishing a community, and looking forward to returning home. The second act jumps forward to the late 1960s, when their children are growing up and looking to their own futures. After the interval, we see those children growing up, leaving home, even Taiwan, making their own way in life, and having children of their own. Taiwan was placed under martial law in 1949, coincidentally, the same year that the Berlin Wall was erected, and it was not lifted until 1987, when democracy began. This oppressive time, too, is illustrated.

Although Mandarin is now the predominant language, Cantonese is still widely spoken. There are also a great many dialects spoken throughout China. The Japanese, of course, had occupied the island for half a century before their defeat in WWII. This is reflected in the production as these people from all over the mainland are brought together in the village, and the residents try to overcome the occasional language communication difficulties.

The three homes are not the only location in the play. A tree is the regular meeting place of a group of the men, discussing the war, politics, and exchanging gossip, rumours, and nonsense, a source of much of the humour in this work, and a bomb shelter becomes the meeting place of the young people and secret lovers.

A large cast, in period costumes, perform on a set of skeletal outlines of the huts, making the action visible with any orientation of the mobile and well-lit structure. Scenic Designer, Austin Wang, Lighting Designer, Michael Lizen Chien, and Costume Designers, Gyokurei Suzuka and Christine Suzuka, have crafted a visually captivating production.

The actors work as an ensemble but each has a well-developed character, bringing out a diverse range of stories and anecdotes, gradually building up a rich picture of the complex times in a temporary village in an unfamiliar land that slowly turns to a permanent home.

This is a remarkable production, covering many decades and such a huge wealth of history, as seen through the eyes of those who lived it, and all brought to life by a sensational cast who are clearly passionate about their subject.

The work nears its conclusion with the villagers finally being able to travel back to the mainland again to meet with the relatives they had left behind, and it ends with the remaining village residents and their families coming together for a celebration to mark the closure and dismantling of the village.

Anybody who has uprooted their family and moved far away from what had been their home and everybody whom they knew, Australia is home, of course, to a great many migrant and refugee families and their descendants, will be able to relate in some way to this. The villagers long for their old homes, and they miss so many of the little things related to the past, a particular type of vinegar is mentioned, such small items bringing back great memories. Family traditions, such as passing on a family recipe for meat-filled steamed buns, are carefully maintained. They cling, as long as possible, to a past that will never again become the present.

There is humour, many lighter and tenderer moments, sadness, anguish, anger, frustration, acceptance, and many poignant moments within this enlightening and very moving production.

The one big drawback, sadly, was that the English subtitles were, at best, haphazard; sometimes early, sometimes late, sometimes gone before they could be read, sometimes on display long after the line had been spoken, along with several others lines, then rushing through a few slides to catch up and, following the interval, they were not shown at all for the entire first scene. This demanded such attention and concentration that it was almost impossible to do more than glance at the stage from time to time to see what was happening and try to work out who was speaking as, with voices amplified, there was no spatial separation to help direct the eyes to the source of each voice. With the screens off to either side of the stage, this also meant more eye movement than a single screen above the action would have entailed. It is a shame that such a wonderful performance should have been marred for so many of the audience by such an avoidable technical inadequacy. It is to be hoped that the second performance, on Saturday night, corrects this.

Oh, yes, and thanks for all the buns.

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From This Author Barry Lenny