AJ Yi's new play is a political firecracker with a big heart and even bigger reach.

By: Jun. 30, 2023
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Review: A PLAYLIST FOR THE REVOLUTION, Bush Theatre The summer season of the Bush opens with a politically charged show about the delicate, complex connection between Jonathan, who lives in Hong Kong, and Chloe, an ambitious second-generation Hongkonger in England. Their long-distance relationship works through music recommendations and sweet messages, but, when dissent explodes in their motherland, they get caught up in the fight for a brighter future for the country. AJ Yi writes a sensitive, romantic look into social and political engagement from the perspective of two hopeful youngsters from wildly different backgrounds.

A Playlist for the Revolution is a play of immense power and reach. Yi weaves so many themes into a flawlessly executed and nuanced piece of theatre. Identity, belonging, the role of protests in modern society, their risks. The civil unrest that led to the 2019 riots in Hong Kong, immigrational isolation, British colonisation, the legacy of historical resistance, racism, and family. Directed by Emily Ling Williams, it’s a sharp, essential work of art.

The six-hander is ready to welcome a new crop of patrons with open arms. The soundscape (by Jamie Ye and Nicola T. Chang, designer and composer respectively) is an integral part of the show. From classical music to Ghibli theme tunes via a splendid pop collection that includes Hayley Kiyoko, BTS, and Rina Sawayama, it enthrals while delivering a taut, critically informed, invigorating view of the implications of demonstrative action. It’s also a perfect rendering of what it means to grow up as a second-generation immigrant compared to a native.

Chloe and Jonathan are introduced at a wedding in Hong Kong. At 19, this is her first big solo journey, a quest to find her roots and become independent. An opinionated, stylish, and quirky young woman who’d be described with adjectives like woke and liberal in certain circles, she is juxtaposed - visually but culturally too - to Jonathan’s practical seriousness and pragmatic rationality. “You’re so Asian,” she says, looking at his clothes and timid interests with her sizable opinions and trendy outfits.

They share an innocent night in the city, prowling it in search of grassroots fun before she goes back to England. It’s the only chance to be together for a very long time, and the last time they meet as they are. Everything changes when Jonathan stumbles into Mr Chu, a janitor at his school. Mr Chu has been on the streets protesting for much of his life and still wishes for a better tomorrow. He looks down at Jonathan’s prim disengagement.

While the couple bond through a shared playlist, heat rises in the streets of Hong Kong. Their lives become drastically different. Yi writes a text imbued with urgency. Rousing speeches about governmental repression and police brutality take over from the cutesy rom-com vibes of the start, revealing the piece as the fervently political play it really is. Ling Williams drives a creative, inventive direction that isn’t constrained by the often indirect communication between the pair. Liam Lau-Fernandez and Mei Mei Macleod share a sparkling chemistry. As they grow closer removed by whole continents, their conversation moves online.

They never touch a phone to speak, with Ling Williams opting to arrange the chats frontally on a thrust stage. They mimic emojis and dance together separately to the same songs, joyfully commenting and playfully judging each other’s taste. Eye contact becomes a luxury, signifying the turning points that irreversibly change the characters’ trajectories.

Lau-Fernandez and Macleod give astonishing, emotive performances supported and lifted by Zak Shukor as Jonathan’s unlikely mentor and father figure. He is justly severe and uncompromising in his opinions of a government that’s failing its citizens. Shukor brings a sombre presence, giving passionate harangues on administrative cruelty and suspicious deaths, which are later echoed by Jonathan himself.

Projections shower Liam Bunster’s set, a square platform enclosed by brick-like elements of varied shapes that deliver significant objects or turn into props themselves. The video design adds a vibrant dynamism to the visuals, accompanying the actors during the transitions until designer Gillian Tan gives the audience a final reality check. She covers the back wall with footage from the real demonstrations, showing the millions who marched as described by Mr Chu. It’s an urgent, vital production that deserves to be seen far and wide. It’s precisely what young political theatre should be. 

A Playlist for the Revolution runs at the Bush Theatre until 5 August.

Photo credit: Craig Fuller


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