Arcola Theatre, London – until 17 November 2018
Old Six and his wife Second Moon are poor but have a new baby. Eunich Lin is constantly ridiculed for his lack of balls and family’s poor timing. Big Dog doesn’t know his real name and loves smoking a bit too much. Apart from the love of performing Chinese opera to their friends and families, there’s little else that brings joy to this rural village in Shandong Province. But when the villagers hear that the British and French are recruiting men to work in labour camps to support the WWI troops, this could be a way to change their fortunes.
Of course, the actual experience of war is transformative and far from what they expect. Daniel York Loh’s script spans years of atrocious conditions, imperialism, racism and trauma that were unthinkable in their pre-war lives. It’s also an effective tribute to the 140,000 Chinese recruited to the allied labour corps. Brimming with care, it draws attention to white westerners’ stereotypes of Chinese people and the irrevocable influence of colonialism.
But York Loh packs so many people and places into the story that there isn’t enough time to investigate them all in detail. The ending looks at the impact of the war on the lives of Chinese people in the West, but it also hones in on the central characters’ experience of the end of the war.
Second Moon’s subplot becomes more of a footnote, and the village where these people had spent their entire lives is never revisited. There’s scope for extending the story into a three-hour long epic, but at its current length it leaves out a lot. Though there is certainly merit in considering the play as a broader look at a group of people rarely remembered in wartime histories, there’s just enough teasing with individual stories to make the wide-angle view frustrating.
The performances are universally strong, especially considering they switch between the heightened, archaic language and vocal use of Chinese opera to naturalistic scenes. Though the use of the opera isn’t fully embedded into the central narrative, it’s an unusual framing device that further highlights the differences between East and West.
This is a considered story serving an important function on the British stage, but the scope of this history is too big for the current length and structure. However, the heart and intention underlying the production is unarguably genuine and it’s a tale that needs telling.