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His Mother’s Voice


Photo by Tessa Tran

ATYP Selects Season presents HIS MOTHER’S VOICE by Justin Fleming in a world premiere production produced by John Harrison, and presented by bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, at atyp at the Wharf 4, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay.

A new Australian play having its world premiere down at the Wharf Theatre is being presented by an Independent Company, bAKEHOUSE, in association with the ATYP Selects Season (previously known as Under the Wharf): HIS MOTHER’S VOICE, by veteran Australian playwright, Justin Fleming.

The pleasure of seeing a company of 12 actors on stage, almost continually, was a bonus, but that 10 of the 12 actors were of Asian descent was even more exciting. Following on from my experience down in the ATYP Theatre, in the last week or so, when I attended a performance from the Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) that featured actors and stories from the multi-cultural “Capital” of Sydney, Fairfield, in their production IN THIS FAIRFIELD, something seems to be ‘a happening’ in the thinking of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the stories that are being selected and told on our stages, at least down here underneath the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), by the ATYP artistic leaders.

HIS MOTHER’S VOICE tells the story of a mother, Yang Jia (Renee Lim) and her son, Qian Liu (Harry Tseng), and her need to pass on the gift of music to that son (in this instance, western classical piano music). The play is a familiar narrative – I recalled FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE (1993), and one wag likened it to a version of Li Cunxin’s MAO’S LAST DANCER (2003), about a piano player, instead of a ballet dancer – and it is true that it takes place, mainly, in the period of the Cultural Revolution with all of its cruelties and abhorrences, and is, likewise, based on the inspiration of a true story, concerning, in this case, a winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition in the mid 1980’s (so Mr Fleming tells us). Mr Fleming has researched, meticulously, into the Chinese culture, and finds ‘wisdoms’ and social customs of that culture to tantalisingly reveal, meshing them against and with the pragmatic interactions of an Australian Foreign Affairs operative, Alex Felden (Michael Gooley), and his daughter, Emma Felden (Dannielle Jackson) during those delicate political times (when are political times not delicate?) Mr Fleming’s writing strikes the chords of relative comfortability in its formulation and I was reminded of the ‘safety’ virtues of an English playwright/screen writer, Ronald Harwood with plays (also films) like TAKING SIDES (1995), QUARTET (1999), or a film such as THE PIANIST (2002) – they have the virtue of being what some call, ‘well-made’. HIS MOTHER’S VOICE is strong in its narrative, but the characters are principally, functionary to that, and do not have either in the writing, or, in this case, in the acting, much sophisticated sub-text. This latter observation may be a point of direction, of course.

Ms Millar takes hold of the text and utilises her actors in efficient and fluid staging. Both, the simple design of the space for the many locations of the story telling (Set Design by Suzanne Millar and John Harrison) and the costume needs (Sonia McAlpine) are well thought-through and enhanced with the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Page. All the actors play the thrust of their functionary needs with great commitment, if with not much insight to psychological complication: Harry Tseng, John Gomez Goodway, Monica Sayers, Dannielle Jackson make clear impact, whilst Renee Lee, as the titled character, the Mother, despite her relative neglect both in the writing and staging towards the latter end of the play, gives a most pleasing performance.

The Director of this production, Suzanne Millar, writes in her program notes:

Theatre in Sydney is predominantly white, often middle class and sometimes conservative. we at bAKEHOUSE had the incredible opportunity of producing a work that looked and sounded different. This play is written with the possibility of doubles, a smart move by the writer with an eye on the economies of theatre companies, both large and small. But in the auditions we met this great big group of outstanding actors, both established and emerging. And we decided to cast as many actors as we could.
We have ended up with a cast of 12 actors, ten from Asian backgrounds. And we wanted to say to audiences that this is not unusual. That all over Sydney there are actors with diverse and interesting heritages, all accomplished, all committed and professional, and keen to work. … We can say: this is here. This is Australia. Sydney. This is not a Chinese Story. Or a music story. Or a story of the Cultural Revolution, or Mao or communist China. It is an Australian story. This is us.’

That bAKEHOUSE has embraced this policy of cast inclusion is of great importance to the ‘landscape’ of our theatre scene. That they have staged this work by Mr Fleming is, also, important – a tireless playwright in a bleak world of opportunity for Australian writers, even one as well credentialed as he. A NIGHT IN RANGOON by Katie Pollock, produced by the New Theatre in 2011, was a production filled, principally, with an Asian Company and besides the Chinese theatre, Cathay Playhouse (DE LING AND THE EMPRESS CI LI; PALACE OF DESIRE) one rarely finds the Asian actor at work, in central positions, in the theatre, to be seen and appreciated. Why not a production of Louis Nowra’s PRECIOUS WOMAN –  with an Asian Company of actors? – an undervalued play, I reckon.

I enjoyed the evening on many levels and was invested in the story, familiar as it felt, told by all, led by Mr Fleming. One can only hope that sooner rather than later the Australian/Asian playwrights will be seen and heard to tell us the contemporary stories of their lives in and around us. The Australian writer/director, Tony Ayres – of an Australian/Chinese inheritance – has made a huge contribution to the Australian culture in many areas -film, television, theatre – and, who will ever forget the story and impact of his film THE HOME SONG STORIES (2007). William Yang, too. has found a way to be seen, and an audience, through persistence, patience and much resilience – and, of course artistic sensibilities and integrities.

These artists are not alone out there, and we need to find the way to bring all our multi-cultures stories to the fore.( (Closes May the 17th.)