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The Sun is Not for Us
Published on Thursday, 09 August 2012
2

2 stars

theSpace on North Bridge (venue website)
Theatre
3-4, 6-7, 10-11 Aug, 4:10pm-5:10pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 14+ only.
 Free and unticketed. No pre-booking required.

Presented to a Western audience, Chinese theatre can often seem (if you’ll forgive the stereotype) inscrutable.  Without doubt then, The Sun Is Not For Us is a courageous project, combining four pieces by renowned Chinese dramatist Cao Yu into a single performance tuned for British ears.  Focussing on the plight of oppressed women in the early 20th century, the play aims for stripped-down sophistication – but takes on too much, too quickly, and with too big a mish-mash of styles.

Sad to say, I found the production an uneasy compromise – neither retaining the exotic mystique of China, nor fully committing to moving the action West.  The characters have British accents, but they call each other by Chinese names.  They carry paper lanterns and flick pretty Oriental fans, yet the clothes (for the men at least) are straight out of Gap.  What’s more, I found myself oddly disturbed that I couldn’t pin the play to any particular historical time.  The aim may be to highlight the universality of the play’s themes, but in that case I have to question the early emphasis on foot-binding – which places us very firmly, and very stereotypically, in China.

Still, the subject-matter is universal.  Each of the four central stories could be told in Edwardian Britain; there’s an undercurrent of waste, of female potential destroyed at the hands of unintentionally cruel men.  An interesting counterpoint is offered by Pai-Lu, the independent woman who’s kept control of her own destiny, and seems to know how to turn her gender to advantage.  But her success has come at a price – and only time will tell if her personal story ends well.

The interleaving of the four separate stories confused me a little, though it became much clearer once I’d grasped the fact that some of the actors play multiple roles.  Still, I found myself wondering whether four was too many; except perhaps for Pai-Lu, none of the women got enough stage time to explore their own thoughts or motivations.  Meanwhile, a couple of plot developments are so rushed as to be almost inexplicable: at one point a character announces that he’s lost his money and his influence, but I’m still not sure what had happened to him, or why.

I have similar reservations about the play’s many stylistic flourishes, few of which felt developed to their full potential.  I loved the clever use of silhouette, reminiscent of the scene behind a rice-paper window, but it wasn’t deployed consistently or frequently enough to become a lasting motif.  An ensemble song from the surprisingly large cast could have been a highlight, but a single musical number in the middle of a spoken piece was more jarring than beautiful.  And the movement pieces, I thought, felt a little like a box-tick, not contributing quite enough to justify their inclusion.

The young cast do well in some tricky roles, with particular mention due to Eleanor Bredin as Pai-Lu and Jack Harrison as the rakish Ping.  Overall though, The Sun Is Not For Us struggles to hit a consistent tone, and skims too lightly over its characters’ travails.  It’s a bold and admirable experiment… but experiments, sadly, don’t always go to plan.

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