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‘MAKE WHAT YOU LIKE OF IT’ MODE MAKES FOR DISPASSIONATE OBSERVATION

Print Version

NZ Fringe Festival 2013
Madam X and Mister Q
adapted from the novel Five Spice Street by Can Xue
and directed by Megan Evans
presented by Hard Sleeper Theatre Company

at Studio 77, VUW, Wellington
From 21 Feb 2013 to 2 Mar 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 22 Feb 2013


This adaptation of Chinese writer Can Xue's avante garde novel Five Spice Street, presented by the Hard Sleeper Theatre Company, is an unusual contribution to the Fringe – and heaven forefend that the Fringe should ever establish a predictable ‘normality'.

Clearly it is a good practical exercise for students who have studied Asian performance production at Victoria University with Dr Megan Evans, who adapted the novel and has directed the resulting play: Madam X and Mister Q. Anyone interested in contemporary Chinese performance conventions per se will also find it interesting.

For the less initiated (like me), the arrival of the exotic and mysterious Madam X and her husband in isolated Five Spice Street, and the small community's reactions to her, throw up universal and timeless themes: the known v the unknown; puritanism v debauchery; paranoid fantasy v prosaic reality …

Some sense of the source material may be gained from the novel's 17 chapter headings: Madam X's Age and Mr. Q's Looks; Madam X's Occupations; Madam X's and the Widow's Differing Opinions about ‘‘Sex''; Mr. Q and His Family; The Failure of Re-education; Madam X Talks Abstractly of Her Experiences with Men; A Few Opinions about the Story's Beginning; Some Implications; The Tails' Confessions; Mr. Q's Character; Madam X is Up a Creek; Who Made the First Move?; How to Wrap Up All the Issues Left Hanging; The Rationality of the Widow's Historical Contribution and Status; The Vague Positions of Mr. Q and Madam X's Husband; How We Reversed the Negative and Elected Madam X Our Representative; Madam X's Steps Are Buoyant; On Broad Five Spice Street, She Walks toward Tomorrow.

My guess is that a Chinese readership, or audience, would detect a strong thread of political satire beneath the social critique but that dimension dissipates when played to an audience unfamiliar with day-to-day life in a radically changing China. What prevails, then, is an evocation of inter-personal petty politics.

“Who is Madam X?” Dr Evans' programme note asks, “A scapegoat? An addict? An object of revisionist histories? A symbol of thwarted individual expressionism? A allegory for China's place in 21st century international relations? Your own interpretation? … Yes, no, maybe.” She reveals that in rehearsal they “became particularly intrigued by a kind on baseline terror, perhaps induced by the moral universe turning repeatedly upside down, as it has over the past decades in Mainland China.”

While Madam X's preoccupation with mirrors make her seem self-obsessed and vain, it seems she and her husband are also engaged in some sort of scientific research, which looks like witchcraft to their fearfully ignorant neighbours. Her ‘relationship' with Mr Q is but one of the things that generate anxiety in a community which appears to have nothing more to do than become more and more obsessed with Mme X (so-called, presumably, because she's an unknown quantity).

Calling the work ‘avante garde' allows for many a liberty to be taken in staging and performance. Madam X manifests as an almost life-sized, bride-like, plasti-swathed puppet who has no personality and not much life, which I guess is the point: she's a blank canvass on to which others project their fears and fantasies. But when the puppet is separated from its puppeteer (Katrall O'Sullivan), it is the puppeteer who expresses slo-mo distress in classical Chinese Opera style.

A gong, sounded by stage manager Emma Hayward, ‘rings' the changes according the Chinese theatre conventions, and shuffling walks and stylised dancing add to the Oriental tone – contrasted late in the game with a Kurt Weill-esque cabaret number.

The six other actors – Rosie Alldridge, Raicheal Doohan, Sam Halliahan, Helen McKenzie, Josh McDonald and Fern Wallingford – personify the small community in an abstract set designed by Katrall O'Sullivan to evoke the plethora of plastic that apparently now litters much of Mainland China (well lit by Uther Dean's design).

Each actor exhibits the essential characteristics of their role(s) in ways that make them instantly recognisable archetypes. Even when the psychological processes or the resulting physical manifestations are a bit hard to fathom, the basic notion of how dangerous closed minds can be, en mass especially, prevails.  

Most memorable is Fern Wallingford's geriatric, asthmatic, consumptive and sexually predatory Old Woman – not least because it is such a contrast, both physically and vocally, to the other roles she plays. Wallingford is one to watch.

The penultimate image, of a semi-naked Madam X breaking though a translucent wall to dance in the darkness beyond, whence the neighbours follow in her wake, is theatrically compelling. But while the novel's chapter headings seem to suggest a positive resolution celebrating some kind of individuality and freedom – expressed in the book as “a beautiful wave of the future” – the play ends with a degenerate orgy. The only interpretation I can put on that is that rather than opening them up to a better world, she has succumbed to becoming their worst fears-cum-secret desires.

On opening night I found watching Madam X and Mister Q to be a somewhat objective, dispassionate exercise. This may be early onset Fringe Fatigue but I'm more inclined to think that the ‘make what you like of it' mode is less engaging than confronting something that represents a credible ‘truth' we then have to deal with, like it or not. 
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