The Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch

18/08/2012 - 01/09/2012

Production Details

International Drama at The Court Theatre   

“A significant coup for New Zealand theatre,” is how Artistic Director of The Court Theatre Ross Gumbley describes upcoming production MAN IN A SUITCASE, which will be toured to Beijing after its world première season at The Court Theatre.  

MAN IN A SUITCASE has been developed in collaboration between The Court Theatre and the Peking University Institute of World Theatre and Film in Beijing, with support from the international development wing of Creative New Zealand. Strengthening the international connection, three members of the cast and the set designer have travelled to New Zealand from China for the production.

Playwright Lynda Chanwai-Earle has created a “story of people who live out of suitcases – and die in them,” inspired in part by the true story of a Chinese student whose remains were found in a suitcase floating in the Waitemata harbour. While the play explores dark territory, Chanwai-Earle has laced the script with black humour and embraced the “horrific ridiculousness of the situation.” At its heart, however, Chanwai-Earle says MAN IN A SUITCASE is “about displacement, wanting to fit in and get on in New Zealand.”

American Director Joseph Graves, who has lived in China for the last decade as the head of the Institute, leapt at the challenge to develop and direct MAN IN A SUITCASE. “The play has an intense film-like quality,” Graves adds, “We are embracing the theatricality of the piece and using the stage to create a realistic story filtered through memory”.

Ji Zhou plays Wen, a Chinese exchange student who is hosted with Stuart Copeland (played by former Shortland Street actor Harry McNaughton). JJ Fong is Stuart’s fiancée Amy Tung, whose parents (Stan Chan and Helene Wong) disapprove of her relationship with a “Gwailo”. All become embroiled in a plot by two incompetent kidnappers (Zhiwen Zhao and Li Shi) which goes horribly wrong. Weaving through the plot is Myanmar refugee Kauki-Paw (Katlyn Wong) whose individual story intersects with the bloody events that unfold.

During the play dialogue is spoken in English, Cantonese and Mandarin with surtitles projected onto the set, which will give a unique experience to audiences.

With a development process almost as dramatic as the play itself, MAN IN A SUITCASE was originally commissioned to appear during the 2011 Christchurch Arts Festival and had its third script workshop in January 2011 – one month before earthquake damage closed the Arts Centre, forcing The Court to locate a new venue.

Graves was delighted when MAN IN A SUITCASE was scheduled to appear in the new Court Theatre in Addington. “I had become very passionate about the piece and I’ve invested a lot into it. After the quakes I didn’t know if The Court would be able to get back on its feet – it’s astonishing what the theatre has been able to accomplish.”

Chanwai-Earle has incorporated the earthquakes into the finished piece, which is set in Christchurch, and “walked a tightrope to honestly reflect the events without it derailing the play.”

Gumbley feels that MAN IN A SUITCASE offers “spice for the theatrical palette.”

“It’s vitally important that The Court continues to do adventurous work and this is certainly a confrontational play. Lynda’s script has immense artistic merit and we feel that Christchurch audiences are ready to be stimulated and challenged as well as entertained.” Gumbley adds.

MAN IN A SUITCASE will be staged for a strictly limited season from 18 August until 1 September.

by Lynda Chanwai-Earle. Directed by Joseph Graves
Content and language may offend.
Performances: 18 August – 1 September 2012
Show times: 6:30pm Mon/Thu, 7:30 Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat (2pm matinee Sat 25 August)
Venue: The Court Theatre, Bernard St, Addington
Tickets: Adults $48 | Senior $41 | Groups (20+) $39 | Under 25 $29 | Child $19
Bookings: 03 963 0870 or 

CAST: Stan Chan, JJ Fong, Harry McNaughton, Li Shi, Helene Wong, Katlyn Wong, Zhiwen Zhao, Ji Zhou.

Set design: Gu Minwen
Lighting Design: Joe Hayes
Sound Design: Sean Hawkins
Stage Manager: Helen Beswick
Props Manager: Anneke Bester
Costume Design: The Costumery (Pam Jones & Pauline Laws)
Set Construction: Nigel Kerr, Richard Daem, Henri Herr, Maurice Kidd, Richard van den Berg
Wardrobe: Emily Thomas, Bronwyn Corbet
Production Manager: Mandy Perry  

2hrs 10mins, incl. interval

An indelible and important play

Review by Lindsay Clark 19th Aug 2012

The season of light laughter in Court Theatre’s cheery Addington home is over, at least for the time being. Tapping into the community function of theatre, to stimulate thought and, in the best of possible outcomes, achieve refreshed awareness or change, Joseph Graves’ bold direction of this new montage fleshes out an acknowledged voice of Chinese experience in New Zealand. 

Already respected for her expression in many forms of what it means to be a Chinese New Zealander, Lynda Chanwai-Earle fronts us up to the experience of new arrivals here in a fictionalised treatment of the gruesome murder of a Chinese student in 2006 and the wider pain it triggers. 

From the beginning, the comfortable illusion of a different world on stage is dispelled. Ordinary looking folk drift on and about in a grey setting of benches and miscellaneous luggage. Journeying and waiting. Weary acceptance. This much is clear; an intrepid move to work from such a low key beginning. It pays off.

The lively figure of a would-be journalist from Myanmar, who will act as stage manager and commentator, bustles on and sets the play in irrevocable motion. Her own story meshes with the murder we all thought we knew about, to widen the focus of the play to include, by implication, all who venture into a new culture, seeking a better life. 

The journalist is not just a grateful survivor of horrors in her own land and finding refuge in Aotearoa. She provides a rationale for seeking out a host of unpleasant truths, retrospectively, about how the partially decapitated body of the Chinese student, Wen Lin, came to be washing about in the Lyttelton (in real life the Waitemata) Harbour. In the face of her wretched circumstances, her insistent gratitude, delivered to us as direct address, underscores indelibly the cultural differences which texture the play so richly. 

There should have been companionship and support for Wen Lin, only child, ‘Little Emperor’ among his fellow language students. Instead, like many a boastful character from myth and fairy tale, he overstates his family status and sets himself up for extortion even as he plays, parties and falls in love with Kim, a fellow (male) student.

Thus families, including his eventual home-stay family, are drawn into the picture. On both sides of the world we see concerned parents dealing with a generation whose codes and practice are incomprehensible. The parent roles are doubled so that now the play is inviting us to find some universal link for the ideas before us.

The son of the home-stay hosts is romantically linked to the ESOL tutor’s daughter as well as to the drug outlet operating on the student scene … and the knots are tightening. 

The development is managed through a series of sometimes dislocated scenes, with the basic staging dismantled and repositioned as we watch the complicated circumstances of the Wen Lin story advance and be noted by Kauki-Paw, the purposeful journalist, seeker of truth.

At times, although the main plot line is already in our heads, the welter of scenes, albeit presented with absolute honesty, seem to cloud the ideas rather than clarify them. Even in Brechtian terms, where we expect to be distanced from engagement, the ‘less is more’ principle is critical to impact. And the wide stage, including a screen for translation of Chinese or English, according to the speaker, sometimes meant a lack of focus.

Language itself carries a subtle message, not only in its establishment of character, or in pointing up communication difficulties, but in its highlighting of cultural viewpoints. Kauki-Paw, played with almost unnerving intensity by Katlyn Wong, is full of imagery and metaphor, in contrast to more banal transactional language from those she is bound to respect.  

The production is a collaboration between Court Theatre and The Peking University Institute of World Theatre and Film. The strength of the cast and design reflects the breadth of talent and expertise thus made available. As Wen Lin, Ji Zhou from Beijing develops his terrifying role with extraordinary precision while, as his parents, Helene Wong and Stan Chan contribute one of the most moving scenes of helpless isolation in this play, which presents the whole issue so strikingly. 

Shi Li, from the PKU Institute of World Theatre and Film, creates a vicious portrait of the killer, Pete, strongly  supported by Zhiwen Zhao as Kim. The Kiwi link in the tragic chain, Stuart Copeland, is effectively brought to loose-limbed life by Harry McNaughton. As his romantic partner Amy Tung (daughter of the ESOL tutor), JJ Fong works with assurance.

Many roles are doubled, all of them successfully, so that a much wider assemblage than the eight detailed here is set out for our consideration. 

The design team too calls on wide experience and vision. Gu Min Wen’s work in set design has taken her through China and Taiwan and to London. Her design for this production provides a wealth of opportunities for creative arrangement in the spirit of the play while imbuing the whole with a sense of muted despair. Costume, lighting and sound design draw on the tried and true skills and imagination of Pauline Laws and Pam Jones, Joe Hayes and Sean Hawkins respectively. 

This is an indelible and important play, presented with the care and respect it deserves. Its ultimate strength is that it cannot be left behind at the end of the performance.   


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