Writer: Amy Ng
Director: Justine Themen
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Three generations of a single family; three generations which have lived through tumultuous times in China’s history; three generations, each bearing scars of the events of their youth and their response to it. A clash of cultures, disputes within the family. Amy Ng’s play, Under the Umbrella, grew from an original idea by producer Lian Wilkinson after she saw a video about Chinese Marriage Markets where parents affix their children’s marriage CVs to umbrellas for display. Wilkinson approached director, Justine Themen and Ng and Under the Umbrella was born.
Wei is studying for a PhD in Coventry. At first, it does seem that she is simply using her continuing student status as a way of staying away from China and the obsession of her mother and grandmother that she should be married and make a good match. For Wei is 27 and becoming less attractive in the marriage stakes; once a woman reaches that age, she is thought of as a ‘leftover woman’. Wei shares a flat with best friend, Lucy, and together they live a hedonistic life of clubbing and karaoke.
Wei’s mother, Dong, was a young woman during the one-child policy implemented in 1979 to limit population growth. Families could have one child only: further pregnancies were aborted. And single women could have no children at all.
Dong’s mother, known just as Grandmother, survived the great famine of 1958 – 1962 that followed Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ that was intended to reduce China’s dependence on agriculture and move its economy to a more industrial one.
Under the Umbrella is a spectacularly beautiful piece. As Ng explained in her interview with us, three of the four actors have Lecoc or Gaulier backgrounds and it shows in their fluid movement around the stage as the marriage markets are created, or montages of events are displayed. A simple set has holes drilled in rows that are used to place, for example, umbrellas or lychee bushes and ensuring the action flows smoothly from one location to the next.
Mei Mac brings us Wei, a character full of contradictions, living a full life in Coventry with Lucy, but still, to an extent, bound by tradition, even if she is not consciously aware of that. She enjoys life but does feel something is perhaps missing: while she and flatmate Lucy form a formidable unit, she can’t help feeling that she is second-best. Laura Tipper is Lucy, a free-spirit who is nevertheless needy, requiring others’ attention; maybe that’s why she’s easily swayed when her unseen on-off boyfriend calls. Both actors have great physicality and mobile faces: one feels invited and welcomed into their world.
Wei’s supervisor is Dr Zhang, played by Minhee Yeo. Yeo brings a sternness to Zhang as she despairs of Wei ever completing her PhD. Yeo also plays Grandmother, a tyrannical matriarch desperate to see her line continue through Wei. While her love for her family isn’t in dispute, her manner is, at best, offhand. Later, we discover something of her history that helps us to understand her actions.
Charlotte Chiew brings us Dong, perhaps ultimately the most tragic character as her back story is revealed. Her desperation to find Wei a husband, trying different marketing ploys to make her appear more attractive to potential in-laws, is clear. Pulled in several directions and weighed down by her own history, Chiew’s Dong is a tour de force.
Under the Umbrella has a strong narrative and a powerful story based, ultimately, on love and loss. However, there are areas that could be improved: the desire to give each of the Chinese women comprehensive backstories from China’s history leads to a longer and slower moving second half; and there are some loose ends in the plot that never quite get tied: for example, the reasons for Dong’s reaction to Dr Zhang are hinted at but not clear, and the part played in the past and present by Dong’s brother remains vague – at least to this reviewer’s western ears.
Nevertheless, Under the Umbrella is a thing of rare beauty, a thought-provoking look at China under Mao and since, at family, at friendships; while Ng says she doesn’t try to write plays that will educate, inevitably, Under the Umbrella does just that in a stylish and enjoyable way.
Runs Until 16th March 2019 and on tour | Image: Robert Day