Little Emperors was commissioned and developed by Malthouse Theatre for the Asia TOPA festival. Australian writer Lachlan Philpott (The Trouble With Harry) was flown to Beijing to work with director Wang Chong (founder and director of the Beijing-based experimental company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental) to create “a piece about the connection between China and Australia … appealing to both English and Mandarin speaking audiences.”
Starting with the idea of exploring the cultural impact of China’s one-child policy, a Chinese university-student (Yuchen Wang) is in Melbourne where he can live with a boyfriend, explore theatre making (it gets meta with Liam Maguire), chat with his older sister (Alice Qin) in Beijing on Skype, continue to ignore his mother (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin) and move on from being the second child who was ignored in public and sent to boarding school when he was too young. When he doesn’t come “home” to Beijing for his mother’s 60th birthday, mum and sis plan a surprise visit to Australia.
With an exceptional design (Romanie Harper, set and costume; Emma Valente, lighting and video), it’s easy to get involved in the story as the design creates distance and/or intimacy between the characters and/or the audience. Set in a large pool of water that makes the simplest of movements difficult, a curtain of hand-written Mandarin signs (maybe letters?) separates the onstage world from the backstage one that’s seen through a live video projected onto the curtain. This allows for moments when you can see a character next to a close up of themselves; concurrently showing us so little and so much of the world.
The strongest parts of the work are the complex relationships between the family, especially between mother and daughter, but, while it touches on many issues – from expensive dumplings in Melbourne to the shame of having no grandchildren – it doesn’t explore any of them in depth. It feels like the Chinese and Australian creative voices are being so polite to each other than no one dared mention the non-polite issues or question whose voice was ultimately telling the story.