From the press, the poignant promotional images and the description of Amber as “an emotionally charged love story”, it’s easy to form expectations – to come in expecting serious dialogue and straight-laced theatre. However, as soon as the first scene is over and the main character has revealed his plot to pen the next Fifty Shades of Grey, it becomes clear that Amber is something else entirely.
Amber follows the story of Gao Yuan, the opportunistic party-boy who plans to make his fortune through sleazy fiction. After losing his heart in an accident (an absurd accident which involved a magician and simultaneously-fainting twins), Gao needs a heart transplant, and ends up with the heart that once belonged to the fiancé of Xiao You – the heart Xiao is in love with. The resulting romance, heartbreak, and chaos is both touching and ridiculous, and is told through a mix of drama, song, dance and multimedia. The play makes important points about gender, sexuality and herd mentality that do, as the play promises, “transcend culture”, but not everything in the play translates so seamlessly.
The fact that almost the entire play is in Mandarin certainly made Amber a unique offering on Australia’s professional theatre circuit; even in the OzAsia Festival, the vast majority of what’s on offer is in English. Mandarin speakers had the upper-hand in the show, as the surtitles were often behind, or even occasionally ahead, of what was happening onstage. This was obvious when Mandarin-speaking members of the audience would laugh before the English version of the joke would even appear onscreen. The placement of the surtitles and the fairly small screens also made it difficult to follow the dialogue while also following the events onstage; a shame, since Amber is a very aesthetic production.
The acting, like the tone of the show, is highly changeable, switching without warning from passionate realism to a detached, almost Brechtian address, directed straight to the audience. Even with their constantly evolving style, the actors are clearly talented; they have to be, to take you with them on the tangential journey that is Amber and to balance the drama with equally diverse song and dance. Although some of the actors seem to struggle a little with the choreography, particularly in sections like kick-lines that demand pinpoint accuracy, on the whole the ensemble fare very well and leave the audience entertained and perplexed, which seemed to be the point.
Technically, Amber is hit-and-miss; the lighting, projections and use of smoke are all visually stunning, creating storms and turmoil before the audience’s eyes, but the projected video was jolty at times and the sound was sometimes scratchy or delayed. In a show with so many musical elements and a score that switches so skilfully between quirky and beautiful, it’s a shame when technical difficulties detract from the audio experience, especially when many audience members don’t have the dialogue to distract them.
However, the enthusiastic, diverse audience prove that Amber is an important production; it proves the importance of catering to all the cultures and languages that are represented in Adelaide, and that not everyone is scared away by surtitles. Was the show confusing? Absolutely. But it was also thought-provoking, poignant, silly and beautiful at times. Despite the practical and technical difficulties, the show is engaging – it’s a valuable step outside of your comfort zone.
*Paige Mulholland is a volunteer at the Adelaide Festival Centre