Review: MADAM MAO (SummerWorks)

by Lynn on August 13, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont. Part of SummerWorks Festival.

Collectively created by Paul Thompson, Janet Lo, Samantha Wan and Severn Thomson.
Directed by Severn Thompson
Music composed and played by Heidi Chan
Choreographed by Jeffrey Chan
Designed by Amanda Wong
Starring: Janet Lo
Samantha Wan
Amanda Zhou

The Story. The play takes place in Beijing Prison, in the Spring of 1991 and according to the program, “at various times and locations in Jiang Qing’s mind.” Jiang Qing is better known as ‘Madam Mao.’ She was Chairman Mao Zedong’s fourth and last wife, to whom he was married for over 30 years. Madam Mao has been in prison for several years for crimes against the Chinese people when her husband ruled, and she was believed to have influenced him. An sergeant has come to interrogate her in the hopes of getting Madam Mao to confess and express remorse at her involvement. The play is a tug of war of wills of an imperious woman who justified what happened in China (death and imprisonment to those who did not share Chairman Mao’s (and her) views) and those of the Sergeant representing the new China.

The Sergeant accuses Madam Mao of closing the theatres and not allowing any plays but her own to be performed. And her plays forwarded her blinkered agenda. As Madam Mao hangs on to her sense of entitlement at how she ran things, the sergeant reveals Madam Mao’s betrayal of people who trusted her—neighbours, people who worked for her; and it’s revealed how crushed she was that Mao did not pick her as his successor.

The Production. As we wait to enter the performance space (The Incubator at the Theatre Centre) an expressionless Chinese woman soldier in olive green military garb stands guard outside the space with us. She hands us programs matter of factly as we go in. When we are all seated the guard stands perfectly still and watchful at the back of the playing area.

Director Severn Thompson fills her spare but eloquent production with traditional Chinese music, dance, and an expressive Trickster who establishes a formality but also bedevils characters and events. As both the Trickster and the Sergeant, Samantha Wan is focused, relentless and compelling. She is a worthy opponent to the formidable Jiang Qing. Interestingly Jiang Qing is not referred to as Madam Mao except in the title of the play. In this play she is on her own with her own identity and not affixed to her husband. I like that irony.

As Jiang Qing, Janet Lo has that quiet imperiousness that allows her to treat this sergeant like a servant, ordering a cup of tea but only if it’s a precise temperature. Lo has an edge, an imperiousness that had been used to terrify people. She uses it even in prison. This is a woman who has always thought that she was right. The characters circle and size up each other. This lowly sergeant is probably one of the few people to challenge Jiang Qing and make her face the truth.

Comment. Playwriting by a collective rarely works. But Madam Mao is one welcome exception. The writing is seamless, bringing in many aspects of a turbulent part of China’s history (the Cultural Revolution and after), and having the various characters express themselves in words that are true to the characters. Chiding Jiang Qing for closing the theatres and banning any plays but her own seems such a small point, but in context it’s huge. Here is a play that speaks about the censoring of the arts in a country half-way across the world, but speaks to us in a language that is immediate and accessible. Of course the implication for China was much larger, but it still has resonance here.

Madam Mao examines prickly ideas with clarity. The production is an intriguing joy.

Madam Mao continues at SummerWorks. Check website for schedule:

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1 how to get more fake followers on twitter September 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for finally writing about >Review: MADAM MAO (SummerWorks) Theatre Reviews for the Serious Theatre-Goer The Slotkin Letter <Loved it!