The Prickle (@ThePrickle) September 22, 2019
This meta-theatrical, physical theatre retelling of a classic Chinese tale has enjoyed rave reviews internationally since 2014. Accompanied by live music (Heidi Law), five supremely talented, athletic dancer-actors narrate in Mandarin (subtitles in English and Cantonese) and perform a dizzying array of ever-shifting contortions, all of which help to convey the story’s countless number of locations and characters, on a completely bare set.
The story of the Orphan of Zhao, where the royal baby was switched with a commoner in order to protect it from a political massacre, is about 2,500 years old, and almost certainly a historical myth designed to provide legitimacy to the genealogy of the royal line. In Chinese primary schools, however, it’s presented as fact.
There is a false finale: following what we think to be the curtain call, a cast member addresses the audience in un-subtitled Cantonese, reminding them that they are only watching an ancient legend, and the actual historical truth is somewhat different. The rest of the cast drag the political dissident off stage where he can’t do any harm.
Despite this biting political edge, with particular contemporary resonances for a Hong Kong audience, the majority of the hour stays faithful to the emotional power of the classic tale. By the end, when the impostor infant is ripped from his pretend father and dashed to the rocks — represented only by removing a jumper and dropping it on the floor — it’s unbearably moving. This company seeks the truth; and that includes recognising the enduring emotional power of national myths.
Théâtre de la Feuille’s L’Orphelin runs until 22 September 2019, as part of the Jockey Club New Arts Power Festival.