Taiwan at Summerhall: Heart of Darkness, Ever Never, The Backyard Story

Summerhall, Edinburgh
August 9 & 10, 2017

David Mead

★★★★  Heart of Darkness by Sun Son Theatre
★★★★  Ever Never by Co-coism
The Backyard Story by Puppet Beings Theatre

This year’s Taiwan Season programme at Summerhall sees the welcome return of favourites Puppet Beings Theatre (偶偶偶劇團), alongside UK debuts for Taipei-based Sun Son Theatre (身聲劇場), whose productions typically fuse music, voice, drama and ritual with symbolic and folk elements; and recently founded multi-creator theatre collective Co-coism (明日和合製作所).

It difficult to quite know how to categorise Heart of Darkness (噬) by Sun Son Theatre, not that one really has to, of course. Let’s just say that it’s a grand piece of dance, theatre and music, powerfully performed.

Inspired by the life of the grandmother of choreographer Low Pei-fen (劉佩芬), Heart of Darkness considers a woman gnawed by time, the effect of her arranged marriage, her journey through many decades, her secret aspirations and ambitions, her expectations, and her fears. It’s heavily loaded with symbolism, from the long hair that serves as her bonds but also her pathway through life, to red flags and other ritualistic imagery.

Sun Son Theatre's Heart of Darkness (Taiwan production)Photo Taiwan Season - Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017
Sun Son Theatre’s Heart of Darkness (Taiwan production)
Photo Taiwan Season – Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

It opens with Low sharing her thoughts about her grandmother, not someone she was close to, thanks to her emotional distance and language barrier. Some thought she was mad, but Low wonders whether to what extent she chose her path through life, and what she ould have chosen had she really had free choice. It’s spoken with great depth, from the heart, leaving no doubt that Heart of Darkness is very personal indeed.

Low shifts through the woman’s emotions and thoughts pre-marriage, her pent up fears. She explodes into life, swinging the long braid around with great force. She bursts into hysterical laughter, but just as suddenly come moments of near silence. The falling of a large red banner brings a dramatic interruption to proceedings.

Accompanying everything is the marvellous music from the four musicians, played live using a range of traditional instruments from Taiwan and overseas, chanting, wailing and more. Sun Son’s performers are all multi-talented and it’s the musicians who wave red flags (red being a symbol of happiness and good luck) and then dance with large drums attached to their backs, beaten with curved drumsticks that are swung behind them, and that indicate the driving out of evil spirits.

Heart of Darkness is a terrific piece of ensemble theatre that even on a second viewing left me wanting more. How sad then, that Edinburgh audiences are not seeing the full version. Although Sun Son’s performers do wonders in making it work, the tiny and out the way Cairns lecture Theatre does it no favours whatsoever. Everything looks squeezed. For the Fringe, it’s also been cut by around 15 minutes from its original length; again disappointing, and while there were no doubt valid reasons, most unfortunate.

Co-coism in Ever NeverPhoto Taiwan Season - Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Co-coism in Ever Never
Photo Li Jheng-ru / Taiwan Season – Edinburgh Fringe 2017

There are always concerns about bringing non-English language theatre to the Fringe. How best to make the spoken word understood is an issue. In Ever Never (曾經未曾), Co-coism use surtitles, but the play is another one of those not easy to box. It is a drama, but it’s also very much about the staging and scenography. At times, it approaches physical theatre.

Ever Never (also in the Cairns Lecture Theatre) takes the audience on a flight with five strangers. As the aircraft cabin becomes a place where forgotten memories are rekindled and brought to life, the five actors flip roles frequently, sometimes with remarkable speed. It’s a real roller-coaster ride that will brings tears of laughter and tears of sadness but even the more melancholic moments are wrapped in humour. It’s also a show with great rhythm and flow.

Some of the characters and scenes conjured up are instantly recognisable, such as the middle-aged lady, flying for the first time. With no idea what to do, of how things worked, she’s constantly making silly ‘mistakes’, constantly asking questions. We also see a member of cabin crew transformed into a nagging mother demanding that you come and eat your dinner. Now! Come to think of it, I may have met cabin crew who really are like that.

Ever Never by Co-coismPhoto Taiwan Season - Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017
Ever Never by Co-coism
Photo Li Jheng-ru / Taiwan Season – Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

Elsewhere, the pre-take-off announcements become a practice for facing death. The life-jacket demonstration brings forth three babies, still in the womb but about to be born. The conversation is hilarious. “Do we have to swim?” “Don’t forget to cry when you get out there.”

An earthquake transforms the cast into a family, fleeing in their car. Even here, the kids still argue. And most poignantly, a running story about a lost earring becomes a reflection of a father never able to attend his daughter’s wedding.

Ever Never is another work that’s been altered for the Fringe. Originally, the flight arrived and everyone went their separate ways. Here, the thoughtful, rather poignant new end, the bride staring out through the cabin window, works an absolute treat. Check in and take a flight.

Summerhall favourites Puppet Beings Theatre are this year making their third appearance at the Fringe. The Backyard Story (後院的奇幻王國) may be aimed primarily at children, but it made this grown-up smile too.

Essentially, it’s a series of vignettes that concern clothes that have been hung out to dry by a couple of competitive neighbours who are just a little bit jealous of each other’s fashions. When a magical red balloon appears and brushes against the garments, the jackets, shirts, dresses and trousers morph into adults and children, making friends and building relationships. While there is an air of innocence about the show, there are also important life lessons here.

The Backyard Story by Puppet Beings TheatrePhoto Taiwan Season - Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017
The Backyard Story by Puppet Beings Theatre
Photo Taiwan Season – Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

The puppeteers are excellent as they make the garments come to life. At the beginning, an apology was given for the fact that the limitations of the Red Lecture Theatre mean they can be seen, even dressed head to toe in black as they are. It matters not. To be honest, I quickly forgot they were there so captivating is the show.

It may be ‘children’s theatre’ as far as the programmers are concerned, but The Backyard Story is 40 minutes that will delight all ages. Do persuade your toddler to take you along!

The Taiwan Season at Summerhall continues to August 27. Follow the links for details and tickets for Heart of Darkness, Ever Never, and The Backyard Story.