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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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Two Belles in Love (Lian xiang ban) — Li Yu

“Just trust fate!” proclaim the colourful Fragrance Gods throughout the course of Two Belles in Love, to the point where it becomes more than just a motif, and it almost feels like I’m being forcibly audited by Scientologists. They have already made themselves familiar with the audience, moving into the crowd before the action starts to ask unfamiliar questions: “Do you have a favourite smell? Do you believe in love at first sight?” While I don’t believe in love at first sight, and don’t believe that “a freshly opened quart of Wild Buck” would be an appropriate answer to the former, I did trust fate in the sense that I trusted that night’s group of THEA 323 students, credited with performing the tale, would entertain throughout.

We start with the ever present Fragrance Gods introducing our titular Two Belles, taking a few jabs at the tropes of romantic theatre that promise more than the cast can deliver despite their best efforts. As nice as the slowly, gently fingerpicked guitar playing is, my hopes are quickly dashed as I realise that the pacing of the piece follows suit, with most of my time dominated by anticipating the next line. The inspired performances of Nicole Topp-Aman as sardonic servant Hualing and Daniel Fitzpatrick’s bombastic performance as long-suffering husband of Jianyun (Emma Katene) stand out as full-blown steroid injections to the body of work presented, making me yearn for some kind of spin-off show following their antics. The singing ranges from godly to decidedly ungodly: Katene and Georgia May’s central relationship feels most honest and real during their beautiful duets, their differing harmonies finding each other perfectly in the best of Ailise Beale’s compositions. Other solo songs and group performances do not fare as well on the ears.

This is not to even mention the other aural assaults presented through the incessant drumming that marks the end of every other line: was it a gong? Was it a tin? Whatever it was, even now I can still hear the dreaded percussion interrupting my thoughts just as efficiently as it interrupted anything resembling a well-worked comedic moment. It acts as the theatrical equivalent of the laugh track, giving the audience a cue when a facial expression is supposed to be funny or when they are to pay attention — ironically, its inclusion reflects a lack of faith in its actors’ abilities. The argument against getting rid of it altogether might be that it pays homage to traditional forms of Chinese theatre, whether it’s the Kun opera staged in Beijing in 2010 cited in the programme or something else entirely. I would assert in return that if a production can begin a 350-year old piece of literature with a tribute to the late George Michael’s “Faith”, then it can also afford to take liberties with its inclusion of dramatic pot banging.

As the Two Belles thank the imperial grace that their love can be rekindled in the finale, I find myself thanking the imperial grace that the play is nearly over. This is not due to any personal vendetta against updating a piece so of its time, nor is it to say that there is nothing of merit presented by the earnest cast over the 100-minute epic. There is a subdued snarkiness to some parts of the script, with main characters and narrators referencing systems of patriarchy, somewhat illicit sexual acts, and even the conventions of the type of play they are undertaking. Individual performances shine, and there are some great laughs to be had.

But even a fair amount of diamonds can’t save the rough. And boy, can it be rough at times.

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