Imperial China, with its exotic riches and intrigues, remains as compelling to audiences today as it did in the early part of the 20th century, when the Princess Der Ling toured her tales of courtly opulence across suburban America.
An immersive snapshot of period theatre well delivered
Born as Lizzie Yu and raised in a western looking household, this solo piece is much more her story than that of the Empress. On first stepping out from behind a Chinese lacquer screen, Michelle Yim, as Lizzie, is everything you would hope for from a period piece. Gorgeously costumed by Laura Bosely, she sparkles in gold and silk under a magnificently impractical headdress and propped up on traditional Manchu platform shoes.
The first part of her tale is therefore subtly disappointing. She gives a very studied and precise delivery to convey to us a fairly turgid lecture, describing life at the Forbidden Palace as a lady in waiting to the Dowager Empress Cixi. We get to hear a lot about the pictures and the porcelain. It is hugely relieving to see her shortly stripping off her robes as we understand that this was her performance persona for her 1920s American Lecture tour. From here on in, we are treated to an engaging manifestation of a fascinating woman who was clearly mistress of her own destiny in defiance of her times and culture. Yim is extremely appealing to watch and to listen to. Despite the fact that this is, essentially, an hour long lesson on Chinese History, she wrings some big emotional moments from it as she shows us the human relationships in her grand setting. Light in romantic love, but heavily laden with the ties and trials of love for one's sisters and parents, the piece skilfully blends the domestic with the headline events of the day.
Ross Ericson's writing has produced a voice that feels authentic but there are no surprises at any point. The humour is easily foreseen and the descriptions of Lotus flowers and doll-like faces are well worn. It is only when you get to the end that you realise you have been waiting for a story to develop that never quite does. I would very happily have watched Yim for another hour, but perhaps it is the limitation of biography to lack neat resolutions. An immersive snapshot of period theatre well delivered.