Content note: Slow Boat includes low level coarse language, depictions of suicide, depictions of war, racial slurs, references to violence, haze/smoke effects, and loud sounds.
Anna Yen’s Slow Boat has made its world premiere at the Brisbane Powerhouse, directed by Ian Lawson. A fascinating genre-blending production, this rollercoaster play-within-a-play took audiences on a journey from wartime China to indentured labour on Nauru and in central Australia, and finally to Brisbane.
Inspired by the unexpected arrival of the playwright’s father, along with 580 other Chinese men, in Australia during World War II, Slow Boat draws on a wide range of influences and genres to tell its story. A play within a play, Slow Boat was framed as a theatre show being staged in Brisbane’s Bulimba Dockyards, in celebration of Victory in the Pacific. Six Dockyards workers presented the story of their winding journey from China to Brisbane, blending song, dance, musical theatre, Cantonese Opera, martial arts, and more to tell their tale of resilience, resistance, and brotherhood. However, the unity of the performance was threatened, and the brotherhood was tested, by interruptions and disagreements about key events, and the slow unravelling of secrets.
Slow Boat is a multilingual work, incorporating English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Through the storytelling within the context of the play, and through conversations outside of it, the six men shared their ambitions and aspirations, and supported one another through hardships, loss, and conflict. Side by side, they worked hard and fought for their rights as workers; they missed their families; they protected, taught, and helped one another; they wondered what would come next, once the war was over. In telling their story, they were also forced to face up to their mistakes, and find the strength to ask for forgiveness.
Slow Boat charted the unexpected odyssey of these six characters, including their resilience and endurance under unfair and inhumane conditions, as well as their contributions to the communities in which they found themselves. Although the story was one of overcoming adversity, it was also balanced by moments of humour and lightness, from wry asides to slapstick-esque physical comedy.
Set design by Josh McIntosh, with beautiful painted backdrops by Echo Wu, set the scene at each stage of the journey, from the docks of Hong Kong and boats of Nauru to the corrugated iron of central Australia and, finally, to the stage in Bulimba. Clever set pieces served multiple functions and were moved seamlessly between scenes by the performers.
The cast were consistently excellent, maintaining a strong energy and emotional versatility over a lengthy and demanding performance in a wide range of styles. Carefully choreographed movement and staging created striking images and demonstrated the cast’s impressive athletic and acrobatic abilities. The ensemble also took on a series of minor characters and maintained consistent accents throughout, with dialect coaching by Anna Chong.
Gong Saang (Julian Wong) welcomed the audience to the performance and maintained a calm, even energy as his character tried to steer the other performers back on track within the play. Although there were moments where Wong seemed to forget his next lines, he remained in character and this was absorbed into the “play within a play” format. Egan Sun-Bin played the anxious and gentle Ah Faat, still recovering from the trauma of war in China. Jonathan Chan played Lihn Giht as gruff and suspicious, and Ming Yang Lim was expressive in the role of Waih Jai. Silvan Rus played Luhng Goh with intensity, especially in his leadership of the workers’ strikes and his moving reconciliation with Waih Jai in the final act.
Nicholas Ng played the role of Dak Sing, in addition to being the Slow Boat composer and music director. The music composed by Ng was performed live by Yuren (Cara) Chen, Anna Kho, and Ziwei Wang, and several of the musical numbers are still floating around in my head a week after the performance.
Costume design by Frances Foo maintained a clear sense of each of the performers in their main roles, and authentic Cinesound footage from the era was also briefly incorporated into the work with a voiceover by Bryan Probets. The emotion of Slow Boat was underscored by the live music and highlighted by David Walter’s lighting design, which interacted with the other technical elements to create memorable shadow puppetry and dramatic scene changes.
Covering broad ground in both a geographic and thematic sense, Slow Boat presented a slice of Brisbane, and Australian, history that may not be familiar to audiences – I certainly learned things, as well as enjoying the passionate, moving, energetic performances. Slow Boat was a complex, multifaceted work, beautifully executed, and a rumination on the power of culture, music, and stories to bring people together and create comfort and community.
Slow Boat will play at the Brisbane Powerhouse, New Farm, from 1 – 10 September 2022.
For ticketing and further information, visit the Brisbane Powerhouse website
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