Friday, September 14, 2012

Man in a Suitcase is a China

Man in a Suitcase is a China-NZ collaboration that takes a grisly murder as its springboard Interview - Lynda Chanwai-Earle Lynda Chanwai-Earle A sign the Court Theatre is making a good recovery is its programming of an uncompromising new work. The theatre had its renaissance plying its shaken public with comfort food in makeshift premises, but now it has decided to bring out the hard stuff. It seems Christchurch audiences are ready for something strong and dark. And you don’t get much darker than the subject matter of Man in a Suitcase by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, who has taken as her springboard the grisly 2006 Auckland murder involving Chinese language students and a bungled extortion attempt. In 2009, before Mother Nature intervened, the Court approached Chanwai-Earle, a fourth-generation Chinese-New Zealander, to write a work that dealt with the New Zealand-Chinese community in Christchurch. She came back with the synopsis based on the murder of Wan Biao, whose body was found floating in a suitcase in the Waitemata Harbour. “I also wanted it to reflect the refugee experience and post-refugee resettlement experience of having to live out of suitcases,” says Chanwai-Earle. “Ultimately, it’s about those stories of displacement and wanting to fit in, wanting to get on in New Zealand.” Gambling and cybersloth rear their heads, too, plus a nasty dollop of homophobia. Relocating it to Christchurch meant Lyttelton Harbour was a lot further away to float a suitcase. “Yet convenient for these completely hapless students,” she quips. “I needed it to be as ridiculous as possible to create moments of black humour – otherwise it’d be too dark. The thing that really struck me reading about this case was the extraordinary stupidity of these kids – cold-blooded but utterly stupid. They put the murder weapons, all their DNA evidence and passports in the suitcase, and I thought this is too rich not to put in.” Keen for a China-New Zealand collaboration, the Court contacted Joseph Graves, an American director who’s been living in Beijing for the past decade. As artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, and with vast experience directing international theatre exchanges, Graves leapt at the challenge to workshop and direct Chanwai-Earle’s play, as well as facilitate a tour to the 2012 Beijing Fringe Festival. The story of the Chinese student who became easy prey to nefarious sorts resonated with him: “There’s this enormous number of young kids growing up in China with this dream of studying in the West and many go abroad on some half-promise, not knowing what they are getting into and not fluent enough in the English language to live and operate correctly.” He was also struck by the aspect of Chinese people living in New Zealand developing their own identities and the “often strange relationships between native Chinese people who remained in China and the Chinese people who have become first or second, and in some cases third or fourth, generations of living in another country – their experiences are vastly different. That mixing of milieus but both involving Chinese people by blood is fascinating. “Then there are the colourful aspects of the story itself, which transcend racial differences and have to do with human beings and how we interact – all those things made it a really interesting project.” As a director, he loved the theatricality of the piece: “Even though it deals with realistic subject matter, the way it’s going to be staged will have a dreamlike quality that will be really engaging to an audience and I don’t think will be quite as courtroom, in-your-face, as a more blatantly realistic staging of something like this would be.” All was set for the play to premiere at the 2011 Christchurch Arts Festival, and then the February 22 earthquake struck … “I didn’t know if the Court was going to be able to get back on its feet,” recalls Graves. “It has been a miraculous revival. It’s astonishing what Philip [Aldridge] and Ross [Gumbley] and the others at the Court have accomplished. “I never had any thought of leaving the project, because I’d invested a lot of myself into it and become very passionate about the piece and was hoping it’d be able to be realised in New Zealand and consequently in China.” Man in a Suitcase rehearsals Chanwai-Earle then reworked her piece to acknowledge the traumatised city: “This is not a play about the earthquakes, but unfortunately murders are happening regardless of earthquakes. I want to honestly reflect the [aftershocks] without them being a focus so they derail the play. It’s been like walking on a tightrope.” For the Court production, Graves is bringing a Chinese set designer and three Chinese actors to join five New Zealand actors (including Katlyn Wong, Helene Wong and Harry McNaughton), before the play heads to the Beijing Fringe Festival. “The hardcore work shopping we did in January last year, a few weeks shy of the February earthquake,” says Chanwai-Earle. “I’m just so grateful to the Court Theatre. ‘Let’s do it,’ they said. ‘Let’s make it happen this year.’ To still go ahead with this is amazing.” ­ MAN IN A SUITCASE, by Lynda Chanwai-Earle, directed by Joseph Graves, Court Theatre, Christchurch, August 18-September 1.

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