Reviewed – 31st October 2018
“Forgotten is a play which should most certainly take its place in our global collective memory”
Daniel York Loh’s play takes as its subject the forgotten contribution of the WW1 Chinese Labour Corps – approximately 140,000 in number – who supported the Allies and, in no small part, paved the way for the shaping of modern China. The cast of six take us on a journey from a rural village in China to 1920s Paris, by way of the trenches and a French munitions factory, and, for the most part, it is a compelling and enlightening ride. Three of Forgotten’s central protagonists are part of a rural theatre troupe, and the play begins with their stylised performance of a folk-tale, complete with the striking high pitch and rising cadence associated with Chinese opera. It is a clever device through which to catapult this 21st century London audience into a different world, and immediately emphasises how little we know of China and its history and traditions. This theatrical form was continually woven through the tapestry of the piece, with greater and lesser degrees of success, but at its best moments – the Eunuch Lin facing down German shell-fire with song and dance – was uniquely arresting. Credit must be given here to Quang Kien Van’s perfectly tuned movement direction, which so deftly transformed the villagers/soldiers into performers when the occasion demanded.
Emma Bailey’s excellent design, complemented by Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting and Luke Swaffield’s sound, artfully created the play’s various different worlds, and Kim Pearce (Director) ensured that the narrative rarely lost pace. There were some lovely performances to boot. This reviewer was particularly charmed by the open-faced and open-hearted Big Dog (engagingly played by Camille Mallet De Chauny), and the other-worldly innocence of the Eunuch Lin (beautifully portrayed by Zachary Hing). In many ways, the play’s central character is The Professor (Leo Wan). He is educated and aspirational, frequently railing against China’s status in the world and yearning for Western cultural and technological sophistication. He begins the piece as a hopeful optimist, convinced that once the fighting has died down, his country and his fellows will finally be given the golden ticket. Wan perfectly captures this sweet, earnest man and provides the play with some gentle but essential comedy moments – his explanation of the muddled alliance and origins of the war being a particular highlight. His final act of anger and defiance is the play’s most powerful image, and justifies the otherwise slightly limp final section, set in postwar Paris.
By shining a light, a hundred years after the end of the Great War, on the shameful omission of the CLC from the numerous narratives of Allied victory, Daniel York Loh’s Forgotten is a vital piece of theatre, and deserves a longer run and a larger stage. It is a complex piece, grappling with themes of colonialism, the price of technological progress, the plight of rural women, and, in a meta-theatrical fashion, the power and role of theatre itself. Occasionally the piece strains under the weight of this thematic density. The post-war exposition seems clumsy, and the play’s language – a melting pot of Confucian poetry, delicious archaic swearing, French and English – occasionally becomes overly dissonant and would benefit from a bit of editorial finesse. It is to be hoped that Loh can harness some further investment to keep working, because Forgotten is a play which should most certainly take its place in our global collective memory.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Jack Sain
Arcola Theatre until 17th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: