Thursday, July 25

May 35th – Southwark Playhouse Elephant

4th June 1989 – This is the date to remember!   But, if you live in China or Hong Kong, this date causes their government to have amnesia, and the Chinese government enforces countrywide amnesia on its people.  There is no longer a 4th June 1989 in the Chinese calendar, not one that can be discussed anyway.  To disguise discussion, this date is now May 35th, and both the date, and the lives of the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre have been erased from history.

In a country where the government uses dehumanisation as a means of controlling its people, this play attempts to overturn this, by bringing together interviews from some of the victim’s families and allows them to speak in one voice.

The play centres around a student, Ah Dai who was a hard-working boy, born in 1970, he was only a teenager when he was murdered in Tiananmen Square,  His story is interwoven with that of his parents who have lived with the loss of their son in such tragic circumstances, but are never allowed to talk about it for fear of retribution due to China’s sedition laws, and close surveillance.  Siu Lim is frustrated, she wants to speak out, but her husband is fearful for the safety of themselves, and the wider family.  We join the couple as they both face terminal illness.  This sentence of death brings out their bravery, their fighting spirit, and as Siu Lim prepares herself and her husband for death, the memories of their son’s death haunt them both.

Knowing that these unsanctioned thoughts and discussions are whispered in many Chinese households – human emotions hidden from view – it makes this play very poignant.  And this play is packed full of emotion, the character’s names are fictitious, but they represent the struggles of families, and it is a sad state of affairs, when many of the performers and creatives must also conceal their names, so that they do not jeopardise their own family’s safety.

Director Kim Pearce, powerfully focuses on the human emotions of the characters, and asks where do these emotions go, if as human beings we are not at liberty to feel them?  Written by Candace Chong Mui Ngam, and translated by S. Y.Li (a pseudonym), the staging allows us to share the couple’s living room, the space that witnessed their son’s youth, and now witnesses his parent’s end of life regrets, and hopes.  The raw emotion of the play tugs at the heartstrings, and it moved this reviewer to tears, as the inhumanity of their own, and their son’s treatment by the State, is a difficult watch.  The performances by the Company are brave, as they tell a story that needs to be heard.

As we have witnessed consistently in similar undemocratic countries, theatre communities are some of the first people to be targeted to prevent freedom of speech.  This is a hugely important play, supported by Amnesty International UK, which attempts to increase awareness of these political regimes, which attempt to rule by fear, because they know that the greatest human emotion is love. 

This play runs until the 1st June 2024 at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, go to May 35th – Southwark Playhouse to book tickets, but if you don’t happen to catch it, then follow @StageJuneForth or @May35th on social media platforms for future news.

Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 31st May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.