A ruined wedding, a love triangle, psychotherapy, homosexuality, intergenerational conflict and inhumane bureaucracy – all set against growing activism for democracy in Hong Kong. These are just some of the areas covered in this expansive new musical.
Nanjing Beijing is the brainchild of Bang Xiao, who wrote the dialogue and composed its music, and is deftly directed by Helena Lu. What an astonishing feat for an artist in his twenties to write a musical of such scale, let alone such depth and compassion. I mentioned this to members of the crew as I bought my ticket. “Oh, Chinese Music Group almost always produces original work,” came the casual reply. It is this mix of humility and remarkable ambition that gives this year’s offering sophistication and heart.
The work centres on Bei (Tairan Jiang), who has fallen deeply in love with another man, Nan (Hao Dong). Terrified his homosexuality will bring dishonour on himself and his family, he leaves Nan, suppresses his desire and marries Jing (Liew Sze Earn), who has no idea of his forbidden love. This triangle – Nan, Bei and Jing – forms the central conflict of the musical, as Jing discovers her husband’s secret and struggles to let him go. It is slightly confusing that the title implies Jing is the one torn between two men, but the musical’s focus on her as the anchor between the two men was an innovative choice that added real complexity to the piece.
The narrative is fairly simple and slow-paced, allowing the three leads to explore their characters. It opens with Bei and Jing’s wedding day, before skipping back to the engaged couple moving in together. Jing visits her therapist Doctor Lam (Crystal Shen); although their relationship is very strong, she is worried Bei is not sexually attracted to her. As soon as Nan is introduced, and Jing confirms her suspicions, Xiao brings us back to extend the wedding scene, where a distraught and inebriated Nan reveals his love for Bei before the families present.
The second act focuses on the aftermath. Bei’s father viciously disowns him for his homosexuality and Jing’s mother admonishes his deceit. Jing tries to understand her husband’s sexuality, but struggles to forgive him. With no one left to turn to, Bei returns to Nan. Here, the narrative begins to accelerate to its detriment. Nan has spiralled into depression, and has contracted AIDS. In the closing twenty minutes, Bei rushes him to hospital, but the treatment fails and Nan passes away. The final scene jumps back to the characters’ time as students. All three are in a choir, but Nan has not arrived to conduct them. Bei leads the group, shakily, in a song of hope and renewal with a bashful Jing casting glances his way. It is a deeply moving end to a story of complex and messy situations.
To a viewer far more familiar with Western than Eastern entertainment, Nanjing Beijing often lapses into melodrama. Conveying important plot points through extended scenes with Jing under hypnosis feels jarring, and some solo songs musing about the nature of love come across a little heavy-handed. Having said this, much of the beauty and emotional impact of Xiao’s poetry is lost in what I’m told is quite a reductive, utilitarian English translation. For a non-Mandarin speaker, it is a testament to the work’s affective power and clarity of meaning that I can understand large sections of it without necessarily having to look at the translation every few seconds. The relationship between Bei and Nan could be better developed too; more moments of intimacy would really heighten the drama.
I think it’s also important to note that while Nanjing’s material may seem well-covered and its themes of overcoming homophobia perhaps a little outdated, it is dealing with characters caught in a country that is socially regressive in many ways. Xiao notes that his impetus for the work was China’s reticence to stamp out homophobia: homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1997 and taken off the list of mental illnesses in 2000. In this context, the play is a really impassioned political work, crying to end discrimination worldwide. The sheer relief of finding a musical that deconstructs the trope of musical theatre – that of heterosexual courtship – was joyful enough in itself.
Xiao’s music is scored beautifully, with a range of styles and genres: a delightful bossa nova busting gender stereotypes, gorgeous piano interludes and more traditional Chinese melodies. The orchestra handles it well, despite persistent intonation problems. Numerous complicated costume changes means that scene changes are often very slow, and the performance I saw was unfortunately plagued by a few technical difficulties.
Most of all, Nanjing Beijing treats its audience to some beautiful images and intensely affecting moments. Lighting designer Shanny Wong bathing the back wall of Union Theatre with orange and pink light, like a sunset against the silhouette of a broken metropolis; a stage full of strangers sharing umbrellas in the pouring rain; golden lanterns illuminate a cold blue night. Just as one doctor refuses to treat Nan because China will not legally accept Bei’s signature, another one risks his job – and possibly incarceration – to forge the signature in an act of pure human compassion.
At a time when there are many stories of LGBTI people on our stages and screens, it is a special experience to see one produced by so many talented young artists through the lens of Chinese culture and customs. Nanjing Beijing is not a perfect show, but it is moving and deeply felt.
The Chinese Music Group’s production of Nanjing Beijing played in the Union Theatre, Union House, the University of Melbourne, from September 17-19.