“Soldier M.I.A. – Ming Poon”
by Charmain Poh (23rd November 2023, English Theatre Berlin)
The story of Hua Mulan is undoubtedly a compelling one, even if fictional, believed to have been first mentioned in The Ballad of Mulan, composed during the Northern Wei dynasty between 386-535 CE. Although the story has been resurrected and retold throughout the centuries in historical fiction novels, Chinese opera, plays and films, the core tenets of the story remain the same: as a form of filial piety to aid her father, Mulan dresses up as a man to join the army, which is facing impending war.
In a time of surrounding wars, especially recent ones which are drawing close to Europe’s borders, this is a narrative that one living on this continent might feel the need to take a closer look at. Soldier M.I.A. takes a tableaux, frozen in time, as a point of (quite literal) departure: it is the moment after Mulan leaves home and before she reaches the army. As dramaturg and performer Dandan Liu points out in her dramaturgical notes: in this performance, Mulan is not a story, but a situation. Able to leave behind her societal confines as a woman and not yet having to camouflage into manhood, this situation offers a palimpsest, a springboard upon which various imaginaries can take place.
It is here that the four performers take stage, and as skill bearers of dance, costume, sound, and dramaturgy, coming from various Chinese diasporic backgrounds, contemplate the subjectivities of Mulan. By association, the complex geopolitical encounters that each faces, whether in Taiwan, China, or Singapore, loom in the background, converging onto Mulan as a figure beyond complete knowability.
By bringing backstage work to the front stage, the piece opens up seldom-explored lines of inquiry around the situation, seemingly situating itself in between the dramatic tension of theatre and the investigative nature of the performance-lecture. It is this in-betweenness that we see throughout: the performers drop in and out of heightened facades, and their interpretations cast a wide range of genres, from the autobiography to poetry.
In the beginning, the audience is offered context: Mulan was possibly used as a model to encourage women to serve the nation as well as, upon return, play their role as dutiful daughter to the household. The premise therefore offers potential, as the instrumentalisation and oversimplification of Mulan most definitely ought to be challenged. By stripping away the character and offering an open-endedness to the aforementioned situation, the piece seems structured around a collaborative brainstorming session. Take, for instance, Singaporean-Chinese dancer Lee Mun Wai’s autobiographical account of being an effeminate gay young man in the army. In a hypothetical enemy scenario, he wonders, why can’t we all just kiss? Taiwanese sound artist Sum-Sum Shen, in contrast, focuses on sounds of resistance; her sound piece features a collection of recordings that paint a landscape of personhood. There are no conclusive endings, but nodes of impressions.
At one point, early in the piece, the audience is introduced to the representation of Mulan in Chinese opera, particularly in the form of the Nan Dan. Via gauzy footage projected on stage, the audience sees a male actor portraying the female role of Mulan, not an uncommon practice in the historical traditions of Chinese opera. This first glimpse of Mulan enlivened through form offers intrigue: how many more layers has history given space to this story, or rather, this situation?
For twenty minutes in the later half of the piece, the audience is invited to interact with the performers, co-creating imaginaries of sound, movement, costume, and stories. On the screen above the stage, questions fade in over a pink background, asking audience members to help them each find their version of Mulan. With the Barbie movie having recently screened in cinemas, one is led to wonder about the Barbiefication of Mulan. What, or who, can Mulan be to us? The costume designer, Tin Wang, most explicitly explores this: upon a rack lay various costume pieces in sparkles of silver and pink for audience members to try on, as an armour of their own choosing.
Considering the director, Ming Poon’s, artistic trajectory, such participation seems par for the course. The lights come on, and the blackbox is meant to be only part of the space of encounter. The audience are participants in a call for allyship. Built into the piece is a question that is timelessly urgent: how do we build solidarities? For we must. That, itself, is not a question.