Caught between a wok and a hard place

Mu-Lan theatre company's new play is a stir-fry of divided loyalty, racial tension and emotional strife in a Chinese family. Its author is a white, middle-class Brit who says the human condition is a universal one. Mark Cook meets the director; Dominic Cavendish reviews the play below
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There's an obvious joke about a play set in a Chinese take-away - something about drama by numbers. But that's not the sort of thing you would expect from Mu-Lan, Britain's first Oriental theatre company, which has earnt itself a reputation, appropriately, for small but perfectly performed productions.

Stephen Clark, the author of Mu-Lan's latest play, Take-away, knows all the jokes about this particular institution and has incorporated them into a piece that deals with what it is like for British Chinese to be a "banana" - yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Caught between a wok and a hard place, you might say.

The subject matter was prompted by Mu-Lan's artistic director, Glen Goei (an Oxford graduate from Singapore who came straight out of drama school to star opposite Anthony Hopkins in the West End premiere of M Butterfly) after he drove through Devon and Cornwall only to find take-aways in the smallest of villages. "It blew my mind," says Goei. What were once fish- and-chip shops are now Chinese or Indian-run - and an integral part of the British Saturday night out.

The idea was then workshopped by Clark and a group of actors, by chance, in the basement of a deserted Chinese restaurant. "It seemed like a good idea, as the take-away is a microcosm of East and West, and that suspicion we have of the Chinese, of what goes on behind the beaded curtain," says Clark, who has divided the stage down the middle, showing both sides of the bamboo divide.

"There's a take-away in every Little Piddlington up and down the country - they're part of our culture. But they are also very isolated in their own way, so I thought it would be interesting to write about what goes on in them, and how we treat them. There is also something innately very amusing about them, with all the jokes and traditions, so it was a fertile starting point."

After Clark had written an hour-long version from the actors' improvisations, it was performed at Shared Experience's London base. He was then commissioned to write a full-length version, which won a pounds 20,000 performance grant from the London Arts Board's Diverse Acts Scheme.

The issues thrown up by the cast - largely of Singaporean extraction, plus a former Vietnamese boat refugee - focused on the responsibility of the youngest son in the family to look after his relations.

"It's what happens when you have people who are immigrants and whose first language isn't English. They set up a take-away as a means of making a living, but it is very insular. The second generation finds that its ambitions are much wider; there is a clash between the expectations of the parents and those of the children."

This is personified in the play through one of three sons, who wants to go to University and finds his family loyalty tested. "It's a classic second-generation problem," says Clark who has returned to plays after being side-tracked into musicals. (He won an Olivier award for his reworking of Martin Guerre - to be revamped again and staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the autumn - and is currently working on a project with Elton John and Bernie Taupin for their Rocket Theatre company.)

Add to that the "banana" syndrome of people who have lost their Chinese roots but are somehow embedded in an isolated island of their culture within the larger British way of life.

"The black community has very much integrated itself into the culture - you don't get Africatowns in cities, but there are always Chinatowns. The Indian Asian community has grown up around the corner shop, but there aren't Bombaytowns."

But Clark is quick to dismiss the notion that his play is a socialogical tract, and cites its more surreal episodes illustrating the accepted conventions of the milieu; the gangs of lagered youth demanding chips with curry sauce and jokes about "flied lice", the unsmiling, inscrutable demeanour of the staff. There is the familiar TV, fish tank and high counter, the gaudy calendars and Chinese lanterns, all trappings of a transaction carried out with as little human communication as possible.

"It's not a particularly polite play," observes Clark, adding that his cast were anxious to deal with the stereotypes. "They wanted to explode a few myths but also look at where it's a fair cop."

So how does he feel, as a British man, writing a play for an Oriental theatre company? "Years ago, I wrote a play about a middle-aged woman, who lost her child at five. It was about rediscovering her life and how it affected her marriage. I'm not a middle-aged woman, yet many people were extremely moved by it and several women who had experienced the same thing asked me how I knew. I could just write about 37-year-old, balding, white middle-class men - but that wouldn't be very interesting for me or the audience.

"I think we are obsessed by differences, between male and female, gay and straight, tall and short. Obviously, they are fascinating and a major part of our life experience, but compared with the common ground of the human experience the differences are not huge. We all love, hate, get horny, feel jealousy - we all want things."

That combination of the universal and specifically, Oriental, is something that Mu Lan has strived for over the years with such productions as Chay Yew's Porcelain, a stylish look at what it means to be gay and Chinese, which won several awards after transferring from Camden Town's Etcetera Theatre to the Royal Court. In The Magic Fundoshi, the company investigated the Japanese tradition of Kyogen comic drama with three plays by Donald Ritchie, while Three Japanese Women, by Malcom Campbell, was set in a Hiroshima brothel six years after the bomb.

Mu-Lan's name comes from a legendary female general in the Chinese Army, whose Yentl-type story is to be told in a Disney cartoon of the same name later this year. Since it began in 1989, the company's philosophy has been to promote Chinese actors, directors and writers, help develop new writing and question the Chinese stereotypes seen in the media. The latter is one with which actor David Yip, best known from TV's Chinese Detective, is all too familiar. As one who was once told he was "not Chinese enough" for a film role, he also understands the "banana" dilemma. He believes that the British Chinese community lagged behind other ethnic minorities when "black arts" were recognised, and only now is it starting to find a real voice. "It's not just in the arts. Things are moving forward in the business community, which was previously very conservative. It's not about complaining, it's about looking forward."

Indeed, Mu-Lan is currently launching a joint collaboration with the Royal Court's Young People's Theatre, a workshop for Oriental playwrights. So perhaps Yip will finally stop being offered roles as evil triads? He chuckles. "Oh, if only. Things are changing, and I am an eternal optimist, but there is still a long way to go."

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