Do you remember watching magicians as a child, witnessing their show with an air of irritation as you tried to calculate how they pulled off their little illusions? When watching the multimedia production Gold Mountain, this sensation is repeated – but now we have the extra irritation that springs from knowing that beyond the visual dexterity lies a story with unrealised potential.
Born of a collaboration between Liverpool’s Unity Theatre and Montreal-based Les Deux Mondes, Gold Mountain is the autobiographical retelling of playwright and actor David Yip’s quest to discover his father. Through this piece, Yip attempts to walk in the shoes of Chinese seaman Yee Lui as he travels from Asia to England in search of a figuratively ambiguous ‘gold mountain’. Fellow actor Eugene Salleh is cast as David, the son of Lui and a white, Liverpudlian mother.
Maybe it’s unfair to call this piece self-indulgent – after all, Yip is a conscious advocate of “writ[ing] about what you know” – yet, unfortunately, Gold Mountain seems to have little relevance until you realise it’s part of an autobiographical tale of discovery, a tension that is not made explicit or really explored in the play itself. The result is a counterproductive attempt to give China a voice, which threatens to leave members of a fidgeting audience feeling distanced from its subject matter.
Yip wrote Gold Mountain with a view to counter the an absence of writing from a Chinese perspective in the British scene, and the scriptwriter criticises a pattern of characterisation where Chinese actors are often trapped as peripheral figures in someone else’s narrative. To aspire to correct this imbalance is an admirable ambition, but it’s hard to see how this is achieved in this production, where the mixed-race son struggles to understand his doddering father and regards the older man with confusion and embarrassment whenever he exhibits ideas contrary to the mainstream Western view.
With their excessively clever set design, visual clichés and questionable font choices, Canadian producing theatre Les Deux Mondes does little to reclaim a sense of recognition. Because of this, these ‘two worlds’ — of East and West, of ambition and reality, of father and son — never quite meet. Notably, there are two ill-fitting backdrops in this piece. The first is a complex political background, which is coloured by references to Mao Tse-tung and the war with Japan. Against these national chronicles, an overweight pathos is felt as David battles with father to establish a shared history, a touch of disillusion evident in his tone as he asks “Do you remember that, Dad?”
The second background is more literal. With screens, projection, video and shadow, Les Deux Mondes constantly invents new ways to distract us. As silhouettes and animation become increasingly tangled, we are unconsciously challenged to spot the point where the boundaries blur. Such devices may suggest a nimble creativity, but they pull attention away from the worthy historicism of the script.
Indeed, thanks to Le Deux Mondes, this is one poser of a show, and the production shots will tell you that Gold Mountain is a performance that just begs to be captured. For fleeting moments, the staging of the piece adds a glimmer of meaning to Lui’s aesthetic dream of finding his own gold mountain. Yet such attempts are undermined as the father’s addiction to gambling and dependence on opium are explored, making these gold mountains seem like deeply material, rather than poetic, dreams. As the piece continues to make such flawed attempts to bridge the distance, one thing is certain. All that glitters ain’t gold.
Gold Mountain is playing at the Albany Theatre until 29th April. For more information and tickets see the Albany Theatre website.