Loving Mr. Shi and His Lover at the NAC

Photos by Erik Kuong and Etang Chen

It never ceases to amaze me what an incredible place a stage can be.  It is where you can be deeply moved by a story, by the talent of actors, by the beauty of music, where you can admire clothing, the set designs and be transported to a completely other world.  Sure, that happens in the movies, and as we enter the season of Hollywood slapping itself on the back for last year’s movie offerings, we will hear all about the magic of movies.  However, the intimacy of theatre, of being right there with the actors as they put themselves on the line mere feet away from you, cannot be reproduced on a screen.  Not even Luke Skywalker can do it.

You can be brought to tears in laughter in one minute by a funny, silly and outrageous character brought brilliantly to life through action, improv and talent (as in Mark Allan who played Mia in Alice in Winterland at the Gladstone… don’t miss Ottawa Musicals next Christmas at the Gladstone. He stole the show.) 

You can also experience bizarre stories and situations that will leave you scratching your head on the one hand, and completely mesmerized on the other.  That is the case in the current NAC production of Mr. Shi and His Lover, based on the true story of Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat who was seduced into Chinese espionage by his Chinese opera singer lover Shi Pei Pu. Both ended up in jail for it. (Speaking of movies, David Cronenberg’s movie M Butterfly is based on the story.)  Pu is a man who played a woman (as is the tradition in Chinese opera) but he took it to the extreme in his personal life and had a 20-year affair with Boursicot, who, the story goes, didn’t realize Pu was a man.  Intriguing.  Pu had even feigned pregnancy. 

Flash forward to today and the National Arts Centre.  The current production, Mr. Shi and His Lover also tells that tale through a hauntingly beautiful theatrical marvel.  The music, the movement, the singing, acting…everything about this show is polished, touching and definitely thought provoking.  The lyrics delve into the meaning of love, the deceptions between lovers, failed love and lots of passion.

It is helpful to know the story otherwise you might, like me at first, find it bewildering because you have to concentrate not only on the plot and singing, but on subtitles.  This piece is performed in Mandarin — it is actually the first non-English language production for NAC English Theatre. There are references to traditions in Chinese culture and legends, which again, if you know them will enhance your experience but you don’t need to know them.  The cast is outstanding and carries the show. Jordan Cheng (Mr. Shi) and Derek Kwan (Boursicot) grab you right from the beginning and keep your interest and tear at your heartstrings. They are joined on stage by talented tpercussionist and Marimba musician Yukie Lai and pianist Njo Kong Kie, who fit seamlessly into everything.

Cheng is stunning to watch and listen to but Kwan holds his own and offers up a wonderful performance as well.  However, Cheng’s body is magnificent to watch in the delicate way he moves around the stage and is almost hypnotizing.

It is such a shame that the NAC shows in the Azrieli Studio are always shorter than some of the NAC’s bigger productions in the larger theatre space.  The plays in the Studio are always worthy of a longer run, and for seeing twice.