“Drift” has journeyed to Underbelly’s Pasture all the way from Shanghai, courtesy of Rosita L Janbakhsh‘s Shanghai Repertory Theatre, an ex-pat theatre group which has previously staged King Lear and A Christmas Carol for Shanghai audiences. Yet “Drift” is an English adaptation of an original Chinese play (which was first written by Nick Yu) and its theme of going native is furthered through the representation of Chinese characters by “foreign” actors. The play begins in Singapore, where a collection of interconnected characters gradually concede that they have no roots in this city. They drift to Shanghai, but the prospect of Chinese assimilation does not provide a sense of belonging and perhaps home will always be elsewhere.
The stage is too small for this play’s nine actors, and it is like being in a house party where a succession of people wander in and out of the box room, whilst we struggle to remember who they are and where we first met them. Nodding in a sweet narcotic steam, half deadened under this play’s sleepy spell, bright things occasionally catch our eye – the initially dreamlike story of a man who daily photographs the same house, the apparition of a scent which frequents the haunts of lost love, the sudden cynical clarity of a businessman as he bids adieu to his mistress for the final time.
There are moments of fine writing, particularly when an aging prostitute mourns the arrival of new, younger women who drip with the water that men need to “cleanse their hearts.” The cast work hard to keep us from drifting off, and the play especially benefits from Thomas Caron‘s performance as a rueful, growling old man.
But this play cannot wholly escape becoming tedious. There is a good play in here somewhere, but they have been too indulgent with the editing and we could lose a couple of characters and a few pages of dialogue without any ill effects. The trouble is indeed one of drift. That restlessness and empty searching which is at the back of every human mind has been brought to the very front of this play, whilst the sheer fascination of life in Singapore and Shanghai has faded into the background.
Surely an Edinburgh audience does not care for anything more than the gist of these peoples’ stories, whilst they are more likely to be interested in the colour and detail and atmosphere of their settings, and the experience of migrating to a huge super-city such as Shanghai. The gimmick of getting ex-pats to play Chinese characters proves strangely indicative of a broader failing. We end up with negated, expressionless presences, noodles which have had any authentic flavour of China boiled out of them.