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Never work with subtitles. Despite W.C. Fields’ famous advice, children or animals are never going to seriously jeopardise a Fringe show, unless you have cast a temperamental five year old as your Hamlet, but Nanjing University’s new play “I am a Moon” found itself at the mercy of errant subtitles. Indeed, with able actors and some rich dialogue, they had nailed everything except the subtitles. First they were too high, obscured behind some overhanging lights. Next they had slipped down behind the heads of the actors. Sometimes line after line blinked past before we could catch them. On one occasion, a great emotional speech was accompanied only by the lone word, “Then.”

We wouldn’t tell the folks back in Nanjing – or even Zhu Yi who has created this play – if they had performed the entire thing in English. Half of “I am a Moon” is indeed performed in straight English, and this play, which can be presently found at Spaces on North Bridge, interests itself in the barriers between human communication. Two young lovers try to kiss for the first time, but their glasses smack together. The gloomy Angela (Lei Shuran) addresses the audience whilst chomping on thick mouthfuls of crisps. When Angela meets the rock star Justin (Zhou Yanyan) – who seems to be an airy Chinese version of Alice Cooper – they have nothing in common except for their loneliness, they might as well be speaking in different languages, and so they do. Justin rants in unsubtitled Chinese; Angela answers in English.

Jimmy (Yan Ying) first appears in only his pants, but he is separated from us by a silken screen which reflects random film footage, giving the impression of a 3D Adonis who is trapped inside a television. Other characters appear only on screen, wobbling and 2D. After watching the man across the street masturbating alone in his apartment, Angela remarks that when everybody leaves their curtains open, this tenement is like a television with a hundred different channels. Yet the multimedia adds little to the play when it works and it sabotages everything when the subtitles are not synchronised with the dialogue or a prop is left lying around to obscure the screen. Most of the play’s chosen themes could have been just as thoroughly explored through bare storytelling and acting.

The title, if you were wondering, refers to the idea that everybody looks good from far away, but pitted with craters when you get too close. “I am a Moon” could be regarded as a string of stories from any city, which together follow the anonymity and aimlessness of city life. Yet it also gently interrogates a people’s destiny; contrasting the memory of some rioting Maoist students who had beaten up one of their professors with the sorry figure of the self-loathing Angela. The former is said to have expressed the beauty and promise of China’s youth, whilst today’s equivalent is only happy when she is floating around supermarkets where there is “nothing negative.”

The play begins and ends with the fantasy of a Chinese man landing on the moon, which is at once poetic and uneasily nationalistic. Needless to say, this astronaut has not brought his glasses, and so he might as well be regarding the moon from the Earth. It is pleasant to find the Chinese so cynical.

A society of 1.3 billion people must have the resources to knock up a few Fringe shows. A glance at the Nanjing University’s website reveals a prestigious and flourishing drama department. In Edinburgh, Chinese productions are few and far between – “I am the Moon” is running for only two days – but to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Fringe is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven, and when it comes to China we should be demanding more than a trickle.

[I have tried my best by the time of going to print, but please correct me if the names of the cast are awry, by using the comment box below. Ed]

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