By Jenny Scott
Joe Lui is a brave man. Why else would he have ensured that his first starring role was nothing less than a 70 minute, intensely personal monologue?
Sparked by unsent letters to his estranged Singaporean parents, Lui’s ‘Letters Home’ is a poignant reflection on the process of making meaning from the past. Lui balances an easy-going, anecdotal humour with tender and sometimes brutally honest personal reflections, as his monologue spans a breadth of knowledge from Chinese wedding traditions, to the impact of Singapore’s National Service, and the concept of free will, to Hellboy’s back-story.
Lui is no stranger to Perth theatre audiences, most recently directing ‘Giving Up the Ghosts’ at The Blue Room earlier in the year, and his backstage experience is clear in this production. From the use of space and gesture to the stagecraft and costuming, each element of the play has been thoughtfully considered and made meaningful by Lui and his production team. Props accumulate – a Chinese hot pot, a whip, the stars – and are cleverly utilised by Lui to construct his own personal iconography. This symbolism remains sharpest in the contrast between his empty dining room chairs, spaced around a table set for a family dinner, and the full seats of the watching Perth audience.
The comfortable domestic interior of the set and Lui’s conversational tone create an easy sense of intimacy, ultimately making his personal disclosures seem all the more heartfelt and devastating. When he’s at his most lively – re-enacting traditional Chinese tales, explaining his rules for creative collaboration (and sex) – it’s easy to imagine the personable Lui regaling us as a group at a house party. But of course the domestic interior is a construct, and Lui continually employs self-referentiality to keep us aware that this is all a performance. Incorporating site-specific references to The Blue Room as a feature of his personal narrative, Lui draws our attention to the practical components of a theatrical production, such as the sound desk, the smoke machine, and the bartender. His self-conscious asides both pre-empt potential criticism, as he calls his original letter to his parents ‘over-wrought’, and ultimately imply that Lui is his own worst critic as he shares his uncertainties and self-doubt.
‘Letters Home’ is an epic feat of performance, but Lui makes the 70 minutes seem effortless. Just when the audience started getting restless, Lui finished with an engaging flourish. Although he explicitly dismisses the bravery of an actor compared to the actions of, say, a nurse, or G.I. Joe, the depths of Lui’s candour and the ease at which he shares his introspection demonstrate true courage.
‘Letters Home’ runs until October 4.
Image by Simon Pynt.