There are more East Asians in the audience for Forgotten 遗忘 than I’ve seen in the audience for possibly anything else, and that feels significant even before we get into the play’s subject. Daniel York Loh’s latest play takes the story of poor, ordinary people with little idea of who they’re fighting or who the “tyrants” are: they labour for the British side in the First World War for the money, the opportunity to change their fortunes back home.
The Chinese Labour Corps, made up of nearly 100,000 men, mainly from the north of China, were employed as frontline, non-combatant support; Forgotten 遗忘 follows the fortunes in the Corps of one group of men from Shangdong, an amateur theatre troupe. It’s no spoiler to say it doesn’t exactly go well, even for Old Six’s wife, Second Moon (Rebecca Boey), left behind in the village with their baby. But there’s nothing here for them, no reason to stay: performing opera is getting them nowhere.
As Old Six, Michael Phong Le’s face is full of kindness and vigour, and Camille Mallet De Chauny is measured as his friend – more like his brother, he corrects himself – Big Dog, a layabout with a ponytail. Second Moon teases him as “so Qing Dynasty.” Jon Chew has much more fun in his short turn as the gambling lout Wild Swan than the plaintive, boorish Headman Zhang, while Zachary Hing plays a naive, uncertain eunuch in a time when demand for eunuchs unfortunately couldn’t be any lower, following the collapse of the Imperial Dynasty.
Rebecca Boey has a rather thankless role in Second Moon: clearly York Loh is making an effort to not overlook the women left behind when telling this story, but Second Moon gets short shrift, whether pleading with her husband not to leave or fending off a rapist. The play doesn’t have the time to devote to this latter part properly. We see her taking on the persona of the ‘Miraculous Traveller’ (a folkloric figure she played in the theatre troupe) in response to the violence against her, but we haven’t spent enough time with her to appreciate the full weight of her declaration “My life is the opera”. Nor is there quite time enough for York Loh to dig really deep with his commentary on theatre’s place in all of this, and his identification of it with traditional Chinese culture and superstition.
He certainly knows how to turn a phrase (“We Chinese tend towards the familial”), and particularly when Leo Wan is talking as the Professor, he manages the translated Chinese phrases deftly too. Other cast members, however, struggle with them: they’re unwieldy, a lot to get out at once, and it leads to hurrying or shouting. Forgotten 遗忘 is a very wordy play, and in the confines of the Arcola’s Studio 2 the company does their best with synchronised, simple but elegant choreography. I wish I knew more about my heritage to describe these movements, but what’s important is that you believe the athleticism of this troupe and imagine it destroyed by the hard labour and worse conditions to which the men are subjected.
The traditional instruments (gong, drum, flute) are ditched after the beginning of the play: there’s little time in this story for these things. An opium pipe is ingeniously fashioned from a vape, but Big Dog has to leave this habit which so disgusts his friends behind. War rushes on. Eunuch Lin is prevailed upon to keep singing, as a kind of talisman for them all, which becomes harder and harder: he eventually loses his life in a trivial disagreement, something his friends tell each other could have happened back at home.
Big Dog manages to take advantage of the fact that the British and French forces cannot tell the Chinese labourers apart, but even though York Loh’s focus is entirely on the Chinese men rather than the officers of the Allied Powers, their dismissal and contempt for the lives and dignity of the workers is strongly felt. They ask, for instance, that if the Chinese must hang themselves, they do so in their own quarters.
York Loh’s delicate work in much of the play is slightly let down by a heavy-handed final scene set at the end of the war, which hammers home, in detail and almost by-numbers, the Labour Corps’ reasons for joining up and their treatment by the westerners. It feels as if York Loh’s nerve deserted him a little, and the costuming, up to this point impeccable, colourful at times, and realistic, is suddenly bizarre. Boey plays an art student in Paris somehow wearing the heftiest of brown grandfather cardigans with yet another cardigan underneath and too-wide pinstriped suit trousers. It’s a confusing choice given the competence of the rest of the play, which is, altogether, a fitting offering to just a few of those that history missed out.
Forgotten 遗忘 is on at the Arcola Theatre until 17th November. More information here.