His Mother’s Voice

ATYP Studio, May 4

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell as Little Liu. Photo: Tessa Tran

Justin Fleming’s new play His Mother’s Voice is a fascinating, absorbing play that combines sweeping politics with a powerful human drama.

Set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, it tells the story of a virtuoso pianist Qian Liu (Isaiah Powell as a child and Harry Tseng as an adult) whose mother Yang Jia (Renee Lim) teaches him to play the piano at a time when it was considered “the most dangerous of all Western instruments” and when Western music was banned.

Even when Liu’s father (John Gomez Goodway) is murdered and their piano is destroyed by Chinese apparatchiks, she finds a way to keep up her son’s lessons, despite the danger of severe punishment as a counter-revolutionary.

Eventually, Liu defects – with his mother’s blessing – while visiting Australia for an international piano competition, accompanied by his wife, an Australian woman working in Shanghai as a translator (Dannielle Jackson), and his father-in-law (Michael Gooley) who is a diplomat.

Fleming’s play resonates with passionate arguments about music and politics. Mao’s Communist Party will only sanction Chinese music; Yang Jia believes that Chinese and Western music complement each other and should be equally respected.

There are times when the play becomes a bit overtly didactic, particularly in the debates between Liu and his father-in-law, but overall it is beautifully written, capturing both the epic nature of the political background and the intimate personal relationships. The emotional stakes feel high and very real.

His exploration of the Chinese embrace of contradiction in a touching encounter when Yang Jia is interrogated in prison, and an amusing scene when Chinese officials negotiate Liu’s return is particularly well evoked.

Suzanne Millar directs the play for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company with great clarity on a simple set, which she co-designed with John Harrison and uses very cleverly.

Performed with great commitment by a cast of 12 (10 of them from Asian backgrounds), Renee Lim shines as Yang Jia, quietly capturing her strength, courage, idealism, intelligence and deep love for her son in a radiant, moving performance.

His Mother’s Voice plays at the ATYP Studio until May 17. Bookings: 9270 2400