A NANKING WINTER By Marjorie Chan, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones (Nightwood/Cahoots). At Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). To March 16. Pwyc-$36. 416-504-9971. Rating: NN
Watching Marjorie Chan’s A Nanking Winter, it’s hard not to think about Sonja Mills’s The Danish Play, produced by the same company, Nightwood Theatre, several years ago. Both deal with the disturbing legacy of wartime atrocities, but Mills’s superior work features credible characters artfully interwoven into the fabric of history.
A Nanking Winter ignores the first tenet of good writing. It tells – often in shrill dialogue – when it should show.
Inspired by The Rape Of Nanking, Iris Chang’s revelatory account of the Japanese 1937 occupation, and also drawing on the author’s subsequent suicide, the play is neatly but problematically divided into two parts.
The first act centres on Irene Wu (Grace Lynn Kung) on the eve of the publication of her book exposing the carnage to a Western public. The second act plunges us backwards into the violent events themselves.
It’s no surprise that Act II packs more punch than the first. Hundreds of young women, including Little Mei (Kung) and Big Mei (Ella Chan), are holed up in Nanking’s Ginling College.
They’re temporarily sheltered from the Japanese soldiers by missionary Anna Mallery (Brooke Johnson) and German businessman/Nazi official Niklas Hermann (Stephen Russell), who exploits his connections to get the college designated as a safety zone.
Mallery and Hermann are based on real-life figures Minnie Vautrin and John Rabe, and Chan doesn’t need to do much with their gripping stories except transpose names. Writerly attempts to juxtapose monologues feel contrived and forced.
Kung and Chan deliver good work in the second half, but Johnson wrestles uncomfortably with awkward dialogue and a character who never leaps from the page to the stage.
The implausible set-up in the first half hinges on the changing of a book title. Not very dramatic.
The doubling of roles fails to pay off, and director Ruth Madoc-Jones can’t do much with the present-day material – the entrances and exits alone feel amateurish.
Camellia Koo’s set, meanwhile, feels more organic in the second half, where a wall made of wooden planks effectively turns into the crucial gate that blocks the violent enemy.