For a small-scale solo production, The Empress And Me packs some sumptuous visual punch. Telling the life story of Princess Der Ling, a Chinese courtier from the turn of the twentieth century, the lacquered screen at the back of the stage is instantly evocative of a faraway land. In front of it stands Der Ling herself – resplendent in to-us-exotic finery – topped off by what is, even by Brighton standards, a truly extraordinary hat.
We join Der Ling in the middle of a lecture, and the world she’s describing is extraordinary too: filled with rich colours and verdant gardens, a fitting home for an empress. The empress in question is Cixi, the de-facto ruler of China for 47 years, and Der Ling’s life story is subtly intertwined with hers. The daughter of a diplomat, Der Ling travelled widely – but found her life transformed (not entirely for the better) when her family was recalled to Cixi’s court.
The storyline is largely a series of anecdotes, but those anecdotes are chosen well. We laugh and tut at the cultural insensitivity of American guests, who treat the Forbidden City as though it’s some kind of petting zoo; but conversely, we learn that the Chinese people themselves are capable of violent xenophobia to rival anything from our modern age. The meeting of cultures is an inevitable recurring theme, but there are universal stories too – the pain of separation, the death of a father, the upheavals of moving home.
Playwright Ross Ericson also delivers a subtle history lesson, charting the intrigue surrounding Cixi’s rule and setting it in the context of China’s hesitant engagement with the world. I confess that I’d never heard of the Boxer Rebellion, but the references in the script were enough to pique my interest – and later, at home, Wikipedia did the rest.
The issue I have is that, despite some notional changes of scene and well-executed switches of costume, the play never really moves on from the lecture it opens with. Even when she retires to her dressing room, Der Ling still speaks to us through the fourth wall – continuing, for no very obvious reason, to tell us the story of her life. Actor Michelle Yim engages well with the audience, making her musings feel like a reminiscence rather than a biography, but there were still times when I felt I was having a bit too much information poured into my ear.
Yim’s sour-faced mimicry of the caustic empress provides some welcome comic relief – and perhaps it would help dispel the classroom vibe if she brought another couple of characters similarly to life. As things are, though, this is an interesting journey to an unfamiliar place, and an enjoyable insight into a remarkable tale. Worth the trip to the Rialto.