Saturday 11 May 2024

THE BRIDAL LAMENT: Performance Review

WHAT: The Bridal Lament
WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
CREATED & PERFORMED BY: Rainbow Chan
ANIMATION BY: Rel Pham
SET BY: Al Joel and Emily Borghi
LIGHTING BY: Govin Ruben
COSTUME BY: Al Joel

Rainbow Chan - photo by Sarah Walker

Song cycles are always rather unpredictable performance modes for audiences. The question becomes one of whether the music stands as musical exploration or whether it stands as storytelling. The Bridal Lament which is produced by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and in its third iteration, this time at Arts House, is a song cycle which has Rainbow Chan exploring her Weitou cultural heritage both as part of a diaspora and also as part of her own authentic musical signature.

Chan's family left Hong Kong aroung the year the British lease of the territories expired in 1984. A millennia earlier, ancestors had left the mainland to settle into a walled village in what was to become known as Hong Kong. This agrarian culture are the people of Chan's matriarchal lineage. 

Centuries ago, weeping and wailing became formalised ritual as part of the Chinese people's relationships with their gods. It was also one of the few ritual forms which imbued women with magical/mystical agency in a patriarchal domination which takes the breath away to even try and conceive. For some time preceding the Cultural Revolution the celebration of marriage through wailing and lamenting became established in folk culture. As part of holding on to the past whilst marching inexorably into the future, Chan has revisited one of the communities in Hong Kong which still contain women who lived these experiences, women who learnt and performed these laments as part of their life events. Chan's mother was not one of these women, but her grandmother most certainly was.

There is a certain dark humour lurking within the implied horror lying under the current of these laments which Chan has resurrected. Young girls spend years learning these songs in the full knowledge they are going to be sentenced to a life of exile with people they do not know to live out a fate they have no way of foreseeing. A life in which they will have no personal agency at all. Once the matchmaker has done their job, the bride to be sits in a loft and sings her bridal laments for three days. Her feet may never touch the ground again until she is wed. 

What is left unsaid in Chan's show is that these laments are not actually for the family although it is the family who listens. They are for the gods. This period is a liminal state for the young woman who is trying to seduce the gods into making sure her fate is not as terrible as it possibly could be. It is no coincidence that in these traditional laments the groom is called the 'King of Hell'. The young woman is about to leave everyone and everything she knows to live with someone with that title and once this lamentation ritual is complete, she is expected to never cry again!

In Chan's The Bridal Lament she sings those laments to us in a blend of Weitouhua and English. Traditional chants are mixed and blended and melded with Chan's own brand of electro-pop. Parallelling the story of young brides preparing for their journey into the unknown, Chan gently weaves in the tale of her own family's exodus and how she finds herself part of the modern diaspora. Director Tessa Leong has worked with Chan to craft a thoroughly engrossing piece of theatre to accompany Chan's playlist. The explored social traditions are echoed gently in the slightly assonant tunings of Chan's music which whisper to us, the people in her new home, of the cultural dissonances of the past which make an excitingly different here and now.

The Bridal Lament looks to the past but connects women of a bygone era to those of today. As Chan tells us, these laments are a form of rebellion. They are a call to resist their fate as best they can. Chan, herself, is the embodiment of the success of that rebellion despite the distance in time and location it has taken to achieve it. As much as we might want to wallow in the victory, Chan reminds us that it is important to remember the pain of the past. How can we know who we are if we don't know who we have been? This is true of all of us, both within our individual cultural histories, but also within the history of the community we now find ourselves a part of.

Chan is accompanied by animations created by Rel Pham and shares the stage with a magnificent crystalline installation designed by Al Joel and Emily Borghi referencing rain, tears, cleansing. It is the carriage carrying the bride to her new husband. It is the mouth in a mouth, a whirlpool... it is hui.

Chan is still developing both vocally and musically, but as the music in The Bridal Lament moves into her own pop style you can clearly see the artist she is destined to become. On a stage filled with large architectural structures Chan does not disappear or get overwhelmed. Chan is destined for larger arenas but right now what we get in The Bridal Lament is the authentic origin story. Perhaps this fate is not one Chan should resist..

4.5 Stars



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