By Keagan Fransch
For many of us, the struggle to understand our mothers and the choices they’ve made is a lifelong adventure, often unearthing more questions than answers. Lòng Mẹ (a Vietnamese phrase meaning Mother’s soul/heart/love) interrogates this struggle through two very different, very personal stories told through the lens of the most questioning of all children – the child of immigrants.
As soon as we walk into the space, we are met with smiles and hellos from two mothers played by British-Vietnamese actor-writers Tuyen Do and Michael Phong Le. One mother asks an audience member, “where are you from?” When the response is “Edinburgh”, the mother responds with lightning speed, “I don’t understand your English”. And just like that, with one clever, improvised line we’ve been invited to laugh, relax, and to leave any latent prejudices at the door. We are instantly charmed.
As the lights come down, the two performers get up and dance with abandon, marking the start of the show – it’s joyful to watch. Then Michael Phong Le leaves the stage, and Tuyen Do’s story is up first. She shares with us a woman grappling with her perception of her mother, which is shifting and evolving now that she herself is pregnant, and her mother is in hospital. Tuyen Do deftly plays both mother and daughter, taking us from past to present and back again with clarity and ease. This mother is constantly urging her daughter to get pregnant by her English boyfriend, and never seems quite satisfied with her daughter’s life choices. To a child, this mother must seem hard and unyielding, but upon closer inspection, perhaps she is simply a fierce provider for her children. Tuyen’s script delicately paints a picture of a vibrant mother who is both poet (“A woman is like a flower – most beautiful when starting to bloom”) and pragmatist (“At least if he leaves you, you’ll have the baby.”), and when she scoffs at the notion of being a freelancer (“you might as well have a baby if you’re not doing anything”) the room erupts in knowing laughter – she is all our mothers.
It’s a heart-breaking, wonderfully crafted piece with one misstep: a disembodied recording of a voice – the mother seemingly responding to her daughter. While its intention is clear, this device breaks the convention of the performer embodying both mother and daughter – the beautiful theatricality that shows us what is so often our re-imagined or potentially mis-remembered mother of the past, and the new-imagined, hopefully less-disappointed mother of the present. It interrupts the yearning, the ache, and it lets us off the hook by filling the silence that must inevitably ring out as she sits at her dying mother’s sickbed.
Another fun dance interlude marks the characters’ swap over: Tuyen Do’s story now making way for Michael Phong Le’s, juxtaposing a mother gone with a mother ever-present. Michael gives us a young man really struggling to straddle the line between expectations of where you’re “from” and where you are. There is a gorgeous scene where the young man as a small child in a doctor’s surgery has to interpret medical phrases for his mother from vague, metaphoric, slippery English (“heart burn”, “trapped wind”) into the more literal Vietnamese. Michael’s sharp depiction of this difficulty is simultaneously funny and touching, and it puts knots in my stomach and a lump in my throat.
Where the disembodied voice recording was misplaced in the first story, here it is aptly used to convey a doctor and a judge, the ‘other’ – the outside, the strange, the intrusive. Along with these things, his mother’s love and sacrifices also get lost in translation, when all this young man wants to do is hang out with his English girlfriend and finally solve his old Rubik’s cube. A simplicity that many children of immigrants yearn for – to make a match of things that don’t fit but could if you worked at it. But of course, the slipperiness of raising a child in a country that doesn’t hold space for you, and the slipperiness of being that child make it a tough puzzle to beat.
It’s a struggle wonderfully told, though where it is very clear who we are when Tuyen Do addresses us in the first story, it is rather unclear who we are in this one. But we forgive this rather quickly as Michael Phong Le is such a playful and charming performer and so joyful to watch against the risk-taking, law-breaking mother, sensitively played throughout by Tuyen Do.
Mingyu Lin’s direction is a loving, gentle touch that lets the writing sing and the performances soar, with tasteful lighting changes seamlessly transitioning us from past to present – simple and effective. I look at my notes and I see so many quotes and moments, beautiful lessons and cutting (yet hilarious) admonishments that I was moved to scribble down as I fidgeted in my seat with glee at the recognition of it all, and the dual feeling of pain and comfort that comes from that recognition. What lingers long after, however, is the heartwarming image of the mothers dancing together between stories – the carefree enjoyment so at odds with the hard-working picture painted of them in the storytelling itself.
We are ushered out as eagerly as we were welcomed in, clearing the space to make way for what’s to come – be it the next scheduled show, or the next part of life. Mother’s love leads you there.
Lòng Mẹ is a love/hate/love again/thank-you letter to the immigrant mother. And as a child of one, this double-bill is like a beloved jumper that’s scratchy but warm, you embrace the small pains because the comfort and love is so much stronger.
Lòng Mẹ runs through 8 March.
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