Photos supplied by Playlab Theatre. Photographed by Stephen Henry

Slow Boat is a deeply lyrical act of theatre. Taking its starting point from a theatre production staged just after the second world war by Chinese workers at Bulimba dockyards – a stone’s throw from Slow Boat’s performance venue, the Brisbane Powerhouse – this play traces the story of a group of six men who had to flee China after the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. They met in Hong Kong, where they enlisted with a British company mining phosphate on Nauru, and from there went first to Brisbane, then to a mine near Tennant Creek, before returning to Brisbane where they staged their production at Bulimba.

The play is about how these six men became a band of brothers, using their particular skills to help each other through the rough seas of being alien workers in Australia in wartime. But they all come from different backgrounds. Gong Saang (played by Julian Wong) is from a rich family associated with the Kuomintang, Lihu Giht (Jonathan Chan) is a committed communist, Lung Goh (Silvan Rus) is a political opportunist, Waih Jai (Ming Yang Lim) an engineer, and Ah Faat (Egan Sun-bin) a cook; and their different reactions to events threaten to disturb and even destroy their friendship.

Anna Yen, besides being a playwright, has lived inside various theatrical modalities such as circus, clowning, and physical theatre, and also teaches her own blend of stagecraft techniques called Playmoves. Using this great repertoire of skills as movement director of Slow Boat, and in wonderful team-work with the director of Playlab, Ian Lawson, and ensemble director Therese Collie, Yen choreographed static and dynamic tableaux which embodied the emotions of each scene, so that instead of just one character expressing their feelings, everyone on the stage became complicit in conveying the emotional content of the scene. Especially powerful was the scene in which the men receive letters from their homeland describing the death and torture of their family members at the hands of the Japanese invaders, and also the scene in which four of the men save Lung Goh from suicide. It is this complicity between the actors which makes the visual aspect of her work much more than the sum of its parts, and which distinguishes Yen’s engagement with theatre from that of conventional theatre directors.

The music that supports this production, by Nicholas Ng, is as beautifully sympathetic as could be wished for. Blending Cantonese opera with classical Chinese guzheng, Ng’s music is a perfect counterpoint to the subtleties of Yen’s stagecraft, only departing from a gentle Chinese atmosphere to give us a comic parody of American post-war vaudeville, and a very moving closing chorus.

When I described this production as lyrical, I meant to refer to a fluidity of style and a naturalness of action, where nothing seems exaggerated or achieved, and all the scenes flow seamlessly without disturbing the deeper narrative of the play. This narrative is the nobility of spirit which can keep friendship firm and let it grow in spite of betrayals; the nobility of realising that, as the poet David Whyte reminds us, friendship is a process of continual forgiveness.

Event details

Playlab Theatre presents
Slow Boat
by Anna Yen

Director Ian Lawson

Venue: Brisbane Powerhouse | New Farm QLD
Dates: 1 – 10 Sep 2022

Part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival

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