Chinese Women’s Whispers is a collection of stories about women’s lives over the last century or so. The stories are deeply personal to the cast: they concern themselves, their mothers and their grandmothers. The production also explores the origins of “nushu”, a private and semi-secret language created by and for women.
The four performers use song, dance, narrative and physical theatre to present the stories of women from different generations. The older female performer, who appears to speak mostly nushu in the show, provides most of the singing; she also weaves and practices nushu calligraphy for the audience.
Special mention must be given to the second story, which you are asked to experience with your eyes closed. You hear a woman giving birth to a baby; the husband makes a comment, and takes the newborn outside to a pig sty. The next morning the father goes out to the sty, and is amazed to find the baby still alive. This story is told only in the sounds made by the actors, and the few words spoken are not translated – yet the narrative is crystal clear, and you know precisely what is going on and why. It is later revealed that this is the story of the mother of one of the actresses.
Another of the stories is spoken in a Chinese language, and translated by one of the actresses. While it’s a sensitive point to raise, this heavily-accented translation was difficult to tune into, and some of the people around me were visibly unable to follow what was going on. Especially in an international festival, where many of the audience may not have English as their first language, surtitles might have been a more considerate choice.
All of the tales told are very different, but they are connected by common themes of wisdom and strength. The memories explored by the cast show a great love and respect for their mothers and grandmothers, and you cannot but help being moved. It might even cause you to look at your own relatives in a different, perhaps more respectful, light.