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Derek Kwan and Jordan Cheng. Photo by Erik Kuong, provided by NAC.

Theatre Review: Mr. Shi and His Lover at the National Arts Centre

By Jennifer Cavanagh on January 7, 2018

Mr. Shi and His Lover: exquisite staging and splendid performances in retelling of improbable real-life romance

Intensely moving musical theatre opened this week at the National Arts Centre. Impactful and provocative, Mr. Shi and His Lover revisits the stranger-than-fiction story of the 20-year affair between French Embassy employee Bertrand Boursicot (David Kwan) and Pekinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu (Jordan Cheng), who Boursicot believed was a woman posing as a man. The story made headline news in the 80’s when the men were on trial in France for espionage with the Chinese government. What captivated the news cycle was Boursicot’s adamant belief that Shi Pei Pu was a woman, the mother to his child, and how this pretense had endured decades.

In 1993, David Cronenberg’s M.Butterfly recounted the story from Boursicot’s point of view while here, playwright Wong Teng Chi shifts the perspective to Shi with startling effect focusing on emotions over events. The shifting balance of desire, love, deception and performance all figure large as the narrative unfolds, drawing skillfully on references from Chinese folklore to western pop.

Jordan Cheng in Mr. Shi and His Lover. Photo by Etang Chen, provided by NAC.

The joint Macau/Toronto production is performed exclusively in Mandarin and with sur-titles in English, the 75-minute production is unexpectedly accessible and an absolute visual pleasure to behold. The sparse set with little more than a dressing table and chair is framed by the accompanists, composer Njo Kong Kie on piano and Yukie Lai on an imposing wooden marimba with Chinese percussions. Skillful lighting casts shadows speaking to the subterfuge and deception within the text while the music and spotlights create a dreamlike thrall as the piece explores where deception ends and blissful ignorance led by a master performer begins.

Beneath the stark spotlight, Cheng and Kwan ignite the stage with enthralling performances, the elegance of their voices delivering grand drama against the handsomely minimalistic backdrop. Cheng’s narcissistic, conniving and distraught Shi works with unexpected asymmetrical synchronicity to Kwan’s solid, stuffy yet strangely potent bureaucrat Boursicot. The direction is sharp and stylized like the set, leaving generous space for the acting skills of both actors as they delve in to the driving impulses of their characters.

Teng Chi’s rendition is divided in to seven chapters that examine how desire, deceit, politics, gender, sexuality and nationalism guided their lives. Delicately, yet effectively, tentative truths are revisited while Shi’s sheer drive to “perform” weighs equally in the balance. While one or two chapters are challenging, the script flows well while the sheer presence and musical abilities of both actors seemingly effortlessly deliver a contemporary chamber opera that is wholly exhilarating. A production as thrilling and unique as an out-of-earshot whisper that leaves as many questions as it answers.

Mr. Shi and His Lover is at the National Arts Centre from January 3-13, 2018. Tickets are available online for $46 plus fees. The performance is included in the Live Rush program.