Simple but powerful staging of a modern classic that through death, teaches one how to live.
20 years on from when Mitch Albom’s internationally bestselling biographical novel Tuesdays with Morrie was first published, the lessons imparted by an old college professor to his former student remain fiercely relevant even today, still teaching readers everywhere how to live a good life from the wise words between its covers.
Based off Albom’s novel, Taiwan’s Godot Theatre Company sees the book adapted into a minimalist, theatrical staging in Mandarin. Having already received critical and commercial acclaim when it first premiered in Taiwan, Tuesdays with Morrie follows overworked sports reporter Mitch (Pu Xueliang) as he reconnects with his old sociology professor Morrie Schwartz (Golden Horse winner Jin Shi Jie). Upon finding out that Morrie’s days are limited after his Lou Gehrig’s disease worsens, Mitch takes it upon himself to visit his professor every Tuesday, in the process forging anew a lost relationship and learning some valuable life lessons in the process.
Despite originally being a Western novel, Tuesdays with Morrie’s themes and concerns lend themselves surprisingly easily to a Mandarin adaptation, with much of its philosophies of being good rooted in Eastern Buddhist philosophy. While the setting and characters remain completely identical to the original novel (including Morrie’s identity as a Jewish man), hearing these words and lines translated to Mandarin lends them a fresh new lyricism and drama that was not originally there, further driving home its introspective message of living life to the fullest and with love.
Tuesdays with Morrie takes on a deceptively simple staging, beginning with the classic Chinese Opera style of ‘one table two chairs’ and reliant only on unmoving backdrop projections to evoke each scene’s time and place. How successful Tuesdays with Morrie is then entirely reliant on the strength of both actors to carry the performance. Under director Daniel Yang, the onstage chemistry between Pu and Jin is phenomenal, and both actors are perfectly cast in their roles – Taiwanese host Pu brings a confident charisma to Mitch that makes him an immediately likeable, relatable character to follow as he narrates his tale, while Pu naturally comes off as the very embodiment of Morrie with his deft delivery of gallows humour paired with his unerring optimism and belief in humanity. For Morrie, watching him fail to accomplish a simple task of eating a salad is heartbreaking, especially as we contrast it to how we were initially introduced to him as a spritely, animated man, and we feel both his physical pain and disappointment emanate from Pu’s incomparable performance.
There is an air of mortality and the constant reminder that time is limited that runs through Tuesdays with Morrie. Besides the recurring image of orange autumn leaves signifying how winter is coming, Morrie periodically performs a breathing exercise to test how much his lungs have deteriorated. As Morrie’s days deplete, Mitch’s bond with him grows stronger with each passing Tuesday, making Morrie’s inevitable fate all the more tragic, and it becomes increasingly obvious that we are fast hurtling towards the play’s end. Tuesdays with Morrie’s emotional climax delivers fully on this buildup as Mitch himself finally realises the gravity of death, and how he is truly about to lose Morrie forever. Breaking down into tears while at Morrie’s bedside, we cannot help but feel equally moved as we go through the same process of hope, grief and eventually, enlightenment as Mitch does. Even through the most heartbreaking of conversations, there is a wry sense of humour that Mitch and Morrie both possess that leaves us laughing through the tears and crying through the laughs.
Every minute spent at Tuesdays with Morrie is a gift in being able to watch both of these spectacular actors onstage together. By the time we reach the ending, it feels as if we’ve known both characters our entire lives, and Tuesdays with Morrie hits hard with its simple story and staging, yet timeless message. Coupled with a classic sense of humour, underscored by a fundamental humanity that any and all can find resonance with, Tuesdays with Morrie is a masterful representation of how sometimes, all it takes to make good theatre is a strong script and a capable cast to bring it out. Leaving the theatre bleary eyed from tears, we are spurred and inspired into being good people and lead, full, loving lives, and thankful to have witnessed such an inspiring performance from the Godot Theatre Company.
Photos Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 20/7/18
Tuesdays with Morrie played at the Esplanade Theatre from 20th – 22nd July.