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Two melodramatic lives, their destinies intertwined by a flurry of love letters.

It’s one thing to be married, or married to your job, but quite another to be married to someone who runs a company with you. Such is the case for both The Nonsensemakers (Hong Kong) and Nine Years Theatre (Singapore), run by partners Rensen Chan and Jo Ngai, and Nelson Chia and Mia Chee respectively.

While both theatre power couples are very much in love, the star-crossed lovers they each separately play in the Cantonese and Mandarin translations (done by Jo Ngai and Nelson Chia respectively) of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters have far less fortunate outcomes. Love Letters, as the title suggests, is an epistolary play, following childhood friends Zhang Xinnan (Rensen/Nelson) and Cheng Xiao Min (Jo/Mia) as they grow up into adulthood, as told through a series of letters they send to each other almost constantly. While they lead separate lives and start their own respective families, they remain each other’s closest confidante, inexplicably drawn to each other as they pour out their heart and soul to each other in words.

With two different directors helming each version of the play (Rensen/Nelson), beyond the difference in language, the two productions naturally diverge in some ways to reflect each director’s unique view and interpretation of the script. The sets in both versions are slightly different, with Nelson’s version going full minimalist, only a single shelf, while Rensen’s version showcases two shelves, each adorned with paraphernalia befitting of study and various lamps, perhaps to represent the different lives each character leads as opposed to Nelson’s idea that their lives and spirit are essentially connected by being in the same ‘space’. Both productions feature two tables at which the characters pen their letters, but while Rensen’s remain static, with a mass of letters strewn across the front of the stage forming a paper boundary between audience and performer, Nelson’s uses the proximity between chairs to showcase the changing relationship between both characters, for when they become closer or grow distant.

In addition, while Nelson’s version utilises a recorded soundtrack, Rensen’s features live performances from musicians Alfee Huen and Chung Sai Ying, playing familiar tunes like “Last Christmas” and “This Is Halloween” at the respective seasons, while their music becomes shrill and cacophonic when the lovers’ relationship is strained or panicked. Rensen’s version even includes an original theme song from Huen, played regularly throughout the performance, and ending with a full length, vocal version of it (in Cantonese) that uses its powerful lyrics to evoke tears from the audience, like any good TV drama knows how to amp up the melodrama.

At its heart though, both versions of Love Letters remain quintessentially the same play, and each one achieves mostly the same effect due to strong performances from both sets of actors. The act of letter writing is an incredibly personal and individual affair, with both actors onstage almost never directly addressing each other throughout the entire play. Yet, being couples in real life, there is an undeniable chemistry between them that you feel emanating with every word spoken, making each performance feel sincere, having come from experiences of being in a real relationship with each other and having been through all the ups and downs it encompasses to channel that into their acting. In the letters written in childhood and youth, lines are spoken with more innocent joviality, their physicalities even seeming more spritely and lightfooted as they sit on tables and swing their legs, before they grow increasingly mature in their speech as they grow into adulthood, their movements more grounded, more serious, more burdened by responsibility.

There are times Love Letters does feel dated, requiring a certain suspension of disbelief, such as how fast and furiously the exchange of letters occurs, almost as if they were on some form of instant messaging service despite being literally countries apart. If one steps back, there is a disturbing obsession and dangerous desire that characterizes the entire affair, with sparks of desperation revealing themselves when one does not reply for too long or becomes curt in their replies (perhaps surprisingly prescient of our texting culture today). But if one is willing to buy into these two lives, then for those brief ninety minutes, one will be swept up in the flurry of correspondence, each letter writhing with the outpouring of confessional emotion that takes you by surprise at how familiar the words are, affecting in how we, in our own relationships, often subject ourselves to wordplay as we hide our intentions between the lines, or simply write it raw, unable to hold back any longer.

Desperate and passionate, we cannot help but feel and understand the dark desire that connects these two for life, toeing the line between romance and madness. It doesn’t quite matter that they aren’t the best match for each other, that they are fallible and that their lives are rocky – one leaves the theatre having at one point or the other likely to have shed a tear, seeing their genuine, flawed love for each other, and for that brief time in the theatre, feel their very souls connect as played by these two sets of real life lovers in a remarkable job of pulling at our heartstrings.

Photos Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 23/2/19 (The Nonsensemakers) and 24/2/19 (Nelson Chia & Mia Chee)

Love Letters played from 22nd February to 24th February 2019 at the Esplanade Recital Studio as part of the Esplanade’s Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts. 

The 2019 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts took place around the Esplanade from 15th – 24th February 2019.

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