Literary pursuit as a means to liberation.
In the modern age, book clubs are often played for comedy and portrayed as frivolous affairs, an excuse for members, often bored housewives, to gather and drink, rather than seriously discuss work of literary merit. But underneath the mirth and laughter often lies an undercurrent of camaraderie, where members of a club find in such spaces a rare opportunity to use literature and liquor as a means to unburden themselves of their daily struggles and spiritual burdens.
Now imagine that book club set in the Qing dynasty, and you’ll get an idea of Toy Factory’s The Crab Flower Club.
Written and directed by Goh Boon Teck, The Crab Flower Club now receives its first ever Mandarin iteration in a refreshed staging with an all-new cast and concept since its premiere at the 2009 Singapore Arts Festival. Commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, The Crab Flower Club follows a group of five noblewomen from the Wu household, as they make preparations for the Wu patriarch’s 60th birthday. But not only will they prepare an elaborate feast; under cover of darkness, they also intend to finally set up their clandestine all-female poetry club, composing poems to capture their legacy for future generations to come, a sliver of freedom amidst an otherwise conservative society.
With a two hour runtime, The Crab Flower Club takes its time to set the scene, never rushed, always poised and deliberate. Goh Boon Teck has never been shy about extravagance in his work, and The Crab Flower Club is no different, placing heavy emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of the play. To portray the grandeur of the Wu clan, every element onstage feels designed to exude richness, from the mansion’s towering shelves lined with porcelain and massive doorways (designed by Goh Abigail), to the Wu women’s lavish outfits (designed by MAX.TAN), each one a colour-blocked period dress with skirts that billow out for extra drama. There are times the women seem to be swallowed up in those dresses, perhaps symbolic of being consumed by society’s expectations of femininity imposed on them. Throughout the show, a musical quartet (Jessica Lu on Sanxian, Xu Hui on Guzheng, Qin Zijing on Erhu and Zhang Yin on Pipa), each member elegantly hidden behind gauzy, translucent walls, provides the ‘auspicious’ music for the preparation, and the ethereal sounds accompanying the ladies as they wax lyrical.
The same air of class wafting from the design is reflected in the play’s leading ladies, carrying themselves with an air of grace and poise. But while similar in makeup and social standing, Boon Teck’s script clearly differentiates each woman with her own unique personality, brimming with life and their own individual passions. The brilliant Wu Jie (Sharon Sum) insists on learning English and dreams of being a cultural ambassador to England, while the youngest Liao Liao (Emma Zhang) is a period manic pixie girl, obsessed with astrology and divine messages in nature, while nursing a barely concealed lust for romance.
Wu Yu (Sunny Yang) is shy and insecure, always insisting on asking for permission from the men, but a devoted and highly intelligent herbalist in her own right. Meanwhile, elder sister Wu Chang (Ren Weichen), is the brains behind orchestrating the club and a master of the culinary arts, and sister-in-law Han Bing (Jodi Chan), initially kept in the dark about the club, is scarred by a series of miscarriages but still possesses an aura of authority as she lords over the household.
The Crab Flower Club is thus a fiercely feminist work, developing layers and dimensions to these women, giving them the spotlight away from living in the shadow of men. There is an interesting dynamic to the way they interact with each other – on the surface, language is cleverly weaponised to coyly sneak in snarky insults and zingers veiled in flowery metaphors, giving the impression that women are inherently competing against each other. Yet, there is the sense that they are simultaneously filled with respect for each other’s hidden talents, nagging at each other only to bring out their best, and secretly support each other.
As much as they seem happy busying themselves preparing a lavish feast, there is a deep-seated resentment for the status quo, sentiments that rise to the fore only when they finally dare set up the club, and weave their sorrows and pain into their writing, with witty wordplay and evocative imagery. From abusive husbands to politically-charged vitriol, these all come to light through the no holds barred freedom the club offers, and in that moment, a secret kinship is developed between the women, one that feels urgent against the tyranny of the patriarchy and the chaos of the feudal era.
In terms of their performance, all five cast members do a spectacular job of maintaining that careful balance between the mask of a lady one wears in public, and allowing their primal, true emotions to always bubble just under the surface, before arising in full. Much of these are expressed not only through poetry, but also song, with director Boon Teck utilising the Chinese opera form, and his vocally-trained cast to draw out the raw power of the lyrics, each individual word sung in long notes taking equally long breaths, beautiful and haunting in equal amounts.
Even when not showcasing their vocal prowess, the cast is striking in their performance. The wit from sly remarks are delivered with gusto from acid tongues, every word calculated and pronounced for maximum theatrical effect. The cast leans in completely to their characters; Emma Zhang has an awkwardness to her physicality that captures Liao Liao’s strange sense of humour, while Sunny Yang plays her role more demure and closed off, representing her character’s introverted nature. Sharon Sum has a headstrong confidence to her performance, as if armed with a belief that she can do no wrong, while Ren Weichen brings a gravitas and disarmingly cool demeanour to his performance, matched only by Jodi Chan as she commands the stage each time she opens her mouth to speak with all the weight of years of resentment.
Toeing the line between tragedy and comedy, even with its ancient setting, The Crab Flower Club is a reflection of life both then and now, and highlights the importance of knowing one’s self-worth, and to celebrate that in all its glory. To turn a script so mired in high culture (Cao Xueqin’s poems) into an almost Shakespearean, yet accessible, relatable work is no easy feat, and this edition of The Crab Flower Crab certainly ranks among Goh Boon Teck’s more successful pieces. As both director and playwright, Boon Teck has a clear vision that is seen through from start to end, as he takes us on a journey of unpacking these women’s traumas and cruel fates at the hands of society, while unearthing their brilliance through their language and devotion to both their social roles and the legacy they wish to leave behind.
This is a play that will sate your appetite for the arts with its flair for immersing audiences in its atmosphere, gorging you with poetic lyricism before lulling you into momentary comfort from the support these women derive from each other. But all good things must come to an end, and as the play concludes on a much heavier note, one is left with the bittersweet pang of sadness. Amidst these fearful times, one thing is for certain – happiness is fleeting and hard to come by, and we must savour it while we can, drawing strength from these memories when we need it most.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
The Crab Flower Club plays from 18th to 20th March 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available here