A performance anticipated to be a riveting narrative following the journey of childhood sweethearts, Love Letters grappled with a nuanced exploration of themes such as growth, longing, tragedy, the impact of migration and cultural change. Based around an overly dramatic Lisa and a lost, love driven Li, affectionately named Twig, we follow their journey of love, life and loss through a series of letters exchanged.
This bilingual production, mainly taking space in Mandarin and bringing in English mirroring the widening cultural gap between Lisa, who relocated to Australia, and Li in China. Lisa’s initial enthusiasm for her new surroundings spiralled into a cascade of misfortunes, from strained familial relationships to expulsion from high school due to pregnancy. Meanwhile, Li faced the mounting pressure of academic expectations and familial obligations to follow in his father’s footsteps as a doctor.
The dichotomy between the “Western way of life” and the “conservative Chinese attitude” served as a recurrent motif. However it seemed as though some attempts to make this point was driven home quite randomly and abruptly. Lisa had a feminist outburst that seemed to come out of nowhere without any real context or lead up. Which then proved quite moot as her life followed themes of not wanting to be seen unless her appearance was deemed worthy, reluctantly falling into the housewife role and seeming to be so honed in on other peoples thoughts of her, that it felt like a big win for the patriarchy.
While the complexity of flawed characters is often a narrative strength, Love Letters occasionally struggled to present redeeming qualities in Lisa. Her emotional immaturity and at times, cruelty towards Li’s feelings left audiences questioning her reliability and elicited limited sympathy. The portrayal of Lisa’s character, troubled by divorce, alcoholism, and mental health issues, sometimes veered into an emotionally detached territory.
Li, too, navigated a tumultuous journey, facing family illness and grappling with self-esteem issues. Yet, he ultimately achieved success as a government official with the semblance of a happy nuclear family. His enduring longing for Lisa and her free-spirited lifestyle added layers to the narrative, especially during moments of poignant devastation that both Lisa and Li convincingly portrayed.
Despite the commitment of the lead actors, the dialogue occasionally felt formulaic, and the reliance on the performers’ expressions, speeches, and movements, contributed to an atmosphere on stage that was lacking any uniqueness. It felt as though Lisa was aiming for drama but bordered into the realm of over dramatic, over playing and desperately over selling, from her big reactions to her imitation of being under the influence of substances.
The venue was small and intimate, however when it considered non Mandarin speaking audience members, it was poorly thought out. Using a screen behind the actors to read English subtitles, which was unintentionally blocked by the actors for a lot of the performance. Leaving it hard for us to see, missing some parts and constantly shifting our bodies to try and keep up.
I must, however, give credit where credit is due, on behalf of both the performers, they really nailed their childhood flashbacks. They had such a childlike innocence when portraying the younger versions of themselves, I couldn’t help but be filled with warmth. An honorary mention, to my visual highlight of the show – Li was moving through big emotions while running on the spot, screaming his responses to Lisa, this description in itself would lead you to think it was quite comical to watch, but it was wildly impressive to be able to pull off running on the spot and still have us filled with empathy.
This was a beautiful concept, it technically had a beginning, a middle, and a tragic end, but it felt like nothing really happened. A beautiful message throughout is that despite taking polar opposite paths, their hearts were always linked, sometimes there is no escaping love or what could have been. This leaves so much potential to be a beautiful piece of art pushing you to reflect and appreciate love and life. However the execution felt as though there was no real point or story line. We simply followed a tragic, yet not uncommon life story, told through letters, written from childhood sweetheart, to childhood sweetheart as they grew and destructively lived for everyone else other than themselves.
Recommended Drink: Come equipped with a gatorade. Filled with a thirst you’re excited to quench, and it ends up tasting, just… kinda average.
Performances of Love Letters have now concluded at Melbourne Fringe 2023. Keep up with the performers online for future showings.