Review: (Toronto) On the Other Side of the World (Next Stage)
The Jew of Shanghai by Beat Rice
There are many, many World War II stories out there. Most people know of the catastrophic events, when they happened, how they affected millions of lives. On the Other Side of the World explores a story that I have personally never heard of. It follows a young German Jew who flees to Shanghai, China with her family at the start of the Second World War. This is a truly ambitious piece of theatre. Not only does it have a cast of 14, with live musicians and moving set pieces, but the story spans over five years of war and conflict. It is a coming-of-age tale, as well as a historical piece of epic proportions.
The story is told through the eyes of Ursula, played by a very strong Ashleigh Hendry-almost too strong. At the beginning of the story Ursula is 11 years old. It is incredibly strange to hear a solid, grounded, grown-up voice come out of someone who is supposed to be 11 years old. It is understandable that war and tragedy makes a child grow up faster. By the end of the play, five years after the family’s arrival in China, Ursula is a teenager with a strong head on her shoulders and full of unrelenting hope.
The strongest element of the piece is absolutely the ensemble. They move together in order to set scenes and speak together to deliver important historical information. I must commend them all for the extremely fast and complicated scene transitions. Together they create the busy atmosphere of the streets of Shanghai, trains in motion, and cramped apartments. Accompanying the performers onstage are the unmistakable sounds of a live erhu and pipa. These traditional Chinese instruments have an almost nostalgic sound, and one of longing. Siobhan Sleath has also created one of the most gorgeous lighting designs I have ever seen in a festival. If only some of the actors would find the beautiful light she created for them to stand in.
On the Other Side of the World is a play with huge potential. I would love to see it further developed and performed in front of all kinds of communities. One of the great things about the play is the global perspective it contains. We meet German Jews, many classes of Chinese, Japanese soldiers, an English monk, and an American boy. It makes for a richer story.