Little Emperors, written by Lachlan Philpott and directed by Wang Chong, sets out to explore the phenomenon of ‘Little Emperor Syndrome’, a term that describes the distinct qualities of those individuals affected by China’s One Child Policy.
The policy was introduced by Chairman Mao following the Cultural Revolution as a means of curbing population growth and was only officially abolished last year.
Little Emperors marks the end of this era of China’s history, exploring two sides of the same coin: the strain on those only children who bore the weight of their parents’ and grandparents’ expectations; and the grief of China’s ‘secret’ children, who were hidden away by parents unable or unwilling to pay the taxes for their additional offspring.
The concept behind the show is undeniably strong. This is complemented by the cohesiveness of the internal world, the striking set, and playful incorporation of multimedia.
The standout performance comes from Diana (Xiaojie) Lin, who accurately captures the complex emotions of motherhood – joy at her children’s success, anxieties about their future, guilt at hiding her son away for so many years, and fear of being abandoned as she grow old, frail and ‘useless’.
The final monologue of the piece is powerful, showing the drama inherent in ‘Little Emperor Syndrome’. It is passionate, honest, and vulnerable. It explores the feelings of China’s ‘secret’ children; the pain of being left out in the cold, and the ever-present feeling of longing for acceptance.
Although the show has many strong points, it doesn’t go quite far enough to make a lasting impact. There is a feeling of the artists holding back, and being a little too reserved when delving into the darkness and the light of the subject matter.
The piece would have been lifted to a new level if the extremes of the emotional spectrum – joy and grief – were heightened through the text, and if the artists jumped into and took hold of the complexities of the politics without fear.
Overall, Little Emperors is a strong piece of theatre. It is accessible, timely and culturally relevant, and is a promising start to Philpott’s career as a mainstage playwright.