Review: When He Fell, Chapel Playhouse

When He Fell is a play which takes the Chinese legend of Pan Gu and tries to use it as some sort of grand metaphor for the grieving process. On paper this concept boasts of the spectacular meeting of mythology and physical theatre, but the reality is I am not left in wonder, but instead wondering how this piece could be so overwhelmingly confusing. 

The Pan Gu legend is a creation story which centres around a man born to hold up the skies and ground the earth, ending with his decision to rest, wherein his form is divided to create all elements of the natural world. The company has chosen to use said tale to portray the journey of bereavement. This link is definitely plausible, but unfortunately is not realised in this production. In fact, the parallel presented in the show is so faint that it is near impossible to decipher any coherent context.

It doesn’t help that the three performers don’t seem to have any relationship with one another. The legend is first shared by Bonnie Chan and Kate O’Neill through the medium of shadow puppetry. As the lights dim and Edward Lun’s composition shifts to a more dramatic score, I am genuinely eager to watch this style of storytelling. Unfortunately, as Chan and O’Neill fumble for the next puppet and place screens upside down, the illusion is broken and I am left disappointed that a lack of flow renders this promising addition to the show messy and awkward.

Remarkably, the story is then retold by a new character played by Jess Andrews. This time by speaking to a tea party of suitcases, with her character becoming increasingly manic. Perhaps she’s just realised that this scene’s shadow art projected on the back curtain has one fatal flaw – said curtain is black and the miniscule torch being used doesn’t make much of an impact. 

Even more baffling is the set, made up of about a dozen suitcases which are each tied together with red wool. All this creates is a safety hazard, awkward moments of entanglement and an ongoing battle between actor and lock. A huge part of this show’s downfall is in the company’s overestimation of the entertainment to be found in watching two people move suitcases for ten minutes – this ritual opens the show and signals each scene change.

That said, I do think that Lun’s composition deserves praise; it musically charts a course through the rise and fall of the action of the play. If only the choreography could find some synchronicity with the music, because as it is, what could be a marriage of music and movement resembles more of a messy divorce.

As a work-in-progress, When He Fell is a case of good ideas, but poorly executed. That there is room for improvement can only be a positive. It seems that a moment in which one of the suitcases is passed to an audience member to hold during one of the (lengthy) rearranging processes symbolises exactly what this piece needs – an extra pair of hands to steer it onto a new course.

When He Fell played Chapel Playhouse until 4 August. For more information, visit the Chapel Playhouse website.