At the turn of the last century, Kafka wrote about a Chinese puzzle. It was a wooden box with holes in it, and paths painted leading to the holes. The aim of the puzzle was to get the ball into the hole. But without the paint, Kafka argued, the boxes wouldn’t be puzzles at all.
He wrote later, and even more famously, that life was ‘more than a Chinese puzzle.’ This has widely been interpreted as a comment on the artificial nature of art, but more than that, it’s a comment on the human soul, a soul looking for authenticity and belonging, sometimes at a great cost.
Christopher Chen’s play Caught is a great example of a Chinese puzzle. It is intricately constructed, suspenseful, and each part complicates the construction of a sophisticated whole.
Under Jean Tong’s direction, the set is characterised by large cardboard cut outs of Chinese calligraphy and the drama is characterised by a number of strategic reveals that alternate between the familiar and the strange.
The first Act starts with familiar territory in presenting a gallery talk, with a figure standing in front of the Chinese calligraphy. He’s played by Louis Le who begins to speak about himself and his practice as though he were a recognisable Chinese artist, perhaps Ai Weiwei, whose art practice and imprisonment in China reinforce the ‘dangerous artist’ ideal publicised in his biography A Thousand Years of Joys and Sorrows. The audience is set to empathise with the plight of artists in China and prepares for a play within a play.
Then comes the first twist. The artist is sitting in an editor’s office for a prominent literary magazine, and they are beginning to respond to criticism of an article written about the artist’s book. Well, the audience might think to themselves, all kinds of people get attacked on Twitter these days, even people making statements in the name of freedom and art.
But all is not what it seems and as the play proceeds through its four Acts, it proves itself to be so much more than a Chinese puzzle. It proves to be an ironic, sophisticated, cosmopolitan drama that plays different art forms against each other, and creates a hall of mirrors comment on the philosophy of free expression across cultures.
The controlled performances of Jing-Xuan Chan, Jessica Clarke and David Whiteley support this endeavour, and the play is by turns howlingly funny and uncomfortably close to the bone.
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Finally, the walls come down in the most literal way and a backstage conversation proves to be a medication on a koan that demonstrates the way Eastern and Western art overlap. This is a play full of surprises and beautifully articulate about artistic truth in an age where personal truths are disposable.
Caught by Christopher Chen
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
Director: Jean Tong
Lighting Director: Lisa Mibus
Set and Costume Design: Silvia Shao
Sound Design: Edwin Cheah
Composition: James Gales
Dialect Design and Coach: Yuanlei (Nikki) Zhao
Stage Manager: Natasha Marich
Production Dramaturg: Kevin Hojerslev
Assistant Lighting Design: Sam Diamond
Assistant Stage Manager: Douglas Hassack
Cast: Jessica Clark, Jing-Xuan Chan, Louis Le, David Whitelely
Caught will be performed until 10 September 2022.