The Ballad of Mulan

The Ballad of Mulan
By Michelle Yim. Grist to the Mill Productions (UK). Adelaide Fringe. Studio, Bakehouse Theatre. 4-14 March, 2020

The Ballad of Mulan is one of the most popular and well-known Chinese legendary folk tales. It first appeared in the 6th Century AD, but is actually set during the 4-5th Century AD in the turbulent Northern Wei era (386-536 AD).

Mulan is a young girl who disguises herself as a warrior to serve in the Emperor’s army to save her father and brothers from dishonour as they are unable to leave the family due to age. Throughout the next ten years she fights for the Emperor, her skill and bravery being acknowledged, resulting in her eventual elevation to the position of a General in the Emperor’s army. All the while her true identity remains unknown.

Michelle Yim has adapted and performs Mulan’s story in a wonderful, thrilling and sometimes extremely moving 50-minute one-woman show.

We meet Mulan after she has risen to the rank of General and on the eve of the final battle. She reflects on her life and how events and circumstances have brought her to this place. Her reflections are full of memories of family and friends, particularly old fellow comrades who are no longer alive. These stories are often very humourous, bringing to life her fallen comrades. Interspersed with these reflections we also see Mulan in battle. These brief but powerful moments are full of the horror of war with vivid memories such as the cries of fallen horses.

It is, however, in the present time, on the eve of this final battle that this particular version of the Mulan legend reaches a particular and unexpected depth. What does she do next? If she survives, what shall she do? She feels she can’t go back to her family, nor does she feel she can continue with her disguise, despite her fame and being favoured by the Emperor who does not know her true identity.

Subsequently, this clever adaptation by Michelle Lim draws into focus the fate of warriors when they are no longer needed. It is a question of identity, and in this case further complicated by the fact that she is a woman in disguise who desires to become a woman again.

Michelle Lim does not provide an answer to this question for Mulan. The last we see her is in the final battle and hence progressing into the legend of the famous warrior Mulan.

The actual story of Mulan has her surviving the final battle and, refusing all honours bestowed on her by the Emperor, returning to her home and donning her female clothes and identity. In a humourous epilogue, a couple of years later some of her old comrades come to visit her and are shocked when they learn the truth, yet still remain full of praise and even greater admiration of her.

Michelle Lim is absolutely terrific as Mulan. She holds the stage with a commanding presence as well as charm and warmth. We feel for Mulan's dilemma, as well as being impressed with her fighting skills.

This is another wonderful production from the UK’s Grist on the Mill Productions.

Highly recommended.

Tony Knight

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