Marjorie Chan’s A Nanking Winter is a show about the 1937 genocide of the citizens of Nanking committed by the Japanese army. The atrocity, which claimed the lives of at least 300,000 Chinese, is an often-overlooked tragedy, and Chan’s story focuses on a young woman named Irene who has written a book exposing the truth about the massacre. Chan’s play is inspired by Iris Chang and her book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which was a best seller in 1997. Chang suffered from depression and, in 2004, she took her own life. The first act of A Nanking Winter is set in the home of Irene and her Japanese husband on the eve of her Rape of Nanking-esque book’s release. She is visited by her flighty sister, her publisher, Julia, and a mysterious guest that Julia brings along. The second act thrusts the action back into the past and explores the lives of two women, both named Mei, struggling to survive in the middle of the Nanking massacre.
The play’s subject matter is serious and important, and its heart is definitely in the right place, so it’s really unfortunate that the show isn’t very good. Chan’s dialogue is stilted and frustratingly expository. The first act suffers from a lack of stakes: the conflict is centred on a banal and completely unrealistic issue about the book’s title being changed and, try as they might, the actors simply cannot make that alone seem as important as the play wants it to be. The second act has the opposite problem: staging a realistic depiction of a holocaust is extremely over-ambitious to the point of being impossible, especially with a cast of only five actors. Also, while Chang’s book is typically criticized for its purported factual inaccuracies, one of the criticism characters in A Nanking Winter bring up against Irene’s book is that she uses two prominent Western figures to make her work more accessible to a non-Asian audience. Of course, those characters themselves are present in the play’s second act, and they happen to be much better developed, well-rounded and interesting people than any of the show’s Asian characters, meaning that Chan’s script has called attention to one of its own greatest flaws.
A Nanking Winter plays until March 16 at the Factory Theatre.
Photo by Guntar Kravis.