As Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok arrives at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, playwright In-Sook Chappell describes the process behind adapting Helen Tse’s famous memoir Sweet Mandarin.
How has your background as a playwright prepared you for Mountains: The Dreams of Lily Kwok?
I think my background as a person rather than as a playwright prepared me for writing Mountains. I was born in Korea and came to the UK as a baby and was brought up as English. Because of this I am interested in how immigrants often erase a part of themselves to fit in. I’m also fascinated by identity and the importance of connection to your original culture. I believe it’s important to know your family history because to some extent we are our mother’s and grandmother’s stories.
What attracted you to Helen Tse’s novel Sweet Mandarin?
It’s a great story and emotionally I connected with the themes. I identified very strongly with a central character who goes back to Hong Kong in search of her identity and history and through learning who she is radically changes her life and finds her place in the world. I loved the idea of this striving for success and exploring the cost of that success.
What have been the challenges of taking the novel and turning it into a stage play?
Adaptations are always much harder than you think. The most challenging thing about this one was making it theatrical, which meant being bold and getting rid of a lot of story and characters. I was very lucky as Helen Tse gave me free rein. You have to think radically and reframe the story so it can be told in two hours within a satisfying structure.
You’ve taken a playful and imaginative approach to the storytelling for the stage version. Give us a flavour of your approach?
The first draft was a straightforward linear interpretation. On reading it through I was so bored I could barely get through it. It was an important draft to do in terms of story and character development but I knew I wanted to mess it up and make the audience lean in and have to do some work. In the novel Helen wrote about ‘walking in our shoes’ and I liked the idea of Helen playing Lily and discovering her story that way. I also felt that the play needed to be really sensory and that sound, smell, movement would be very important. It’s about dreams and memory and I thought it would be interesting to tell the story through Lily’s fading memory, so a smell might take us to a different part of the story and certain memories overlap. I wanted it to be like falling into a dream, when you aren’t in control but just have to go with it.
What impression do you hope to leave the audience with?
I hope the audience will have been entertained, that they will have laughed, cried and been moved. Lily is someone who has been overlooked all her life and people like Lily’s voices aren’t often heard. I hope people really empathize and identify with her and go away thinking about her extraordinary life.