Already showcasing the second offering of their new Theatre for the Ears platform, theatre company Sound the Alarm dives into another pool of isolation with the cerebral story of love at a distance The Eternal Sailor. An aptly evocative title for the wayfaring tale, it is another solid offering from the theatre company’s new repertoire of audio dramas. An interesting antidote to the decidedly individual experience of the company’s Starman, The Eternal Sailor twists the context of our past year and a half and hones in on the effects of an inverted world on two entwined hearts.
Written by playwright Derek Chan and directed by Lok Yu, The Eternal Sailor roots itself in the hotbed of turmoil that was the recent Hong Kong protests. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember all that has occurred within the past two years, but these events—which had been growing for years—coincided with the onset of the pandemic. This intermingling is explored in a strange twist of reality in the setting, having the globe hit by “crimson lung”, an affliction that melts the lungs when an abundant red algae that has emerged is breathed in. It’s a visceral and vivid image that evokes the fearful quality of our own pandemic but in a wary and external manner. On top of this, climate disasters and flooding abound, which is sadly none too different from the current state of the planet.
Within this varied set of afflictions, two lovers—Jacy and Alexis (played by Nao Uemura and P. Trinh)—are longing for each other. At the onset, we hear the two participating in the Hong Kong protests for democracy before Jacy appears to be bludgeoned into a coma by a police officer. Alexis attempts to wait by his side, but his condition is too much for her, and she leaves for Vancouver. The narrative is then split between the two lives—Jacy waking from his coma and adapting to this strange new world while trying to find his lost love, and Alexis sending cassettes of her thoughts and experiences back home in Vancouver as she lives through this catastrophe.
Altogether the listening experience is a pleasantly ruminative one. While there is palpable fear and sadness throughout the narrative, everything tends to bob towards a surface of pondering and quizzical drive. Both characters are lively in the face of their difficulties, which in some ways lessens the stakes of the scenario but in others makes the trappings of this world, which is thoroughly and thoughtfully built, all the easier to absorb. The format of the journey also lends itself well to audio drama, the journaling complimented routinely by beautiful soundscapes designed by Stefan Smulovitz and layered with secondary dialogue in Cantonese that highlights the cultural focus and creates an off-kilter sensation to the fish-out-of-water context.
Obviously, the themes and story are extremely current, twisting current history and reimagining disasters into a dark dream for the characters and listener to navigate. And that can be a tricky line to walk without becoming heavy-handed into the wealth of COVID-inspired art that the world is awash with. But something about The Eternal Sailor feels timeless. Much more than its pointed political dissection of Hong Kong’s fight for identity or its exploration of all-too-familiar pandemic trappings, it is a story of love. It is a tale of wanting, and chasing eternally after that desire. Even with such a familiar and bittersweet narrative thread, the writing still comes to a close with a surprising flourish; as Jacy’s search begins to spiral into a cerebral disaster, the world itself seems to do the same, and an ambivalently peaceful end washes over the two far-apart lovers.
The Eternal Sailor is both poetic and mundane in the best of ways. There is a relatable fog across the circumstances that are explored that echo our own without putting us in the driver’s seat of slogging through true pain. It feels in many ways like both a history lesson and a lesson for the future, all within the realm of a fever dream. As a combination dive into the woes of our world at large and poignant woes of the heart, it is a timely and timeless piece of theatre and delivers comfort in the face of disaster.