As rehearsals for the world premiere of Amy Ng’s new play Under the Umbrella get underway at the Belgrade Theatre, the construction team at Belgrade Production Services are hard at work creating the set for the show.

Telling the story of a young Chinese woman studying for a PhD in the UK, the play features a dual setting of Coventry and Guangzhou, presenting some interesting challenges for designer Moi Tran.

Ahead of the show’s opening 2-16 March 2019, Moi told us more about how she’s been approaching them through collaboration with the cast and creative team.

“The aspects of duality, journey and distance in the story manifest in the design through the expanse of space on stage, afforded by a minimal set,” she explains. “Since the R&D [research and development process], there has always been a strong element of physical movement in this piece, where the performers’ bodies help to tell an evocative story. I was keen to create a set that would allow space for these physical moments.”

While the overall shape of the set remains broadly consistent throughout the story, changes in lighting, as well as props and moveable elements, help to signal shifts in location. Holes in the base of the set serve a dual function, enabling items such as trees to be “planted” in place, while also allowing light to seep through from underneath.

This ethereal lighting evokes another element of duality that is central to the story. In the script, a kind of spiritual plane, populated by ghosts of a traumatic past, begins to encroach on the “real”, physical, 21st-century world that the main character, Wei, inhabits. With the help of lighting by Fridthjofur Thornsteinsson, Moi’s porous set represents the blurring of the boundaries between the two.

“These two worlds dance together and collide throughout the piece, which is very much anchored in the spiritual belief system and ritual heritage that informs many aspects of East Asian culture. I was keen to create a visual motif to convey this, while avoiding the stereotypes that often weigh down productions inspired by East Asian heritage – I wanted to create a shared vision, rather than an exotic one.

“I used perforations in the set to allow light to seep and creep through the material construction of what we think of as the ‘real’ world. In doing this I hope to create something that feels solid, yet is able to yield to the fluidity of the spiritual world when needed.”

Another visual link between the physical and spiritual worlds in the story is a large, cut-out circle at the back of the set, which glows in different shades and colours, serving as both sun and moon, as well as a kind of portal into the spirit world.

“The circle is a strong motif that resonates with every culture and religion in the world, which for me is very important. It represents life and continuous cycle. It also represents the sun and moon, the rotation of the earth, day and night, distance and time.

“But more specifically I was also very drawn to the symbolism of the circular portals or ‘Moon Gates’ that are significant in Ancient Chinese architecture. These circular openings have many different spiritual meanings, which vary according to the shapes and designs of pieces of tiling on each gate. Their sloping roofs represent the half-moon of Chinese Summers and the tips of the roof tiles have talismans on the ends of them. There is a belief that the full moon is associated with a happy life.”

“The walls of the set also take inspiration from the screen walls built in Ancient Chinese architecture to face the main entrance of the house, which stems from the belief that evil things travel in straight lines,” she adds.

By drawing on a range of influences from both historical and modern-day China, Moi is working to offer up her own response to a cultural heritage that is still rarely seen on UK stages. In recent years, there have been growing calls from creative practitioners working across the theatre industry to address the under-representation of people of East Asian descent and their stories. This increasingly vocal movement is beginning to bring about a long overdue shift in British theatre that Under the Umbrella hopes to be a part of.

“I’m a great supporter of work being made by East Asian artists so I was excited to be offered the chance to be part of a show that places them in key creative roles. As a creative practitioner of Vietnamese and Chinese heritage, I understand the importance of representation and visibility for East Asian work.

“Growing up in a diasporic community, I felt a palpable absence of opportunities and visibility for people like me, and those that did exist often reinforced prejudices and stereotypes. I think it’s high time we changed this on our
own terms.”

Under the Umbrella is presented by the Belgrade Theatre in partnership with Yellow Earth Theatre as part of Tamasha’s IGNITE programme, supported by Arts Council England’s Sustained Theatre Grant.

The play makes its world premiere at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry 2-16 March 2019. Tickets are available to book now by calling the box office on 024 7655 3055 or visiting where prices are even cheaper.