i’m tired but that’s not good enough: on Dismantle This Room

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(photo by Jemima Yong)

“Stop crying about representation it means nothing does nothing it is only a gesture we are only tokens,” reads a 2018 tweet by The White Pube. Just over a year ago I reviewed a show called The Great Wave at the National Theatre. It was first time I’d ever seen an entirely East Asian cast onstage, and on one of the most influential stages in the country, at that, and I was overwhelmed. I’m not going to link to it because part of me is vaguely embarrassed by it – by its outright sincerity, mayhaps, by its almost-unquestioning delight in just…well, seeing people that looked like me onstage. As if that is enough. My reaction wasn’t about the show – a show which had massive, gaping flaws in it – the show, I think, could literally have had East Asian actors reading from the phonebook and I’d probably still have had a weird gut reaction. I now feel almost duped by it, by the National, for…what, tricking me into being grateful and satiated? A show about North Korea. Marketable to a majority white audience. Sigh. That representation stuff is not enough. It is not enough anymore to see a body onstage that looks a bit like mine. I am not going to be slavishly grateful to these institutions because it is almost irrelevant if they are not making structural changes to distribute power and influence more equally. Why, for example, doesn’t the National have the kind of consistent working relationship with, say, debbie tucker green that they do with David Hare, when she is just as much (cough, more) of a cultural force than he is? There is a reason the appointments of Kwame Kwei-Armah, Lynette Linton, Matthew Xia, Suba Das and Nadia Fall feel so seismic. That is a sea-change, that is a structural shift, an active handing over of the reins of power rather than just letting a writer like Francis Turnly sit shotgun for a few weeks.

Dismantle This Room, an escape room style theatrical experience, conceived and executed by Milli Bhatia, Ingrid Banerjee Marvin, and Nina Segal, is an attempt to grab frustrated anger, wrangle it into something productive. “[We wanted] the audience as active collaborators, as participants in a dialogue rather than receivers of a finished product. An escape room is inherently audience-centric – the show literally cannot progress without the audience’s involvement,” they tell me. Audience members have the choice to dismantle the system from the outside, or from the inside – solving clues and puzzles and all the while having discussions about how best to dismantle ingrained power structures. There’s been a concerted effort by the makers to create as safe and stable a space as possible for these discussions to take place. It’s safe, but also dangerous. A difficult balancing act – a definite experiment. It is an active challenge, a reckoning of sorts. So you’re angry? it seems to ask. Well, then what are you going to do about it?

What is perhaps most thrilling about Dismantle This Room is its palpable anger, which feels particularly forceful at the Royal Court, a place created as a roar of fury against the establishment, but which has slowly become a red brick cornerstone of said establishment, based in one of the most expensive areas of the UK. All this enormous, towering, monumental history and expectation tied up in this one building. Perhaps you can never totally shake off the dust of the space you occupy. Part of me wants to big up the Court for programming Dismantle, for taking that risk, for setting a precedent, but another, smaller, goblin-like part of me is like, “Why should you thank them for doing this?” I don’t really know where the line is.

Segal, Bhatia, and Marvin have pushed against any sense of paralysing, depressive apathy that anyone paying attention to the industry might have. If you do Dismantle, then you are forced to be active from the moment you buy your ticket – either £1, £5, £12, or £18, according to your personal understanding of your privilege. I chose £12. I think that was right. I certainly wouldn’t have gone any lower. Doing this show is a constant process of re-evaluation, of reassessing and checking yourself. When you enter the Court Downstairs, Nina and Ingrid give you your briefing, and you meet your fellow participants. You are asked to not reveal whether or not you are in the industry, and you are asked to consider your privilege and to uplift the voices of those who are not usually heard in mainstream discourse.

There were a few times in there where I felt entirely shattered. Completely unable to keep discussing or arguing. I felt, quite often, like all of this was pointless. I think this cynicism can be helpful. It can help pull back a group determined to win the game as quickly as possible, help them slow down and consider what’s being decided and why. I think it also hindered our progress a little, though. That was my fault. I could feel myself resenting the group I was in, which was unhelpful, because I couldn’t change it. I had been given my lot and I had to stick with it and make the best of it, even if it was difficult, but I felt stubborn, unable to pull myself together and make the change I wanted to see. If I could do it again, I think I’d be more active, I’d try to dissociate from the emotions, try to push myself to be more precise in my rebellions and my concessions.

One of the most fascinating things about Dismantle is the way you slowly realise how language is weighted. We know this, in theory, but to see it in action, when we’re all acutely aware of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it was bizarre and unsettling. You see, with absolute clarity, how deliberate, persuasive and insidious everyday language can be. How it can be weaponised, even when you’re all ostensibly on the same side. Questions like – “are we all agreed?”, in the voice of a confident white woman are less questions, more just statements. We discussed the limitations of going from the inside out – surely then you just become part of the system? Assimilated in? Watered down? Too comfortable? I had reservations about going from the outside in, but which I don’t think I expressed loudly or confidently enough – even if you aren’t working within the system, the system is still working within you. It becomes so apparent when you are in a time-pressurised environment which voices are most comfortable taking the lead – in our case, young white, middle-class, cis women. A hierarchy shifted slightly – the white cis men in the room were (at first) conscious of not taking up space, but it didn’t shift enough. It shifted so that white women could take centre stage. But that’s how the macrocosm works too, isn’t it? Middle class, white cis men move aside so middle class, white cis women can replace them and we call it equality and wipe our hands of it all. At one point, after we listened to one of the white women explain what needed to be done, another woman of colour whispered to me “I said that idea earlier, but no-one listened to me. Probably because I’m brown.” We laughed conspiratorially but didn’t speak up. At one point, after one of the white women said, “So we’re all agreed?” and took a breath to move on, one of the only white men heard my muttered “No” and said loudly, “I don’t think we’ve heard everyone’s voices yet.” I was grateful for that. I should’ve done more of that for others who weren’t being heard. You realise these things afterwards.

Who ended up coming to see this show? Lots of those who consider themselves to be fairly progressive, nice, middle-class liberal-lefties. Lots of people who work in theatre, who wanted to see cool, formally experimental stuff, but also maybe those people who tend to book out an entire season at the Court without quite knowing what’s been programmed. A worry of mine was that it might seem too echo-chambery, not discursive enough, not, perhaps, difficult enough. A love-in. It wasn’t that, though the creatives have told me about wonderful groups, mainly made up of people of colour, who have had genuinely excellent, warm, productive discussions about the industry. What Dismantle revealed – for me, at least – was uglier. The buried-deep stuff that rarely goes unchecked, that stuff which is so deeply ingrained that people end up enacting systems of oppression without even realising it. Obliviousness was a key word. Our group suggested that we start a theatre company in the most arts-deprived area of the UK, Blackburn with Darwen. “We can be like Slung Low,” they said. But you can’t just be like Slung Low. That takes work, that takes more than a split-second decision, that takes an actual desire to engage with the community, properly engage with them and talk to them and ask what they want and what they need, not just plonk ourselves down and shove some theatre in their faces. I felt acutely aware of us as the metropolitan elite, having this arch, intellectual conversation about the benefits of the arts in Sloane Square. We can go to this little town and bestow the arts upon them. It’s not that simple. None of this is simple. None of this is nice, I wanted to say. This isn’t just a jolly. None of this is fun. This is all difficult, and sad, and I hate it. I can’t say I enjoyed doing Dismantle, because I didn’t. Everything just seemed very sad.

There was one moment in the process which has stuck with me. Towards the end of the hour, when we were discussing and debriefing the choices we’d made, I spoke up. I said something like:

“These guys [pointing at the framed photographs of various white male artistic directors on the walls of Cindy Lin’s set design] don’t really care about changing anything. Not really.”

This was, I know, a response borne out of unchecked frustration and anger and sadness. And it was, in retrospect, probably quite an unhelpful thing to say. I was throwing grenades out at this discussion point, I think, desperate for someone to pick them up and say, “Yes, maybe let’s talk about this.”

One man – a well-respected British playwright who I’d clocked the minute he’d walked in – turned to look at me.

“I don’t think that’s true. I think they’re doing their best.”

“Are they?”

“Yes. I think XYZ is. He’s doing great work.” and he named one of them, the AD of a theatre which rarely showcases people of colour both on and offstage, an AD who has a shifty reputation among young women in the industry.

I stared at him. Surely he knew about these rumours? But then – had I got it completely wrong? Had myself and pretty much all the women in theatre that I know – got it wrong? Was I just engaging in a shitty, insular culture of hearsay? Was I being silly and stupid and sensitive? I couldn’t say anything about the things I’d heard – not in this space, not with everyone watching, not when I couldn’t factually back it up. What I should’ve said was – “He doesn’t seem to have any interest in programming and hiring people who aren’t white and middle class.” But instead, I looked away.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. You were going to say something.”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”

I looked up at him.

“I just disagree, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s fine, isn’t it? If we disagree.”

Conversation moved on and I felt my vision closing in on either side.

So this is why things don’t change, I thought. Either you don’t know what I know (which is unlikely) and you genuinely think this guy is doing a bang-up job (again – really? Clearly we’re having completely different audience experiences), or you do know what I know (those rumours don’t come from nowhere, I know they don’t) and you just don’t care. Maybe you used to care and you don’t anymore?

I think what people don’t quite understand is the level of emotion that runs beneath things like Dismantle. Nina, Milli, and Ingrid are fucking angry. They wouldn’t have made this show if they weren’t. At the end, one of the white women declared an unease with how “binary” the choices we were pushed to make were. Aside from the fact that this is an hour-long show/game which is designed to facilitate conversation, not provide the answers, (no-one is actually going to murder 95% of The Stage 100 List) there was something interesting at play here. Voice thick with residual anxiety, I said inelegantly, “I think what we forget is that all this comes from so much anger and hurt, and that is just as valuable as the more rational, balanced stuff.”

Back to that tweet from The White Pube, as ever (who have done so much to educate me, please subscribe to their Patreon and read everything they write)

“We must seize the means of production, support each other by paying it forward, and infiltrate the institutions that exclude us till we are in positions of power & equity.”

We are infiltrating – not only from the top down, but from the bottom up and the sides in. There are people like Tobi Kyeremateng with Black Ticket Project, Marcus Bernard with The Upsetters, Steven Kavuma with Black Ticket Club, Daniel York Loh, and then of course Ingrid, Nina, and Milli, people who are pushing for change and getting results. Buy tickets for their shows, contribute to their crowdfunders, put your money where your mouth is, and with these new AD appointments we might start to get somewhere with dismantling traditional power structures. For some reason I’m reluctant to end this on a net positive note but maybe I should. I am prone to pessimism, and that is on the whole an unhelpful trait to have, and one which I think is at odds with Dismantle’s inherent ethos. There were moments of genuine connection and progression in Dismantle which I think I brushed over because I felt tired, and mad, and tired again. But there were people talking to each other who might not usually talk to each other, people sitting in the bar together and continuing the discussion that Nina, Milli, and Ingrid set up for them. The first word in the title of the show is a command, an imperative. There is a force to it, a deliberate push to it. We shouldn’t ignore that.

 

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the woman in black: an expedition

my mate Emily and I decided to get a bit drunk and go see the Woman in Black since everyone says it’s rlly scary. that’s it that’s the premise.

Before

A             Okay. We – this is the stupidest thing we’ve ever done.

E              This is a bad introduction

A             Okay UGH we are WALKING from the spoons to the

Theatre

Thassit

E              That’ll do

A            I’ve had one gin and tonic, half a bottle of prosecco

Em’s had half a bottle of prosecco, a double rum and coke, and a shot of whiskey

Within

About an hour.

E              Impressive

A             I feel like you’re gonna start crying

Emily doesn’t like horror

E              I really don’t

A             We’ve both seen the film

Editor’s note: This was a lie. I have not seen the film. 

E              I’m really concerned Ava

I’m gonna like get to the break the seal level and have to pee halfway through                     the first act

A             Don’t tell me that or I’m gonna have to do that as well (Ed. – we held it in really                    well)

E              Then a scary bit will come and I’ll pee my pants

A             What if

You got up

And she was in the aisle

E             gjdgkshglskglkfhgsflks no!!

A             She’s gonna bob around the Upper Circle (Ed. – she does not do this. This did not                 stop us from hiding under our jackets)

E              You’re on the aisle seat

A             Why didn’t I book in the middle

E              Did you choose the aisle

A             Yes

E              Why

A             I don’t know

E              Foolish girls

A             We’re gonna hold each other’s hands

 

Interval

A             Um okay

I’m feeling a little bit stressed

E              Not a lot of scary stuff has happened yet

A             It’s all setting up

Before the thrills

And spills

E              I can see why A Level students study this play

Cos there’s metatheatricality

A             They set it out pretty well

Cos what they do is like

Set it up like

It’S tHe TheATrE

hoW could it POSSIBLY be sCAry

When it’s all MAKE BELIEVE

E              There’s like five false starts

And we’ve seen the woman three times already and each time

It’s been kinda

Funny

A             I kinda think it’s quite audacious (Ed. – do I???) to give it a really fucking boring                  start

E              It’s so boring

And that’s not seen that much in theatre

Like it starts with a guy REALLY BADLY reading a script

A             I think it’s quite an effective way to open a show (Ed. – ??? I disagree with past                      me virulently)

The bit where it scared me most was this bit with a train where another train m                  passes and there’s a really loud noise and I like burrowed into you

E              What was the cue line like

“What do you mean – nothing?”

And then

BRASGHAGHDJ TRAIN

Cos I really don’t like horror but I’ve been watching the first bit like

Give me some scares

I want some scares.

I’m hooked

A             Are you? (Ed. – lol relax Ava don’t get catty)

E              I came here

For some cheap thrills

A             They’re not gonna be cheap they’re gonna be EARNED (Ed. – were they tho)

E              West End budget

A             Exactly

I did like –

Towards the end the guy was monologuing and there was a really precise spot                    on his face and I was like / OOOH

E              OOOH

A             THEATRE!! HERE WE GO

E              The LIGHTS and the SPACE (Ed. – I hate us)

A             It’s almost like

They play off what you think theatre will be

Maybe I’m reading too into it

But like

I feel like they play into the idea of theatre being rickety and boring and silly

E              Yes

A             And How Scary Can The Imagination Really Be!!

And it’s like

Very scary!!! Actually!!!

E              And with the recorded sound

A             It shouldn’t be creepy but it is

E              I feel very invested in being scared

A             I’m gonna cry I’m gonna cry

E              The adrenaline

A             I’m gonna cry (Ed. – drama queen fml)

E              I’m ready to make some weird noises like

Sfsakfbdjgbdgjksbsjkgb (Ed. – use ur imagination, it was quite impressive)

Five minutes after the curtain went up the alcohol like –

Hit me

And I started like

Making finger guns at the stage (Ed. – she did. During the “””funnies””” at the                        start Em literally did finger guns and said “wahey” at one of the actors….from the                   circle)

A             Yeah when he said something like

Oh and our audience

Who AREN’T here but are GOING TO BE LATER

You like

Waved???

E              Yes

A             And I was like he CAN’T SEE YOU

Anyway we need to go back in

 

After

A             Well

E              IT WASN’T THAT SCARY

IT WAS FINE

WE’RE VERY STRONG WOMEN

A             I will start by saying (Ed. – here we go)

That I think (Ed. – are u ready)

                That it’s super fucking interesting (Ed. – s’not that deep Ava)

That she doesn’t do a bow

Cos I think it says

A hell of a lot

About the industry (Ed. – your honour? A reach)

Like but like she fucking carried it!!!!

E              Ava

Are you saying

Are you saying that

The theatre industry

Doesn’t value women

A             AM I??????? (Ed. – I AM saying that but this is dumb obv)

E              A bold claim!!!!!

A             But she does all this work

And she’s the reason why people come

E              She’s like running around the stage

A             Because they wanna maintain this like

Dramaturgical

THING

That they’ve got going

They don’t have her bow

I just think it’s interesting (Ed. – I take it back I think this is actually q an                                 interesting point)

But it was not scary

E              No

And the bits that were scary were like things you do find fundamentally                               distressing

Like

I do find six year olds dying very distressing!!!!

A             That wasn’t even scary

E              But like screaming people is scary!!!

A             It’s like it completely works off tropes, right

They’re so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that if I hear a woman                             screaming

If I hear uh

Like a music box tinkling

E              That got me

Like

Ding ding ding ding

This is CREEPY!!

A             If I’d seen it when I was thirteen I’d probably have been like

Well I would’ve loved it

And been like

That’s so cool that’s what theatre can do

But now I find it funny cos you can see all the seams

Like when she’s appearing all over the place

I can just IMAGINE her like

Running backstage and like legging it to her next cue

In her long black dress.

E            Cos the person isn’t scary

It’s the idea of the person!!!

A             This is some people’s first foray into theatre

E              Probably a lot of people’s first West End show in London

A             Yeah

So my GCSE text was Journey’s End

And there was a production on somewhere

And that was such a seminal thing for me

Like I have a real fondness for that play even though now

Fuck me

I would NEVER watch that play

It’s just about these men in WW1 in the trenches.

E              Mine was Midsummer Night’s Dream

And they made lots of jokes about Martin Clune because he’s big in the South                        West

A             Loooool

But like seeing Journey’s End

That was the first time I was like

Oh my God I’m FEELING something

E              My first thing on seeing Midsummer was

Oh you can pretend something’s onstage and like

Still believe it???

The whole second half – there was this dog that you couldn’t see

Like a real dog

A             Would’ve taken away from it

E              Yeah been the Live Thing onstage that you pay attention to.

Emily gets distracted by something and we chat about that for a few minutes, apparently. Then we get back to it.

                I feel quite proud that we weren’t that scared.

A             Yeah I’m like

I’m 23 and I wasn’t scared at all

E              I’m a grown up

Closing thoughts

A             I dunno like

It is what it is

E              I was disappointed at the lack of theatrical payoff

I sound like a wanker

But

A             No I get it

You could see her like

Moving into position

E              Cos the emergency exit lights were on where we were

A             What I think it does well is like that real suspension of disbelief

And like that’s why horror theatre should work better than it does, maybe

You know all these people are running around backstage

And moving to their cues etc

But when it happens – when she jumps out – everyone wants to scream

So they do scream

And that’s what’s kinda amazing

That like collective

Sorta consciousness being like

WE’RE GONNA SCREAM NOW BECAUSE IT’S GONNA BE SCARY AND WE                               WANNA FEEL THAT

E              From a front of house perspective

You know the French kids who were behind us chatting

A             No disrespect to the French

E              We are not xenophobes

A             They were literally talking loudly

In French (Ed. – me again. lmao we GET it)

E              I was like if one of them kicks my chair when they scream

I’m gonna turn around and punch them

But like

You can’t make it too scary

A             Cos otherwise it would be disruptive

E              Yeah

Like it could get people jumping out of their seats and getting upset and like

Punching each other

Cos you know how earlier we were like

If someone touches me

Like the Woman

I’m gonna fucking punch them

A             Yeah yeah yeah

That’s so interesting cos like

There’s always a limit to theatre

Whereas in film

That’s why I find film more scary

It’s unlimited

Whereas this

E              If it was actually really properly scary

A             Then it would be dangerous

And it’s like (Ed. – one more big ol take from ava here)

Is theatre dangerous

If it can provoke that kinda gut-response of like I’m gonna punch you if you                         touch me

This is like

The Greeks talked about this (Ed. – vv astute love it)

E              The Greeks

A             The Greeks

Like I swear they were really aware of the power of theatre and how it could                      affect behaviour

E              Yeah

A             It’s like catharsis

It’s like a feeling of like being pulled out of yourself

E              Like you know how with Rites of Spring there were riots at the theatre

A             Yeah!!

But I don’t see anything now which is like that

E              Cos theatre has to fight for its place in the cultural sector

So it has to be like

A             Not palatable

But somewhere near there

E              It has to have some kind of

Commercial/public value

And if it caused riots it would be shut down.

A             Yeah

Ostensibly for safety but also because like

Unbridled emotions in like a community are dangerous.

Or something.

 

If you wanna see the Woman in Black it will be running for the next fifty million years so take ur time dw about it.

how do u stage oppression??? idk!!

(I’m in the middle of editing an 8000 word course essay on the Harlem Renaissance which is due in tomorrow and I really shouldn’t be doing this right now, I should be getting back to it but I don’t care, Mom)

A few years ago at Fringe I saw a show which had white creatives behind it. Nothing new for the Fringe, you might say, and I would agree, but this show was about race (this show will also remain nameless because a) they’re an emerging company and b) frankly, they were trying, and that’s more than a lot of you do and also c) if you are part of the company and you’re reading this, I don’t mean to put you on the spot and accuse you of anything and I hope you see that.) It was about how white, liberal people talk about and see/don’t see race. Okay. It is a play about race through the eyes of young white people. And that’s fine because those stories need to be told and those perspectives have to be seen – but as an Asian woman, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to go see it again/tell my friends of colour to go see it because, frankly, we get it, we don’t need to see it onstage. Anyway, lots of my white friends really liked it, so I went to see it.

There’s an extended bit at the climax of the show where a white woman says initially quite normal (racist) things, and then progressively more inflammatory (racist) things, and it’s cloaked in comedy in order to precipitate a certain reaction from the audience. As in, the audience are supposed to laugh at the smaller, microaggression stuff, and then become complicit in themselves when the more awful, “properly” racist stuff starts being said. Makes sense, and it’s a smart, effective way of pulling the politics of the show into the room we are sitting in. But – I think I was one of only three or four other people of colour in the audience – which was, of course, mainly white. So there’s a lot to unpick here. One, the audience the creatives were aiming this at were the white, so-called progressives that populate Fringe during the summer. Two, the creatives (I think?) assumed that the audience would be majority white, because this climax would only work if the audience was majority white.  Three, the creatives assumed that the audience would respond in a certain way, i.e. start laughing, end appalled at themselves. That third thing didn’t happen the way the creatives envisioned it – the audience was uproarious from start to (pretty much) end, howling with laughter at the racist jokes. It was probably one of the most upsetting experiences I’ve ever had at the theatre. But – like I say – I don’t blame the creatives. I was angry with them at first, when we were at Fringe, but I’m not anymore, because I understand what they were trying to do, I know that they were doing their best, and I know that they were/are a young company still figuring shit out.

Last year, I saw One for Sorrow at the Court Upstairs, by Cordelia Lynn. I feel like I can name that show because – yaknow – it’s the Court and these things/shows/institutions need to be challenged. That show is also about liberal whiteness and race. It’s about a white family who take in a brown man during a terror attack and gradually come to suspect that he is hiding something. In retrospect, I should’ve read the synopsis and just said “Nope, that’s not for me. White friends should go see it but it’s not made for me.”

At the climax of the show (spoilers, or whatever), the nice white liberal family who have displayed some of their prejudices through their dining room chat but not all of them! suddenly flip on the young brown man in their house. He won’t take off his coat, and they want him to. They ask him to, he refuses, they tell him to, he refuses, they order him to, he refuses. It culminates with him running for the door and the white family leap upon him, like they’ve gone feral, like the veneer of civility has finally been scratched off their faces etc, etc (I get it, truly I do, I really do), and they wrestle him to the ground and everyone is screaming and yelling and one of them bites his cheek so it bleeds and it is a brown body being brutalised by white bodies and I am tired I am tired I am tired and in the theatre I began to feel the familiar stirrings of an anxiety attack rising up my throat and tears in my eyes and no-one around me is doing Anything.

It resolves itself, somehow. I don’t remember how. Sometimes when I think about the whiteness of theatre I see the image of the man pinned to the ground flash into my head and I see the young, white, drunk audience in Edinburgh braying and howling and I wonder, I really do wonder, how people can tell me that we are making progress.

But I am not angry, I am not angry, or at least I try so hard not to be, because I know that these shows were not made for me and that they need to exist, they have to exist and they have to be written by white writers because I would not ever want any writer of colour think that they needed to include a scene like the one in One For Sorrow in their play, just to prove a point to a white wine swilling audience.

(I can’t believe I’m writing this the day before my coursework is due in but here we are! I guess!)

How can one feasibly, safely stage oppression/oppressive systems (a lot of the time, particularly in the case of the two shows mentioned above, in order to critique said systems) without alienating/making unsafe those in the audience who the system hits the most? And this isn’t just to do with race, that is just the thing I feel it most acutely with (well, that and on-stage sexual assault, of which I have never seen a good reason for.)

I think when I saw My White Best Friend at the Bunker, there was an interesting balance at play. Rachel De-Lahey’s monologue, from the perspective of her white (problematic) best friend was read by a white actress and directed by Milli Bhatia. And she says a lot of uncomfortable stuff, but I think the difference was that I was in a room surrounded by non-white people and so I felt protected, and that monologue was written by a woman of colour and then it was followed by monologues written by other people of colour. And Zia Ahmed’s piece was devastating and part of it was about whiteness and white oppression but it didn’t feel dangerous to me, because of the community that had formed in that room. It felt like an exorcism, like these awful things were being described and put into the air and then pushed away and everyone, if not literally, was metaphorically holding hands and rocking with each other.

So I don’t know what the solution is. I think Ridiculous Darkness did it well by having people of colour play white people, so the racism and sexism etc etc that came out of their mouths wasn’t dangerous, but ridiculous, because it was a performance.

There must be a way of doing these shows about white guilt, written by white people, that doesn’t involve oppression being restaged, night after night. There has to be. But I just don’t know how.

BON AMI – All In Theatre @ VAULT Fest

bonami

You should read this review while listening to Juice by Lizzo. I just think it fits. Go on. Do it.

So I’ve been having some issues with theatre over the last few months. By issues I mean – I haven’t been enjoying it, lol. It all feels a bit tiring, a bit grey. Even the good stuff.

Thank FUCK for All In. I mean, really. Bethany Wells’ design – those pastel screens which gently allude to those enormous, gaudy, sliding pieces of set you get in pantos, the type of set which reminds you of being a kid when the theatre felt exciting, like an occasion, an opportunity to get your mum to buy you a bag of Maltesers that you could wolf down even before the curtain went up – the BON AMI design reminded me a bit of that. That feeling.

Amalia Vitale and Stephen Sobal have developed this really delightful, really fucking weird style which flits between flat out absurdism and total, joyous whimsy. God it’s good. It’s simultaneously the dumbest and smartest type of show around. Or, more accurately, it’s like the show grabs silliness by the scruff of the neck and just blasts straight through the rubicon into total comic sublimity. Amalia and Tatiana Collet-Apraxine – fuck, what committed performers. It could not work without total dedication to silliness. What a total joy to watch them both. Collet-Apraxine has arguably the more difficult role – the quieter one, arguably the **straight** woman, playing Ami, a desperately, quietly lonely woman. She’s great – winsome and sweet and delicately charming. By contrast, Vitale is loud, deranged, brash and supremely confident, playing every other character Ami encounters. She’s a marvel. It got to the point where Vitale would literally just walk across the stage and I was just sitting there, sniggering to myself, completely delighted without her even doing anything.

Something I fucking loved about BON AMI was how All In will just…extend a bit. For so long. They’ll milk it for everything it’s worth and then keep wringing it out, but in a way which feels completely delightful and audacious and knowing, and not at all tiresome. They have this acute awareness of how far a joke will stretch and they will TAKE YOU THERE. The confidence they have in their comedic abilities is just so, so great, and so rare. Jesus Christ, the coffee machine bit. I actually started crying from laughter.

The only thing – and this feels so totally churlish given how much joy I derived from the show – is that it does have the feeling of being a series of skits loosely strung together. Halfway through the show I wondered if it was actually a sketch show and I’d misread the blurb on the website. And I don’t mind that style, necessarily – I quite enjoyed the ebullient, wandering charm of it – it sorta felt like the show just followed its nose and went wherever it thought was interesting. Possibly if I’d been less charmed by Vitale and Collet-Apraxine I would’ve found it annoying – their charisma does definitely lift a slightly saggy middle section. It could do – deep breath – with a bit of dramaturgical rigour. It’s already such an effervescent, joyous piece of work. But you wouldn’t water down a fizzy drink. You want the full sugar hit.

 

BON AMI runs until Sunday 17th March

kourtney

 

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I grew up soaked in opera. My mother’s personal email when I was little was deidamia88 – a reference to one of her favourite Handel operas. I have an intense memory of her blasting a notoriously tricky aria from Handel’s Semele called “Hence, Iris, hence” from the speakers in her bedroom. (I’m listening to it now. It is so fucking extra) I must have been about five years old, I think. We all begged her to turn it down, my father included, whose tastes veered more towards Wagner. She ignored us. I remember the CD cover so clearly – a woman in a gold, ruffled dress, lying on her front on a chaise-longue with long dark hair cascading down her back. (Jesus this aria is crazily frilly) I listen to it occasionally now, on Spotify. I think it’s fairly weird that my first encounter with opera was with minor baroque operas rather than, yaknow, Mozart. Something a bit more mellow. But that’s never been my mother’s style.

So opera is probably the first artform I was exposed to. I don’t watch much of it now. Maybe if there’s an interesting director attached, but it takes a lot to want to voluntarily endure an opera audience in London. Opera is probably good for me. I mean, not the experience as a whole. But the music. The patience it requires. The music does move me. My friend Ben’s production of Speed Death of the Radiant Child opened with a recording “Eternal Source of Light Divine”, also by Handel. It was completely sublime. I listen to it a lot now, when I need to calm down. I wish I could experience opera – the music – without all the baggage around it. (My Spotify has now automatically shuffled to a Cardi B song which is…weirdly not massively jarring)

Coming into the Sleepwalk rehearsal room only a few days before the UK premiere of Kourtney requires an adjustment. I’ve only really observed rooms which are still in the embryonic stage, which are still feeling things out, trying to figure out the overall shape of a piece. The shape is here and it’s clear in Kourtney – though iara jokes that they might just end up completely changing everything the night before the first show. It’s more precise details which are being worked through, like kneading a tight muscle. Sammy says they’re jigsawing it all together, which feels apt. They switch between sections, flagging up moments which feel lacklustre, even if they can’t quite pinpoint why initially. They seem tired – iara is getting ill – but the acute attention to detail remains. iara and Nhung work on a dance sequence. How far does your arm extend? This far? Okay. Do you raise your head at this point? I’ll do that too then. They ask Sammy to film them so they can watch it back, peering over his shoulder at his iPhone screen. It is weirdly exhilarating to watch this bit.

I try to make sense of what I’m seeing without being told, and then I just let it wash over me. Trying to glean meaning from the scraps I do see is tough – obviously. I feel a real pressure to write something smart but I don’t really know what, yet. Over the course of two days in the room I make a list of words I think are relevant.

Decay, leakage, mortality, memory, efficacy, sincerity, irony, reality, empty, excess, precision, mess

I wonder what I’ll see when I watch the show.

This point in the process always feels the most difficult to me, the point where everything feels old and annoying to the maker and I try to make myself smaller, less of an imposition. Long discussions at a folding table are had, winding and detailed reasons are given for why something doesn’t work, but it rarely feels too cerebral. Ideas are always quickly, practically put on their feet. Sammy wonders if a piece of text is too expositional (if such a thing exists in a Sleepwalk show) and iara suggests that everything feels obvious now, but that the audience won’t feel that way. She explains it so calmly and clearly that I also feel reassured (?!) You can already see the beauty of the piece, even without costume or lights or projection, even when they’re just doing a fragment of a scene. That’s testament to a company so sure of and committed to a certain vision, I think. When you can feel it before you, yaknow, see it.

When I do watch it, I’m surprised by how much Sammy is actually in the show. I didn’t realise he’d be so visible at the side of the stage, in a slightly oversized suit like a child playing dress-up, operating the (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful) sound. Seeing his projections above iara and Nhung, hearing his mother and father sing The Marriage of Figaro. The memories leak into the performance, blurring the lightly drawn pencil line which separates fiction and reality. His mother’s voice, wavering and delicate, begins to warp. You can see him push the button that does that. Is this a synthesis or a battle?

I can see more clearly now the strands about the efficacy of art, and particularly an artform as bloated, as frilly as opera. An artform which recycles old productions from the 90s, maintaining every brocaded costume, every beaded, heeled shoe. They say something about formaldehyde in the show but I forget to write it down. Preservation is completely at odds with live art. It should exist and then it should just evaporate.

Look at us here at the opera while the world outside burns

Dripping shimmer like we napalmed a goldmine

Watch us burn through your money in the most obnoxious way we can.

I scribble furiously in the dark, red light spilling onto my lap, trying to note down everything Nhung and iara drawl in that classic, droll, Sleepwalk tone. It ties its audience up in knots and then unpicks them. “Whatever you put onstage takes on intrinsic value”, Nhung louchely intones, a sly smile creeping over her face as iara raises her right hand high in the sky. I’m vaguely surprised at how overtly political it is – but then, this is a show about excess – excess of wealth, of consumption, of art, of everything, excess which collapses into emptiness – so of course it is. I suppose I felt cocooned in that rehearsal room.

The music rises and their smiles drop and their movements become more purposeful, dagger-like. Later, when I’m dropping off to sleep, I imagine iara and Nhung’s white stained faces drifting through the halls of a dimly lit BAC.

I think about the fish-eye lens Yorgos Lanthimos uses in The Favourite – the way it squeezes and bulges normalcy into absurdity. I think about how absurd normality is anyway.

 

KOURTNEY runs at HOME from 7th-9th March

Photo by Ricardo Espinosa

 

 

shape and self: making i will still be whole

 

In early 2017 I spend a lot of time in bed, watching Louis Theroux documentaries. The last time I wrote anything near a play was this time last year. I wrote a play called Archipelago for the Warwick University New Writing Society. It was what I’d generously call a rip-off of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Nick Payne’s Constellations. It was also white as hell. Anyway. Shortly after that play goes on, I begin to cry more, stay in more, stare at the wall more. Now, in January 2017, I can’t begin to fathom writing anything. I left Warwick a few months ago. I don’t feel like I have any ideas. I have absolutely no desire to even – begin thinking about theatre. I watch Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler in the Lyttleton and feel fantastically listless. The actors walk across and back over the stage and it all seems extremely two-dimensional. I leave at the interval.

So I don’t know quite where it began. I start crawling towards the light in the spring. I enjoy theatre more again. I start working with a Warwick company called Reactivists to bring a show to Edinburgh. I’m one of the writers. I think this is the first time I work creatively with Helen, who I sorta feel ends up being like my right arm. How weird that that is the beginning. I think it must be at this point that I start properly thinking about it. Things now feel a little sharper, crisper. I’m more excited by theatre now. I start up a Twitter account. That’s not relevant but also seems extremely relevant. I am, at this point, thinking a lot about my identity, about being mixed race.

Sometime in June I start working on a little script – based off something I was working at the end of my first year in Warwick. I remember being at a house party the previous September and telling Helen, somewhat drunkenly, about a play I’m working on. It’s about female friendships. Helen tells me to read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I go back to the script that June and decide that at least one of the characters should be British East Asian – mixed – and the other is white. The play is about two friends, acting out the most important moments from their friendship. The play starts to break down. The race thing gets in the way. I send it to Clara, who I haven’t really spoken to since September. She’s nice about it – polite. I play with it, on and off. It doesn’t feel quite right. I think about a solo show.

After Edinburgh, I go to Malaysia and visit my grandmother for a week. It is the most relaxed, the happiest I have been for a while. While I’m there, I interview my Popo. I ask her about growing up, about how she met my Gong Gong. I transcribe the interview and think about using it in the show. I read about The Yard’s First Drafts scheme while in Malaysia. I write a monologue from the point of view of a young, mixed race, queer woman who gets into a relationship with a white woman. One night I can’t sleep for jetlag and I send off the application. Right now, it’s called GWEILO. I get the slot, which surprises me. I ask Helen if she wants to be involved. We set up an R&D session for October, at Warwick, with some of the people whose opinions I trust most in the world.

In the R&D, we talk about food – a lot. We talk about what food means to Asian communities and families. There’s a lot of just – expulsion. Safura and I therapise about families and anger and shame and expectation. I think about a second strand, a strand about a Chinese woman who marries an English soldier. I think about how racialised attraction is. I think the second strand will draw out the first one pretty well – complement and accentuate it. After the R&D, I finish a version of the script. It’s sorta just been decided that I’ll perform it. I feel like I’ve slipped into it. It doesn’t particularly scare me. It’s not acting, which just embarrasses me on a core level. It’s just sorta – projecting. Not performing. And it’s just a scratch anyway. Part of me wonders whether or not I got the slot because mixed race stories are trendy and unthreatening. That’s a whole other blog post.

Helen and I work on the text and we incorporate food and tea into it. We think about me cooking something onstage. I think that could’ve been the show, for sure. We delineate spaces and states and worlds. We do so many mind maps and unpacking and drawing on whiteboards and linking concepts and ideas and it’s so so so cerebral that I have to lie down in a dark room after each session. I find it a bit difficult to speak the text. Rehearsals are exhausting. When the performance comes, it’s what I’d call an admirable failure. It doesn’t work as a solo show. There are interesting ideas in it, but it feels wrong. Something big feels wrong. It stresses me out to think about it now. I’m not used to failing out loud, I think. I’m used to writing and doing the edits in my room, privately. It takes me about a year from that point to accept that process is failure, but at the time it kinda reverberates in my head like THIS WAS BAD YOU ARE BAD. Ellice Stevens, in the bar after the show, hears me denigrating the piece and yells at me, tells me to big myself up.

So, over Christmas 2017, I say to Helen I think it should change, and I start working on a new draft. I have short play on at UCL in December, and it’s written quickly and feels like a vibrant gut punch. It feels very different to GWEILO. GWEILO feels slaved over – too cerebral, too full of all the research, all the things we’ve talked about. The play I do for university – scum – it feels like fresh air. I think I need to channel more of that into GWEILO. I’m not used to writing monologues. I’m used to dialogue – it flows better for me. So, I redraft GWEILO totally. It’s very much A Play now. Two strands, again. A mother – East Asian, first generation immigrant, who meets a white man and marries him. Her daughter, twenty years later, who has started dating a white woman and is attempting to figure herself and her identity out. Purely dialogue. It’s a funny draft. Full of liberal white people making mistakes and feeling bad. I try to make the mother (Jing) a subversion of East Asian stereotypes. She weaponises her vulnerability, to an extent. She is calculating but not cold. The daughter, (Mae), feels messier to me, her arc less clear. I know want Jing wants, what she needs. I don’t know what Mae wants or needs, maybe because I don’t really know what I want or need.

I get it read out by some friends one night in Warwick, and it sounds great. It rolls off the tongue. People laugh, say it’s good. I feel buoyant. On the train back the next morning, I speak to Eve and ask her for help with the title. I don’t want to call it GWEILO anymore. I want a fresh start, away from the First Drafts version. I want something violent, about ripping or destroying. A long title, a poetic one. I offer up variants, but she comes up with the money shot – i will still be whole (when you rip me in half). I tell her I love it. I send the first ten pages to Flux Theatre and they select it to scratch at their Emerge Night at The Bunker in March. The actors are all so so talented and it’s directed so deftly, but when I watch it for the first time, at the industry showing, I feel a yank at the bottom of my stomach and I go to the bathroom and cry. Because it isn’t right, and it’s too late now. I’ve made it too broad, too funny, too easy for white people to laugh easily when actually I don’t find this shit funny at all. I laid the grounds for comedy and that’s what they went with, because that’s what they could see. My fault. I feel like a massive failure, which is obviously stupid, but I do. At the second showing, that evening, I grip my seat arm and will it to be over. I’ve never been good at sitting in rehearsal rooms. There’s always been a vague tinge of embarrassment. The performance is like that but multiplied by a million. Funnily, that’s the draft most of my friends really remember, and really enjoy. In the Q&A after the show, I burst into tears when a mixed-race girl tells me she feels seen. It’s very fucking embarrassing.

Lynette Linton is my script mentor for that draft, as organised by Flux, and she tells me afterwards that I need to trust in the subject matter, that I need to accept that it is worthy. She also tells me that maybe – maybe I need to be more ambitious with it. More epic. Not feel so confined to an hour-long show with just a few characters in it. I internalise that, try out a few pages of something bigger, and yet it doesn’t feel right. I think what she means is that I can go deeper, be more human with it. My interest in the show trails off. I’ve started reviewing. That takes up most of my time. I would be fine if I never touched it again.

In late April, I get a call while waiting at Battersea Arts Centre for the Chris Brett Bailey triple bill. It’s Emma, from Theatre Deli. I forgot I applied for rehearsal space and a scratch night there a few months back. She offers me a week’s rehearsal at The Old Library and a scratch performance at their Beyond Borders festival in June. I start laughing. I call Helen and tell her, ask her if she’s interested in still working on this damn show. She says yes. We start work. Now I want the play to fit the title. The other draft – it didn’t sound like the title was part of the play. That’s newly important to me. The new draft is two strands, again. A mother, pregnant and stuck on bedrest. A daughter, twenty years later, sorting through her deceased mother’s things. We get Emma and Lilian involved, two wonderful actors and makers. I write about ten pages and we decide to work with that. I wasn’t very present for the Deli process. The day before rehearsals began, my relationship ends. And it’s a boiling hot week. I sit in the corner, drinking tea, on my phone, not contributing much. I leave early every day and some days I don’t come in at all. Helen gamely bears the load. The performance is interesting. It’s very still, very heavy. The text is poetic and dense, unlike either of the versions that have come before it. Almost like an installation. It’s too static, for sure. The actors strain. But I feel somewhat optimistic. This form feels better. More correct. I don’t watch, I listen to it. I peel the label off my beer and feel the words slipping through my hands. I don’t hate it. Which for me – is a lot.

But I don’t have anything lined up for the show, so I let it sit. I don’t want to do any more scratches, but I can’t fathom doing a full production. I don’t know what that would look like. Regardless, the play needs to sit and breathe and percolate. I focus on my head and my heart. I start swimming in the Ladies Pond. I try to enjoy the summer, and the heat – and the play and all the previous drafts sit quietly in the basement of my head. I go to Edinburgh and review a lot, and then come back and feel bone tired.

At this point, Emily is on as our producer. She and Helen, in August, suggest that we apply to Vault Festival. I’m indifferent. I say – sure. Why not. I’m not overly excited to get back to the piece but at the same time it’s the only piece of writing – playwriting – that I’ve worked on or thought about for the last few years. I find it hard to hold more than two potential plays in mind at the same time. I can’t fit both the worlds in. We do the application and I don’t think much about it afterwards. We get on Ben as lighting designer and Clara as dramaturg. It doesn’t feel particularly real. And then we get a Vaults slot, and I’m excited again. For that opportunity. I start work. Yet again. Draft – what is it? Five? I think about something Ira Glass said. About how when you’re a young creative, you become frustrated because your capabilities as an artist can’t match up to the work you admire. I remember Jordan Peele at the Oscars, saying that it took ten years and so many drafts of Get Out before it became the film it now is. I try to feel less precious about having about a million different drafts and forms. Less like that’s failing. I rarely edit my reviews before I post them, and there’s a frustration that the same can’t be done for the play.

The monologues I write don’t really flow. They stick and unstick, and I have to work around them and unpick them. It doesn’t feel wrong, though. It’s just difficult. I’m fine with that, happy for it not to be too easy. I want it to be poetic and slightly heightened – vivid – but not as heavy as the Theatre Deli draft. I worry about the lack of humour. Not that I mind a show being serious – maybe there’s something there about not thinking that I, a young woman, can even be serious, or if I’ll just look silly and high-falutin and pretentious. I usually have more humour in scripts. I try to add jokes but they sound dumb, so I take most of them out. Two monologues in the same timeline. A mother and a daughter, estranged, who eventually meet. Two subjectivities clashing in the most violent way. I think about their meeting. That’s what drives the play. Time nudges and pushes them towards each other. Characters walk through the city, run through it, dance, have sex. I realise how important the city is to the play. I like that the play quietly feels like it’s about urban landscapes, about the muscle deep loneliness you can only ever get in London. I think the Vault venue will really suit it. The venue sits in my mind as I redraft. Should I switch to naturalistic dialogue for that climax? Or keep it to monologues? I try both, then I think the dialogue sounds better. It’s arresting. The characters who narrate and redraft their lives suddenly get thrown into cold, (somewhat) objective light. I send the first draft to Clara. She says you can feel all the other drafts, all the work I put in, inside this version. I’m glad. It feels richer. More textured. More alive. I finish the draft over Christmas. On New Years Eve 2018. Two years after I first started thinking about it. The form finally feels right. The characters are there, waiting to be lifted off the page. I don’t know what else it would look like, and that’s what makes it feel right. It feels good. Not perfect, no way. I don’t know how I feel about the ending. But it’s a start.

Nathan asks to read it in January and a few weeks later he tells me it’s as if I cut off my arm and gave it to him. I like that. I worry a little about how nakedly emotional it is. Something a bit embarrassing about that. But I push it away.

We audition and we cast Rosa Escoda as EJ (I changed the names of the characters between the third and fourth drafts – felt like a small but necessary shift) and Kailing Fu as Joy. Rosa is luminous – she speaks the text without reverence, without archness, acknowledging the poetics but then discarding. It sounds totally right in her voice. Kailing has this quiet dignity – a layer of impassivity which just-almost conceals a simmering core. I am constantly surprised and delighted by them.

We start rehearsals with two days of talking. Helen is so good at this. She’s precise and specific but also generous and probing – more like a facilitator at this point than a director. We go through the text, asking questions, noting down facts and tasks. We talk about everything, make links throughout the body of it. Like we’re doing a close reading. It holds up surprisingly well. It’s a robust text. It is solid, and detailed, and deep. Rosa and Kailing dig right into it, getting their fingers deep into the soil of the play. It’s like we’ve cut open the body of the play and have gotten elbow deep in the muck, and now we’re stitching it back together.

The hard stuff is when we’re trying to get all that head and brain stuff and trying to funnel it into the body without diluting any of the work we did. Helen wants to emphasise the relationship between the women, since they spend so much of the play apart. They play games, mirror each other. This is the part of the process that makes me most nervous. I’ve committed to being in the room the whole time – just because I rarely am, and this version feels important to me. But it’s hard. Anxiety inducing. This is the bit when things don’t work – it’s so much easier when we can just talk and throw out ideas and don’t have to – you know, actualise them. I worry about Joy. I worry that the character seems almost sociopathically cold – completely uninterested in her daughter, almost disdainful of her. Because she’s not spiteful. I didn’t mean her to be, anyway. I feel so strongly that there is a core of terrible sadness and loneliness to her and I worry that I haven’t done enough for that to be sufficiently picked up on. She is the more difficult character to embody, I think. More impenetrable. Have I done enough?

I think the moments of the script I like the least are the ones where I can hear my voice most acutely. I would rather be chameleonic, but I can’t help when certain styles, or tones spike out of the text. I feel like people will recognise those moments where I am most present in the text and find them the most rubbish, and so by proxy think that I, as a human, am rubbish, never mind just a rubbish writer. But maybe that’s the stuff people will like the most. I don’t know. The text is odd. Sometimes it feels very heavy and clunky, and sometimes it feels silky and slippery.

Rehearsals are hard for me. They always have been, probably always will be (if people give me the chance to keep writing). It’s the relinquishing of control, that fear that what comes out will not be the thing I held in my head for so long, even with a director I know as well as Helen. I worry that the play will get lost in translation, that it’s not strong enough to hold all the direction and tweaking and exploration. The actors sometimes ask questions about why something in the text is the way it is and I worry that my uncertainty is indicative of my general idiocy. And I worry that it’s not very good, because of course. I decide I need to take a morning off from rehearsals. I try to calm myself down because it’s a tiny little show and barely anyone outside my friendship group is going to see it, but I still gnaw on my fingernails on the tube home. Must be my Virgo moon. I can’t fathom how it’s going to come together with the depth and detail I want for it. I don’t know how any playwrights ever feel like a play is finished. i will still be whole… doesn’t feel finished, it just feels like it’s come to a natural rest point. I could redraft and redraft forever.

Watching the production on the first night – the first time I haven’t been able to check my phone to calm my anxious hands – is less stressful than I think it will be. I can see friends on every side of the stage. I try not to watch people’s reactions. There are more laughs than I thought there would be, which is disorientating but gratifying too, because I wasn’t searching for jokes when I was writing. Ben’s lights are gentle. Amanda’s score pulses softly, looping Mitski instrumentals. I cry when the actors leave the stage, almost despite myself, and am crowded upon by my friends’ hands on my shoulders. The wordless interludes, where the actors eat oranges and drink sparkling water, are bathed in peach light and I could cry at the tenderness. Those are my favourite parts. What does that say about my self-worth that my favourite bits are the bits I didn’t write?

I’m finishing this piece today, before the second and final performance. I am proud of it, I think. I am trying to be proud of the thing that we made, not the thing that it could be. I feel consistently, deliriously lucky to have worked with such an incredible group of women. When I watch the show tonight, I will sit between Emily and Helen, and I will watch Rosa and Kai and I will be happy with what we have made together.

Nanjing – Jude Christian @ CAN

Jude_Christian_Photo_Caleb_Wissun-Bhide

((odd to be writing this on the lunar new year. Odd/sticky. In a good way? Unconfirmed. Maybe it’ll all tie together in the end))

When my mum talks about the Nanjing massacre she tends to suck in the breath through her front teeth and close her eyes and shake her head tightly, once, from side to side.

“Terrible. Just terrible. What they did to us.”

When Jude Christian talks about the Nanjing massacre there isn’t a closing of the eyes, or a discernible tightening of the limbs. There is a clear-eyed stare, and a steady voice, and bare feet, and bare hands.

I wrote a piece for Exeunt about ten days ago on Ghost Girl//Gwei Mui at CPT, and in it I talk about my frustrations with the limitations British East Asian artists place upon themselves. The way they (and I) sanitise diasporic experiences, allow them to be palatable, sometimes whimsical. The way the British East Asian community tend to shy away from more complex, vinegary ideas about race and about how East Asians treat South East Asians, and South Asians, and black communities. I did a tweet just now about how my mother went and bought about 20 plush toy pigs in traditional Chinese dress for the lunar new year and has scattered them around the house. It’s not that deep, but then again maybe I contribute to the promotion of cutesey diaspora culture. Hmm.

((If you don’t know what Nanjing (the massacre) is then you can Google it))

I think what makes Nanjing (the play) great is that Christian has this really acute understanding of how identity works – how your sense of self expands and deflates. Christian finds out about the Nanjing massacre when she’s twenty-four and becomes increasingly obsessed with it. How can your identity balloon out to fit something of that magnitude, something which caused such an enormous tear in one side of your identity and yet of which there is no national consciousness in the other? I don’t really like the term biracial because it feels simplistic, but it’s at times like this when I think huh, that fits. How do you reconcile, like, world history with your own personal history?

My tutor at uni told me the other day that he thought I was a “present-ist” – that I liked to bring everything historical back to how it relates to the contemporary moment. There’s a touch of disparagement towards it in the academic community/just generally from an older generation. Not loads. Just a touch. You know. Self-obsessed, unable to take something for what it is//was// without bringing it back to capital-M Me. There’s a danger there, sure. Letting yourself, your ego spread itself over something that isn’t your domain, your trauma. But how else should I process things? I find it hard to separate my self out. Maybe I should try to do it more. Maybe then it would feel less like my emotions were sitting right beneath my skin. I like it, though. I like having my feelings there, right there.

At the side of the stage there’s a beautifully, artfully crumpled piece of white fabric. Ghosts sitting at the side of the stage, in the corners of your brain. It reminds me a bit of watching Swan Lake when I was little and when the swan kills herself, the way the dancers folded in on themselves but still maintained that arc of their body, that dignity.

I like how beauty sits with pain in Nanjing. I like that Christian allows for that. She has a wide-ranging eye, an expansive, generous one, but one which doesn’t lapse into doe-eyed sentimentality. Sometimes I like doe-eyed sentimentality. I don’t think I like it when it’s in shows about **British East Asian//mixed race//general diaspora experiences** (read Alice Saville’s excellent feature on this http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/vault-odyssey-hard-relate/) I get frustrated with it – it feels pandering. Which of course, it isn’t (always). Anyway. Everything has consequence in Nanjing. Nothing is clear cut. A high-ranking Nazi, Christian learns, was an enormous help to the brutalised Chinese people in Nanjing. She rolls this around her mouth, paces the stage. Another thing to fit into her consciousness. It doesn’t excuse him – not in any way. It just complicates the image further. How are you meant to square that? And I like that. Don’t give us the easy answers. Push us.

However. However.

There’s a moment, towards the beginning when a young Christian asks her mother if they’re Malaysian or Chinese. “Not Malaysian. Chinese”, her mother says firmly. Christian then, lightly says that she isn’t going to get into the racial and ethnic politics of Malaysia. Cool, yeah. Fair enough. I guess the show isn’t about that really. But then again – it kinda is – exactly about that. A show about the ugliness and complexities and beauties in human history and the lack of anyone truly, purely good. So why not talk about the Chinese in Malaysia? Because that’s knotty, and a bit ugly, and an unflattering thing to talk about. I am tired! Of Chinese victimhood. And this show is about that, and rightfully so because Nanjing was an atrocity on such an enormous scale – but there are other things to be acknowledged – not necessarily about Nanjing, but about the Chinese. Which complicate that. It’s a small thing, but it’s also not a small thing. The rest of the show is so detailed and unsparing. Christian doesn’t let the British get away with anything, and rightly so. So the blind spot around the Chinese – it’s a bit disappointing.

Oh man. But it’s so good! It’s so quiet and scalpel-sharp in every other aspect – Elayce Ismail’s unshowy, focused direction, Christian’s often dead-pan, winding charisma. It’s the first thing I’ve seen in ages which made me excited about theatre again – about making theatre with very little, theatre which is internal and soft but which still feels sharp and imaginative. Sigh. I wish it had gone a little further.

(Photo by Caleb Wissun Bhide)