16 August, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Diaspora

The concept of Diaspora is one which is particularly poignant for the Celts. Ask the McTaggarts of Dunedin, the MacKenzies of Saskatchewan or the O’Reillys of Boston. The arrival of Ong Ken Sen’s piece at the Festival in the year of Homecoming Scotland is an opportunity for one of the world’s most widely scattered races to explore the experiences of other peoples who have left old homelands and settled in new.

Singapore, where TheatreWorks hail from, is a country founded, as Steve Cramer reminds us in his excellent programme notes, “…founded almost exclusively on the concept of diaspora…”. When Sir Stamford Raffles arrived there in 1819 he found an island populated by a few Malay families and some Chinese traders. The thriving, bustling, energetic country of 4 milllion which today is the busiest harbour in the world is populated almost exclusively by the descendents of immigrants. Ong spent three years researching this piece, visiting ten countries and interviewing legions of ordinary people, as well as collaborating with a range of artists from diasporic backgrounds. Their stories form the basis of this piece.

Ong has brought together the sort of cultural big-hitters we are used to expecting on the international festival circuit. The CVs in the programme reveal a creative team of immense experience around that circuit, and certainly the piece shows all the strengths of its international pedigree. I didn’t look at the programme until after the show, and actually commented to my wife that the closest thing I had seen to what we were watching was a piece by Chinese composer Tan Dun, Revolution, which I had seen at the Huddesfield Contemporary Music festival in the 90s. Lo and behold, there in the progamme I find that two of the music pieces had been composed by Tan Dun. The video work by Choi Ka Fai and others is some of the best I have seen, and the stories of a range of individuals, told by four actors, are riveting in their insights.

Having said all of that, and the piece was really good, and I am really glad I saw it, it was also frustrating. The very scale of the piece, which will undoubtedly make it extremely well received around the festival circuit, militated against a genuine engagement with the very personal stories. We see the actors, telling the stories, replicated on four huge screens at the back of the stage, in black and white, with headset microphones next to their faces. There are all sorts of practical reasons for this. The orchestra playing flat out for one, the sheer size of the Playhouse for another. At the same time we see the actors, lit, sideways on at the sides of the stage, speaking to an offstage camera. Why? We see the mediated images dominating everything, the real person remote from us. I should say, as well, that the whole stage is behind a gauze, on which projections are being screened. The real people are remote from us, just when we most want to engage with them as people. This is one of the perennial problems of multi-media work – how do you stop the mediated images swamping the live performers?

The music was ravishing. The orchestra, under Tsung Yeh, were marvellous. The video work was fantastic. A couple of sections particularly stood out for me. The first half ended with a funny, clever, delightful Bollywood music video by Navin Rawanchaikul, about his journey to India to seek for people with the same name as him. In the second half the section with Scottish artist Rabiya Choudhry was riveting. One of the reasons that it was so powerful, I have to say, is because she was sitting on the stage drawing on a screen as we listened to her voice. Watching a real person, NOT behind a gauze, was a welcome bonus. I, and several others, both those who accompanied me and other members of the audience I over heard at the end, found ourselves craning to see over her shoulder to the actual drawing, rather than looking at the huge projection of the drawing onto the front gauze.

There were memorable images throughout the piece. Simple, eloquent moments when an actor, seen in silhouette, would walk across the platform in front of the huge screens. The image of a group of people walking into the sea, to be eventually picked up by boats, an image which resonated powerfully with forgotten memories of the Vietnamese Boat People all those years ago. The music suffused with the kind of duende that Celtic music is filled with, that is also found in Flamenco, another diasporic tradition aching with a longing for home.

The piece is powerful, no doubt. It is filled with the authentic voices of the people who have migrated throughout the countries of South East Asia: Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, China, Malaysia, and Singapore more than anywhere else combines all of those traditions into a culture which values and respects those traditions. Those who read my blog during the Singapore Arts Festival will recall the court case where some religious fundamentalists were jailed for sending inflammatory religious tracts to people of other religions. The judge, in sentencing them, said that their actions struck at the very heart of Singaporean society, which is based on respect for diversity. Diaspora is not only about loss, it is also about opportunity, new beginnings, and the chance to turn away from the mistakes and hatreds of the past and make a fresh beginning. Ask our sheepstealing descendents who regularly thrash us in sporting events. Ask the people of the thriving country of Singapore.

Perhaps the most moving question of all that the piece poses is “where would you like your remains to be when you die?”. The ways that the people interviewed answered this are moving. It sent me, a Celt who lives in England, out into the night examining the depths of my own heart.

A fascinating piece. The sort of piece that only a Festival like Edinburgh can really bring to this country. I just wish we could have been closer to the people.

Reviewer: Ronan Paterson

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