Asia and theatre! Not a contradiction. Pokfulam Rd Productions’ third showcase of new writing about and by Asians, at the Arcola, launches their new book published by Oberon, Foreign Goods: A Selection of Writing by British East Asian Artists. If this showcase is a good indicator, the collection is well worth your money.
Nine short pieces, ranging pleasantly in form, content, seriousness and only occasionally quality, occupy a sweltering and packed Studio Two. There’s no way to mention everyone involved by name as they deserve, but to this Asian theatremaker there are so many moments that feel like a little wave to some of us in the audience. Hot water, the umbrellas of People’s Park in Shanghai, an eighteen-year-old’s complaint that teachers mix her up with another Asian – that’s unfortunately familiar.
The only older actors, Michelle Wen Lee and Sarah Curwen, shine in Leftovers by Clare Reddaway, a highlight with its sensitive treatment of matchmaking mothers. Caleb Yap and Charlotte Chiew’s Love in Newsprint is beautifully choreographed and elevated to delight by Chiew’s command of her face. She is, to put it plainly, a comedy genius who should go far, and her welcome reappearance in Lost Laowais shows her capacity to lay an audience low with just one look. Lost Laowais is one of the pieces not written by an East Asian, but by a man who clearly knows how to work a script and whose piece about white men in China is subsequently witty and true rather than grating. David East’s assured and easy acting in the piece speaks to his familiarity with the kind of gweilo he, happily, is not. I was very grateful to Spin, the only musical piece, for ensuring that not all the content of this night was straight, and Julie Cheung-Inhin is funny as the aggressive Carol, though I wasn’t won over by the songs lyrically.
When examining the night as a whole, rather than its discrete parts, what I came up against was the way some of the more heavy content was handled (the one-child policy, self-determination in Hong Kong, racism in the UK, the Chinese effort in WWI and criticism of the Chinese government), which is to say, very didactically and without much subtlety. And I understand this: when there’s so little out there examining this material in contemporary British theatre, the standard isn’t terribly high, you take it where you can and you’re glad. Especially in short pieces like this, some of which might be extracts from longer pieces, where the temptation is to pull out the big guns in the hope of leaving an impression and finally being able to have a message out there which you care about. The difference is, however, that when given the time and space to make ourselves at home with this content, the way we deal with it is better.
My final thought is of the remit of Foreign Goods 3 itself. It exists to address an imbalance, but though the domination throughout of Chinese characters and stories is natural and part of the initiative’s aim, it creates yet another balance to address. There is one explicitly Japanese character, no mention of Koreans or Mongolians. And looking beyond the countries included in the ‘East Asian’ sphere, when will the time come to confront the often-ignored Southeast Asians? We should not ignore those of us whose cultures are regarded by all as being ‘refined’, those of us whose countries are poorer, those of us with darker skin. Let’s give opportunities to artists from the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia.
The happiest moment for me was when an actor came back out to take her bow in a t-shirt bearing the words, ‘To Lah Or Not To Lah: That is the Malaysian Question’. It feels good to have something aimed at me. I need to buy that shirt for my dad, lah.
Foreign Goods 3 played at the Arcola Theatre on 28 January 2018
Photo: Joe Magowan