Real life events in Myanmar cast a strange tinge of Guy Slater’s play Eastern Star at Tara Arts in Earlsfield
“I just happened to be there when a revolution broke out”
With the recent imprisonment of two Reuters journalists – U Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – for ‘violating a state secrets act’ in Myanmar, Guy Slater’s new play Eastern Star gains the kind of unsettling resonance that sits uneasily like a knot in the stomach. It introduces such a note of despair into proceedings, but also one that encourages us to look at the world as it really is, rather than the neat and tidy way we would like revolutionary politics to be tidied up.
Eastern Star revolves around the 1988 ‘Students’ Revolution that ushered in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and introduced the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi to widespread international acclaim. Caught up unexpectedly in events was cub reporter Christopher Gunness, working for the BBC World Service and connected to an impeccable source, lawyer U Nay Min. But whereas Gunness was able to go home and go on to have a long and lauded career, Nay Min paid a terrible price for the huge risks he decided to take.
30 years down the line, Slater investigates the lingering impact that this had on the two men, exploring the profound connection it forged between them even if they haven’t seen each other since then, something neatly alluded to in the restless nights that they both suffer in their opening scenes. When Gunness is afforded the opportunity to return to Myanmar, he attempts a reunion, unprepared for the full weight of the emotional labour in revisiting exactly what happened.
In the intimate space of Tara Arts, Slater’s direction of his own play can tend a little towards the static, a touch more dynamism wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s no mistaking the commitment his cast bring to their work, under the exceptionally haunting backdrop of Elroy Ashmore’s design. Michael Lumsden convinces as a man worn down by recrimination and the knowledge that he could have – should have – done more, and David Yip is superb as he shows impossible grace under pressure, all the while suggesting the (literally) tortured soul it hides.
They’re supported well by Patrick Pearson as Gunness’s husband Jake and Julie Cheung-Inhin as Nay Min’s daughter Maya, both offering sympathetic sounding boards. But as unsung heroes are rightfully recognised and the importance of resistance reiterated, it is met with that immense obstacle of Western apathy, both within the play and in real life. The ease with which we say ‘we should have done more’, the notion that stripping Suu Kyi of any of her accolades actually does anything to help the Rohingya, the idle watching of the erosion of the freedoms of the press. We need to do better – you can start here.