Review: Augmented Chinatown 2.0, Chinese Arts Now

An app, a walking tour, audio dramas, augmented reality and music, Augmented Chinatown 2.0 is definitely looking to the future here

“What actually is the Chinese history of this area?”

You have to admire an arts festival that is determined to push boundaries and with Augmented Chinatown 2.0, the Chinese Arts Now Festival is certainly doing that. Download the app onto your phone and a brave new world of augmented reality, specially commissioned music and audio drama is yours, as you’re taken on a walking tour around London’s Chinatown.

It’s a bold and expansive project and as with many technologically-forward things, some aspects work better than others. Playwright Joel Tan’s script is beautifully composed, blending historical detail with socio-cultural commentary to delve into the layers of these Soho streets, of which Chinatown is just the latest. It really does manage that wonderful trick of making you see familiar sights anew (look out for those floor mosaics!). Continue reading “Review: Augmented Chinatown 2.0, Chinese Arts Now”

Review: Pah-La, Royal Court

Intriguing subject matter can’t quite elevate Pah-La above its frustrating structural issues at the Royal Court

“You are unsure whether you are here or not but you are absolutely sure that Tibet is yours”

I was a huge fan of Abhishek Majumdar’s hugely atmospheric The Djinns of Eidgah, so was intrigued to see him return to the Royal Court with new play Pah-La. Set in Tibet, it circles around the realities of political protest under an oppressive regime, particularly in light of native Buddhist philosophy. 

As Chinese interlopers arrive in Eastern Tibet to ‘re-educate’ the masses, the threat imposed on the local nunnery is personified in the form of Deshar, a woman who took the habit in defiance of her father’s wishes and shows similar obduracy now, to searingly horrific effect. Continue reading “Review: Pah-La, Royal Court”

Review: Forgotten 遗忘, Arcola Theatre

Daniel York Loh’s Forgotten 遗忘 proves an invaluable history lesson at Arcola Theatre in a co-production from Moongate and Yellow Earth

“Whose side are we on?”

The obsessive focus on highly-skilled migrants that characterises so much of the administration’s thinking on immigration neglects one crucial detail – that it is so often migrants who end up doing the kind of criminally low-paid, thankless jobs that our society relies upon and rarely acknowledges. Of course, this kind of erasure is nothing new but it is still a shock to discover the history lesson that Daniel York Loh has in store for us in Forgotten 遗忘.

For his new play tells us the story of the Chinese Labour Corps – the hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese workers who were recruited to work by Britain and her allies in the trenches World War I. Not as soldiers but labourers cleaning machines, digging trenches, removing bodies – an integral part of the war effort but one whose contributions remain entirely undersung. And as we approach the centenary of Remembrance Day, what better time to redress this. Continue reading “Review: Forgotten 遗忘, Arcola Theatre”

Web Series review: Jade Dragon

“You all look Chinese to me”

Just a quickie for this web series which I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages now. Written by Rebecca Boey (with Daniel York contributing one of the nineteen short episodes), Jade Dragon is a mockumentary series set in a Chinese takeaway which does a couple of crucial things.

One, it represents a much-needed, and still all-too-rare, opportunity for actors of East Asian heritage to work in a British media that feels stubbornly resistant to crossing this particular Rubicon of diversity. But it also offers up a non-judgemental, matter-of-fact presentation of what that British East Asian experience looks like in all its varied racism from overt violence to subtle othering. Continue reading “Web Series review: Jade Dragon”

Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan

“Why do you silence me?”

A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.

Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world. Continue reading “Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan”

Review: Refugees Welcome, Southwark Playhouse

“We’re privileged to welcome you here”

Something a bit different for a Sunday but definitely worthwhile, Refugees Welcome saw a curated collection of performances exploring the themes of displacement, exodus and the humanitarian disaster of the refugee crisis through the medium of theatre, comedy and poetry. Organised by David Mercatali in support of Calais Action and all their advocacy work as well as aid support for displaced people in camps and hotspots across Europe, it proved a powerful programme of thought-provoking work.

For me, it was most fascinating to how consider how theatre in particular responds to contemporary crises, the speed of response somewhat limited by form, the nature of response dictated by swift-changing news agendas. So the excerpt from Anders Lustgarten’s 2015 play Lampedusa, performed by Louise Mai Newberry and the playwright, felt horribly like last year’s news because we’re not being still confronted with the images of overcrowded boats crossing the Med. But the snippet of Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo, soon to be seen at the Arcola, reminded us that this is not a problem that is going away, and that (certain) theatres are not shying away from. Continue reading “Review: Refugees Welcome, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: P’yongyang, Finborough

“Those stories…they’re not for us. Why dream about something that can’t be?”

You know how it is, you wait for a play about North Korea and two come along at once. But where Mia Ching’s You For Me For You used an absurdist approach to explore the impact of the Kim regime on individuals (and by extension, whole swathes of its population), In-Sook Chappell uses the frame of a classic thwarted love story, stretching over nearly three decades, to examine what life might be like in the harsh realities of the Communist state in P’yongyang.

When we first meet them, Anna Leong Brophy’s Yeon Eun Mi and Chris Lew Kum Hoi’s Park Chi Soo are schoolmates with a shared passion for cinema and soon enough, each other. They both dream of attending prestigious film classes in the capital P’yongyang but the revelation that Chi Soo’s father was born in the South demarcates him as lower-born in the strict rules of their society and thus their lives are set on radically different paths. Continue reading “Review: P’yongyang, Finborough”

Review: Hidden, Royal Court

“Where are you from?
No, where you from?
Where are you really from?”

Live Lunch is an intermittent series at the Royal Court which acts as a showcase for writers both new and established to delve into under-explored areas of drama. In this instance, a group of playwrights were commissioned to create short plays with British East Asian experiences at the heart of their stories and the result is Hidden, six dramas “exploding myths, questioning types and discovering hidden narratives” of a section of the population who are chronically under-represented in British cultural life. Directed by Lucy Morrison, a company of eight actors gave two lunchtime readings of the programme.

There’s something rather awe-inspiring about the rehearsed reading format. With barely three hours of rehearsal for each piece and scripts in hand, there’s a rawness to the performance level which enhances it somewhat, the occasional stumble over words giving some of the texts a believably natural feel. And seeing the speed with which the actors traverse grand emotions as they flick from play to play is truly admirable, Lourdes Faberes particularly impressing in casting off a tear-soaked character to move swiftly to the studied enigma of the next. Continue reading “Review: Hidden, Royal Court”

Short Film Review: The Orphan of Zhao Redux

“What can ordinary people do?”

Based on The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang and mixing in texts from numerous other writers, Daniel York’s The Orphan of Zhao Redux is a most enchanting thing indeed. The play is perhaps sadly most notorious, in recent years at least, for being at the centre of a controversy when the RSC cast just three East Asian actors in minor roles (out of seventeen in total) in what has been known as the Chinese Hamlet, such is the piece’s significance. But York fully wrests ownership away from such unsavouriness to produce a gorgeous eight minute short that is a brilliant showcase for what might have been.

The film features fourteen leading lights of the British East Asian acting scene, the narrative scattered between them all and the text reshaped into something of a poem as just as much feeling as storytelling emerges through the individual lines. Ikin Yum’s stunning monochrome cinematography has been astutely edited by Andrew Koji and the beautifully evocative music underscores the whole affair with just the right level of intrigue and emotion. Not knowing the play didn’t matter a jot, the film stirs something elemental – especially in its haunting final minute – and had me thoroughly hooked from the start. Continue reading “Short Film Review: The Orphan of Zhao Redux”

DVD Review: The Beach

“We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home, and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?”

I have great affection for both the book and the film of The Beach. On my year abroad, Alex Garland’s novel was reverently passed between my group of friends as we all tumbled for its charms and then as the film was released with perfect timing, we were able to dissect exactly how it was different from the book and what had been lost in translation over endless nights of drunken debate. The collective decision that it just wasn’t as good means I’d never quite gotten round to ever watching the film again and with a little distance, I have to say I didn’t think it was that bad and that soundtrack, boy it took me back to Forskarbacken 7!

Making the film a Leonardo DiCaprio star vehicle as Danny Boyle did (or as originally planned lead Ewan McGregor would have us believe, was forced to do) clearly had an impact on the direction John Hodge’s screenplay took. Much of the book’s self-aware intelligence, as a twenty-something traveller ventures through Thailand in search of a good time and then ultimately a self-contained community in a secluded paradise, is sacrificed for straight-forward thrill-seeking which ends up telling a less rich story. Making the lead American rather than British may have had something to do with this, who knows… Continue reading “DVD Review: The Beach”