Review: Citizens of Nowhere?, Southbank Centre

The fascinating site-specific and immersive Citizens of Nowhere? makes for an intriguing afternoon at the Southbank Centre

“Things are getting better. There’s Gemma Chan and…well, there’s Gemma Chan.”

There’s a delicious sort of pleasure that comes from being able to eavesdrop on a conversation on the table next to you, isn’t there. Or is it just me…? Fortunately it’s not, as that is the whole set-up of Ming Ho’s Citizens of Nowhere?, part of the China Changing Festival at the Southbank Centre. Sat at cafe tables in the foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall, armed with headphones, we get to listen in on the British-Chinese Lo family on the table just over there.

Edinburgh-based Linda has come down to London to visit with two of her kids. Jun Chi is getting married and Jane’s making waves in the local Conservative party but she’s got some pretty big news of her own to break as well. And in the way of most families, their conversation gets waylaid by the resurfacing of old history as a way of exploring current tensions, overlaid by a wide range of intersecting contemporary issues about life in the UK right now. Continue reading “Review: Citizens of Nowhere?, Southbank Centre”

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: The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola

“We made the revolution, not Mao”

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is based on more than a decade of Anders Lustgarten’s intensive studies into China and it shows. The play is undoubtedly well-constructed and shines a light on an area that is persistently underexplored by British theatre but with so much information and insight at his fingertips, the playwright doesn’t resist the temptation to share as much of it as he can and it makes for a slightly frustrating experience.

So we get a thorough examination of modern Chinese history through the prism of a small village from Rotten Peach. There, the rise of Chairman Mao and the founding of the People’s Republic utterly transforms the landscape in 10 brutal years but we only get a certain amount of a dramatic rendering of how this upheaval affects the social fabric of the lives of the villagers, too much time is taken up with exposition and explanation, political theory by stealth and thus lacking in theatrical thrill. Continue reading “Review: The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola”

Short Film Review #23

  My Dad the Communist from Tuyen Do on Vimeo.

It is tempting to see My Dad the Communist as something of a neat companion piece to Chimerica, featuring a Benedict Wong character responding to the events of Tiananmen Square in a completely different way but in truth, they are separate beasts and the only real thing linking them is the dearth of complex Asian-related stories on our screens and stages (although things do seem to be changing, slowly). This Lab Ky Mo film focuses on a typical British-Chinese family who work in a takeaway (where else?!) – Tony has lived all of his life in the UK yet his father has remained stubbornly, inscrutably Chinese in his behaviour, rarely uttering anything at all or showing any affection to his wife or son.
 
A car accident involving the older man motivates Tony to look back on his 20 year life and reflect on the rare moments that his dad did speak, realising the huge significance of those events, and the ones where he didn’t, imagining the parental figure he craved. Mo utilises the fantasy flashback several times to great effect, we really get a sense of being caught up in Tony’s reverie and it is really quite moving. Wong is customarily excellent as the taciturn father, Siu Hun Li is also strong as the son trying to do things differently, not least with his own new wife, an expressive performance from Tuyen Do.  

Continue reading “Short Film Review #23”

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March