Theatreworks: Diaspora

Singapore Chinese Orchestra/ Ong Keng Sen

Playhouse Theatre, 18 August 2009 3 stars

DiasporaWith the controversy about the choice of Handel's Judas Maccabeus for the Festival opening concert still ringing in Edinburgh's ears, the Singaporean company TheatreWorks opened Diaspora to lend an altogether more diffuse and complex take on identity among the eternal rhythms of population displacement and rivalry.

(Given the similarity between the Judas Mac story and that of William Wallace, it looks like it was Handel who boobed, not this year's Festival organizers—but let's not digress.)

Diaspora is a multimedia presentation, sort of a live Koyaanisqatsi, if you will, though the resemblance is restricted to the dazzling blend of image and sound—content-wise it could hardly be more different, being focused in large part on the personal narratives of individuals sharing urban stories about displacement.

The stage is occupied by a substantial orchestra made up largely of east Asian instruments blended with a smattering of European sounds (cellos, basses & timpani). They play repertoire selected from two millennia of Chinese music—with varying degrees of success. Evidently composing for such an ensemble calls for an almost schizophrenic hybrid ear, capable of managing large-scale rhetorical organization while retaining sensitivity to the sonorities at the author's disposal. There is a pair of segments contributed by Tan Dun, which are the stunning highlight of the performance: rich in nuance and characteristically charged with energy and purpose.

Another, at the end, by Michael Nyman tailors less successfully with the parallel techno score by Toru Yamanaka, which evokes the global club scene by modestly eschewing the opportunity to do something original. (A younger Nyman, I suspect, would have created something rather more pungent.) It is not that the electronica draws attention to itself by being bad or poorly made, but rather that it fulfils its anonymous supporting-cast role a little more successfully than one would like to hear in a complex work of this kind.

Above the orchestra, a platform supports four large video screens. Keng Sen worked with a group of video artists—Rabiya Choudhry, Ariani Darmawan, Zai Kuning, Dinh Q. Lę, Navin Rawanchaikul and Tintin Wulia—around the theme of diaspora, but with the idea of counterposing the individual where-from stories with the question: 'What would you like to be done with your remains at the end of life?'

Singapore's self-image as a kind of city-state entrepôt, somewhat on the classical Athenian model, informs the montage—but so too does the entirely modern digital flotsam of gadget-driven self-documentation, the auto-anthropology of mobile phones, digital cameras and reality TV. If Diaspora the theatrical event foregoes conventional narrative trajectories, it is doing no more than representing faithfully the reality of diaspora as experienced by its subjects, where narrative is about threads broken and threads mended.

DiasporaIn Navin Rawanchaikul's segment the author, born in Thailand to Indian parents, journeys back to explore his Punjabi roots. His film lightheartedly stitches together thumbnail portraits of a series of Navins, people who share his name, in a visual tapestry that weaves in surreal moments of terror, stylized Bollywood riffs, and mythical pursuit.

Rabiya Choudhry's contribution blends the familiarity of Edinburgh landmarks with the dissonances of a Glasgow childhood in a mixed-race family. Ariani Darmawan reflects on the acculturation of the Chinese in Indonesia, using family photographs to interrogate the frozen intersubjectivity that is so familiar across cultures. Zai Kuning evokes a little of the mythology surrounding the Orang Laut—sea nomads or sea gypsies, an estuary boat-dwelling culture of the Malay peninsula treated with some ambivalence by land folk. It seems not to be accidental that the same word 'orang' is used for the great ape, yet their long-sustained culture of appropriation is anthropological catnip.

Maybe the most compelling of the contributions is that of Dinh Q. Lę. A Vietnamese who migrated in childhood to the USA, his is the material that comes closest to outing the faceless technological beat that drives late-modern migration. The America to which his family flees is the America that set in train their dislocation; the welcome they receive is equivocal. In adulthood Dinh re-migrates, or un-migrates, to Ho Chi Minh City, and retains an ambivalence about his dual identity, the 'Q.' being a subtly pointed adoption of a peculiarly American naming convention. However, what lends authority to Dinh's story is the performance of Lim Kay Tong, reading the text alongside Tintin Wulia, Koh Boon Pin and Janice Koh, who voice the other contributors' texts. Sat at the margin of the stage, facing into the wings, their faces are projected onto the screens so that addressing the camera is translated into addressing the audience. Lim Kay Tong's seasoned, hollowed face is especially successful at making a connection, where perhaps the author's own cheerful, rounded visage might not.

The trouble is... the trouble is that for all the text, all the stories, the reality trope suffers for its mundanity. There is too much presentification and not enough presencing. Presentification (a term of Gramsci's) is a perfectly legitimate strategy, appropriating the materials at hand and forging them into art, but without presencing, the interrogation that filters and refines, leaving space for ambiguity and connection, you just have so much stuff. For instance, the obvious narrative continuities and disonnances between the Vietnamese boat people and the Malay sea nomads would seem to offer rich possibilities.

By Peter Cudmore


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