This article is from 2009.
The uncertainty about identity imposes itself upon people whose origins lie somewhere other than where they live creates the central focus for Ong Ken Sen’s Diaspora. Its exploration of tensions between new worlds and old through a series of stories from Asian migrants who have finished up, often as a result of violent political crises, in far-flung corners of the world, throws its net so wide that at times you wish the piece would focus on just one or two narratives.
From Chinese woman lamenting the absorption of distinctive cultural custom, architecture and music into a broader Thai social fabric, to an old Vietnamese man feeling the loss of his distinctive social and family culture to a general, individualistic Californian ethos, much of this piece represents a remembrance of things past. A Balinese Chinese woman recalls the violent loss of her father in the Indonesian uprisings of 1965, while a Vietnamese woman evokes the separation of her family after the fall of the South in 1975, each encountering an unexpected violence and disruption in their lives. Meantime, a Thai-Indian man makes a first visit to India, and creates a short, comical and slightly camp film, projected upon a mighty screen at the Playhouse, about visiting his ethnic homeland, and seeking out people who share his name. An interesting, but more neutral tone is created by the story of a young artist working in Edinburgh with a Pakistani, Muslim father. She returns now and then to a different life with her Glasgow family, who have accepted her father’s religion.
There are powerful moments to Ong’s production by Theatreworks and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, and its eclectic blend of Asian and European music, from pop to classical, has a hypnotic effect. On the downside, though, plonking the orchestra onto the main stage of the Playhouse, then using a platform above stage height and two small boxes at the extremities of the space from which the actors broadcast monologues onto screens severely limits the theatrical potential of the piece. Also problematic is that fact that so many stories are told that each is skimmed over, and the bigger effect of such events as those in Indonesia in the mid 60s – when the American embassy sent forth vast lists of people suspected of being PKI communists for Suharto’s death squads to execute – are brushed aside. The personal tone of the monologues is sometimes very moving, but the seemingly deliberate disconnection from world events in which Western people were sometimes complicit seems a bit evasive. Instead of grasping why these tragedies happened we’re left with a general ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ message. That said there is some deft use of multimedia, and some deeply touching stories throughout this longish journey.
Playhouse, 473 2000, until 16 Aug, 8pm, £8–£30