The burden of history: From Privates to Edwin.

I was curious, I admit. This play that is so beloved of British regional theatre, revived last year (I think) at Pitlochry and Keswick but set in colonial Malaya, now in the West End. Again. Here it was, Privates on Parade directed by Michael Grandage. Now, I had written to Grandage, and he graciously replied (a minor stir in the department post room). His note commented that: “I hope you will approve of the way we have looked at the ending of the play to favour a new point of view in respect of the East Asian characters.” What was this new point of view on the silent Chinese characters? Did they speak? (Sadly not, is the answer). I had an inkling of what this might be, because Grandage has staged this play before at the Donmar in 2001, and I’d read up…. Nevertheless I wanted to see Privates on Parade and find out if it had any redeeming features and why it was popular. I can honestly say that I went in with an open mind, that I was not going to rant before I’d even seen it, and I wanted to try and enjoy it. Not least because I’d forked out on tickets.

Well, the story of the colonial troupe in Malaya, entertaining the troops and fighting communist rebels was not my cup of tea. It just seemed so archaic and out of touch with my own liberal sensibilities. I fidgeted. My husband fidgeted. For 3 hours. I laughed a few times, at Simon Russell Beale’s Captain Terri, and don’t get me wrong, everyone was good, I could see that they were all good. The comments over the brilliance of SRB were justified, he encapsulated camp perfectly and he really is a panto dame in the making. I like panto, I didn’t like Privates on Parade.

I just don’t really like plays where it’s ok to use the word “chink” onstage, and then feel the audience laugh all around me. Or to have, wait for it, wait for it, the song about the “dusky” Asian prostitute who of course gets thrown over. At least she didn’t die and ends up married to Captain Terri. And let’s not forget the silent inscrutable Chinese stereotype. Who were, literally, that. I wondered if the actors had been directed something like…. “Whatever you do, don’t smile, don’t give anything away.” Now, I am not a kill joy, I like a good laugh. I just don’t find these things funny.

Let’s deal with the East Asian issue. As always, I am happy to see East Asian actors on stage, and I am always supportive of the actors. In this production they did have more agency, I admit, than in the script, where they simply move the set about. They are still the lackeys, but we know that they are the Communist fighters, that they are rebelling against the colonial authorities they serve. We see Lee and Cheng rifle through documents as they serve tea and we see them kill the colonial officers exploiting them. The idiocy of the British in Malaya becomes ever more apparent particularly when on tour, where they perform to Guerkas who have no understanding of what they are doing. But when I saw Cheng take out the deck of cards, light up and set up his gambling den on a British coffin, I just thought, great, there goes the Chinese stereotypes again, evil, inscrutable, gambling (of course), disrespectful. We are in c.1940…. but wait, yes, of course, we are aren’t we, isn’t that the point?

Here’s the thing: it’s *the play* and *the play* is based on Peter Nichols’ experiences, so that’s ok, right? How silly of me to expect more from the 21st Century. It was the straightest of performances, ironically enough. There was no criticality, no ability to relate the action to our own societal understandings and assumptions. The scene where Private Flowers gives Sylvia money for an abortion and states “but it’s about society and what society expects” was crying out for a twist for audiences to think ‘hang on’ — but it didn’t happen. I was hoping we’d all be shifting in our seats, not tittering. So instead, that’s just the way things are, duckie. It disturbed me that the audience went “ahhhhhhhh” at the final moment, when we see Cheng in a western business suit with the backdrop of contemporary Asia (it was so fast I couldn’t see if it was KL or Singapore). He smiled and nodded to it, and the audience went, “Oh ok, that’s what you wanted.” That’s when audiences get who the joke is really on. At the very last moment. But that twist did not redeem the play. To my mind, that quick reveal read as: that’s great then, you are a highly developed, modern society. We’re the backwards ones, the joke really is on the Brits. BUT, in fact, all that colonialism was something you had to just put up with to get there. Success makes history irrelevant and it is all ok.

A play such as this simply reinforces a sense of security in British identity, back in an imperial world. A world long since passed. It just comforting nostalgia. But is it acceptable to keep performing that world now, in a city where less than half the population are white or British? Is this play now redundant? Does historical context make all these racial insults allowable, enjoyable even, because that’s ‘just how it was back then?’

We seem doomed to be burdened by our imperial legacies. I have been annoyed by reviewers saying it’s set in Malaysia, it’s not, it’s Colonial Malaya, which is Malaysia and Singapore, and FYI: Bukit Timah Road is in Singapore. In addition, one journalist commented on twitter that they’re Malaysian not Chinese. Well. I forgot about Chinese migration to that part of the world. We are so bound up in our desire for comfortable categories, for the Chinese to be in China, not to have Malaysian Chinese and Singaporean Chinese, or even British Chinese.

To my mind, these are the same kinds of problems as those engulfing the Broadway debacle of brown facing in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (see the Fairy Princess here). Rather than employ some of the many talented South Asian musical stars, the Roundabout Theatre hired white actors, put them in brown face, because ‘that’s what they did in Victorian music halls.’ Again, by all accounts the production achieved this naturalistically, and so the desire for historical authenticity seems to have rendered theatres critical zombies. How plays such as Privates on Parade or The Mystery of Edwin Drood are performed needs to be much more carefully thought through, not simply in terms of their casting but their settings, their direction, their practices.

After much lobbying, Roundabout Theatre are meeting with The Asian American Performing Arts Coalition to discuss the issues in play. I am very very much looking forward to doing similar with the British theatre establishment at the Opening The Door event on Monday. There is a peculiar commonality in both the U.S. and the U.K. right now, where these kinds of unproblematic representations are emerging more frequently, but increasingly being challenged and contested. Watch this space……