Eastern Star, written and directed by Guy Slater, with David Yip, Michael Lumsden, Julie Cheung-Inhin and Patrick Pearson, Tara Arts, Wednesday 12th September, 7.30pm
Events have somewhat overtaken this play, given that it recounts, or deals with, an encounter from 2013 during which is discussed an event which occurred in 1988 (confused?), and though a couple of its characters are in the news currently it’s for entirely different, though no less controversial, reasons, so if theatre, by definition, exists unequivocally in the now (the now of the play that is), old news needs a pretty good excuse, a powerful case for its presence, if it wants to grab you by the throat. It’s not an accident that news is new.
What’s more, this is a tele-play, (or radio play even, given that the original news reports on the BBC World Service were spoken word only) that’s been squeezed, or crow-barred, onto the stage, complete with beds, tables, soup, wine, chairs, stools, tears, histrionics, all completely superfluous really. What it actually lacks is what television is best at - the replay of footage from the time, vision of the brutal fact of a military dictatorship in full flow.
And given that we’ve all become very used to the idea that bits of television showing violence and bombing, or the results of such actions, can represent actual news, just as since the time of David Lean (filmmaker of note) we’ve all accepted very happily the concept of one or maybe two characters can stand for an entire social, political, artistic, philosophical situation which may unfold over years, it’s not really a surprise that this play should take the form it does. What I’m trying to say is that whatever is onstage, it is totally overwhelmed by the current situation in Myanmar involving as it does genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi, jailed journalists, not to mention that Christopher Gunness, one of the plays central characters, is now the head of a United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees which has just had its funding removed by Donald Trump.
I am in no way qualified to hold forth in print on any of these situations, the Palestinian right of return, the Rohingya people, the popularity or otherwise in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi (who makes an appearance of sorts), what I’m actually here to do is talk about a theatre piece which does what I guess everyone expects the theatre to do, ie. give a platform to some self-expression; shed a few tears, shout a bit, talk about feelings, show some emotion, get it off your chest, spread a bit of empathy or sympathy; whatever; be about the individual, a particular person or two.
In the play, Christopher Gunness, Oxford graduate and real person is a green but enthusiastic young BBC reporter (Clark Kent anyone?) sent out to Burma now Myanmar because there were rumours that something might be happening. The BBC World Service (radio) is listened to widely in Burma, so young Chris has an influence he perhaps doesn’t entirely appreciate. He enters the country ‘under cover’, pretending to be a tourist, a backpacker, and stays in a fleapit hotel where he files his stories to the BBC (I assume on a public telephone) at the top of his voice and for the amusement of all listening military dictatorship spies and others. He is contacted clandestinely by the ‘others’ ultimately by U Nay Min, also a character in the play, a local human rights lawyer, who, along with the leaders of what would become a student-led uprising, feed Christopher various titbits, effectively using the BBC World Service as their very own communications network. You can imagine how this goes down with the military. (Sounds like a Graham Greene novel you may say.)
All so interesting. The uprising happens. The crackdown happens. There is bloodshed, prison. Myanmar is an international pariah for more that twenty years. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, in 2013, Christopher Gunness goes back to Myanmar for the first time since the uprising. And he meets U Nay Min, again for the first time since 1988. U Nay Min has been in prison for 16 years, 8 years of those for attempting to contact Christopher. Chris knew about the attempted contact but was advised by the Foreign Office not to reply. So Chris feels a little guilt. Feels. Eight more years in prison for his friend, being tortured. Pretty heavy. Lots of night sweats and bad dreams.
Worse is to come. Much worse. Spoilers. What I will say is that the play is about one character’s guilt and the other character’s anger and resentment. But emotion butters no parsnips. Emotion isn’t performative. Emotion, no matter how intense, isn’t the basis for drama. There is no real interaction. Each is locked in his own emotional situation. The most interesting thing about their relationship, that the young reporter was manipulated by the older lawyer, just as he manipulated the students and the wider situation, as he worked to keep out of the front line of the revolution, to keep anonymous, to stay out of prison and then wasted his life blaming his dupe for his misfortune. This is almost ignored, or at best, simply talked about.