His Mother’s Voice

4 May

(If this response seems to range far and wide I apologise in advance. I write in response to the plays I see, and this one is big and bold.)

One of the greatest gifts of Marxism is the concept of ideology. One of the greatest curses was the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Firstly, the Cultural Revolution, where a half of Justin Fleming’s intelligent, thought-provoking play is set.

In 1966, Mao decided to purge China of influences deemed capitalist, reactionary, un-Chinese. The result was a human tragedy of heartbreaking proportions. Millions were persecuted whose only crime was to offer the gift of diversity. Fleming’s play focuses on the trauma suffered by one of these families, targeted simply because of their love of Western music.

Phot by Tessa Tran, Breathing Light Photography

Photo by Tessa Tran, Breathing Light Photography

Director Suzanne Millar and her entire ensemble do a fine job of evoking a society in crisis. The staging is simple, beautiful, and provides the perfect arena to present a truly awful spectacle; naïve exuberance overcome by dreadful paranoia. Renee Lim, as the music teacher determined to pass on her gift to her son, delivers a moving portrayal of steely resilience.

The other half of the story is set in the 1980’s, in both China and Australia, and presents the long term consequences of the Revolution. Dannielle Jackson and Michael Gooley give intelligent, likeable performances as father and daughter, two Australians navigating their connections with people whose trauma is still raw.

For me, two lines from the play encapsulate its philosophy. (I know, it’s a minor crime in itself to attempt such a thing; to force a reduction on what’s decidedly a multi-voiced art-form.)

One of these lines is delivered by Gooley, as the crusty Australian diplomat. “We have to keep the door open,” he says. Discussions must continue.

The second of the lines is foreshadowed by a cool, frightening party official, played admirably by John Goodway.  Then Alice Keohavong, in a wonderfully amusing portrayal of a Chinese emissary in Canberra, snaps it out again. As they bargain the return to China of a talented pianist (played by Harry Tseng), trouble is encountered. Gooley suggests there are ‘contradictions’. “Contradictions? We like contradictions!” chirps Keohavong. The human spirit resists a tyrannous simplicity.

(I try to avoid quoting other writers in my responses, except the playwrights themselves, whom I no doubt misquote. And I apologise for that! But here I’ll quote Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.” And when we attempt to do so, we do nothing but violence.)

And now, finally, back to where I started, one of Marxism’s gifts: ideology.

In Marxist theory, ideology refers to the cultural norms that aid the perpetuation of particular economic structures. (Let me give a small example of my own. In a capitalist society, co-operation is not encouraged. Competition is. Careerists – people interested primarily in personal advancement – are held up as model citizens. To support this world view, it’s expected that writers about theatre will focus on evaluating performers and productions, as against discussing ideas. And so the prevailing economic structure influences everything; even trivialities like theatre criticism.*)

It was the belief that culture actually mattered that led to the Cultural Revolution. (Though Mao probably misread Marx; Karl was more inclined to believe that the economic structure creates culture, as against culture creating the economic structure.)

But the rub is this: how much do we think culture matters?

Mao launched a maniacal attack, and this sort of lunacy gives cultural introspection a bad name. It leads us to think it’s best to just let a thousand flowers bloom, without ever bothering to stop and smell them.

But surely we should think about cultural content, about the impact of our art? (As against merely the advancement of our careers.)

Mao’s mistake was to think this should be done by state edict rather than discussion. It’s as though he assumed there were problems to be fixed, as against possibilities to be encouraged.

And what does this engaging, exciting production by bAKEHOUSE offer the cultural discussion?

The gift of diversity.

Veronica Kaye

*I’m ignoring the whole (obvious) issue of the commodification of art and the reduction of audience members to consumers as against co-producers.


His Mother’s Voice by Justin Fleming

ATYP til 17 May


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