revew: Kimber Lee – untitled fuck miss saigon play
untitled fuck miss saigon play/
by Kimber Lee/
dir Roy Alexander Weise/
design Khadija Raza/
sound design Giles Thomas/
Manchester International Festival/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
24 Jun – 22 Jul 2023/
Young Vic Theatre/
18 Sep – 4 Nov 2023//
three shell casings///
What are we doing when we read a play? What are we doing when we watch one? What’s going on? Each new play is a chance to create a new world, free license. A writer can make a play any shape they like and we have to put up with it. For all their newness, formally experimental plays need a connection to something we already understand. Even when explosive and challenging, plays need a familiar casing, a delivery mechanism which we understand. To make any kind of sense the experiment surfaces through the disruption of the pattern, the disturbing of the familiar.
In the opening epigraphs of the published untitled fuck miss saigon play, Kimber Lee quotes from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s criticism of the protectionism surrounding productions of the musical Miss Saigon: ‘Fantasy cannot be dismissed as mere entertainment.’ Kimber Lee is giving us instructions for how to read the script. Fiction is part of reality, too. It comes out of us. Our understanding comes from the relationship fiction has with the real world. We enter into fiction understanding this, seeking the rupture in reality it gives us, finding the reality it poses which echoes with our own and pitting ourselves against its alternative vision.
Fiction works because it is real. A form which fractures reality works simultaneously with and against our existing understanding of reality. The play is inside and outside the world at the same time – it falls within our understanding to the same degree we fall within its original invention. We encompass each other; fiction is reality too.
In the months since seeing untitled fuck miss saigon play, I have described the text to my friends as ‘crass’ in a way which feels to me particularly American. My reference points are Tennessee Williams, Young Jean Lee, Sam Shepard, Anne Washburn. – Each of whom create plays which are forcefully theatrical, whose worlds wish us to note the ways in which they break. Crass is a texture of frankness, a diving-into the form without attempting to coax the audience in through the sitting room. Kimber Lee gives us instructions for how to read her script but of course all play scripts are instructions for themselves. The script is a mediator between the performance and the text and the audience and the gap of time which the reader is reaching back through. The play is on the page and somewhere else entirely – we must believe in it for it properly to work.
Plays create worlds which react to and mirror our own. Being that our world is such a tremendously violent one, experimental plays invent for themselves theatrical forms which express and embody violence. Is the gunpowder or the shell more dangerous?
untitled fuck miss saigon play is a 2023 play by Kimber Lee.
untitled fuck miss saigon play is a comic nightmare, a picaresque flight by protagonist Kim through repeated scenes of Asian stereotypes from theatre and film. As she is drawn through the experience of her own death and her child being taken from her again and again, she grows aware of the pattern she is trapped in. Scenes shorten until they are distilled to their purest essence of kidnap and suicide, kidnap and suicide.
Kim resolves to escape, but what she is fleeing becomes unclear. The world forces Kim into her role, her personhood (or lack thereof) is at the caprice of the shape it takes around her. When the nightmare is that entire world, can she exist outside of it? Kim occupies a hole, a bubble inside the nightmare outside of which there may well be nothing. At her edges the traumatic frame of her world begins. The repetition is a self-parody: the play becomes a pattern we are familiar with, as Kim becomes aware of it so do we and the violence is numbingly familiar. Kim is inside the re-enactment and trauma even as she is outside and attempting to break free, even as she is alienated by the predictable mechanism it becomes.
Kim’s mother Rosie voices her philosophy on fighting the shape of the world in a soliloquy: ‘we don’t get to decide, we don’t create these circumstances, they simply are as they are, and there is no use in being so rigid, so brittle. Brittle things break.’ We can read untitled fuck miss saigon play in part as a motion in favour of breaking the brittle form of theatre. In the same way Kim and Rosie have clashing opinions, both grounded in their lived experience, the play fights for and against its own destruction.
Clark, the white American man who comes to take possession of Kim’s life in each new iteration, speaks in nonsense strings of words (‘Gomi leah nanako, tabi yo, hayao miyazaki.’) Here is anti-translation; translation is redundant because we are not in a world where communication, interpretation or understanding can change the outcome. Clark’s use of random ‘Asian’ words is a performance of cultural sensitivity – meretricious, conceited, violent as a screen for his ego and theft. Clark’s grasp of language is stupid and ignorant and he is rewarded in a world which serves him. And the form of the play serves him too, even in its writhing and twisting, the parody which he is is a happy one.
The form expands,the play is within the world and it is the world. The play itself, untitled fuck miss saigon play, is as interpellated by its circumstances in our world as its characters are within it. Even the title of the play announces itself with resignation: ‘untitled fuck miss saigon play/(srsly, this is not the title)/(oh well)’. The play is resigned to being a play. The form and function of ‘play’ is forced into its own shape against its will, despite itself. However much untitled fuck miss saigon play is in opposition to theatrical convention, it is a play, it does have a title, it is eligible for Best New Play. The Narrator’s closing cry encompasses the conjuration of its invention, its destruction, its insufficiency: ‘End of mutherfucking play.’
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is a 2006 play by Young Jean Lee.
A slap is an action and a sound. Violence is the first image of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Rather, the first image proper is a black screen. We hear before we see Young Jean Lee being slapped in the face again and again. There are tears in her eyes. She bids this violence upon herself – she is the author after all. She reassures the unseen person slapping her. She is ready for the next impact. Her face finally appears and we see the physical act which matches what we have been hearing.
This piece of film more closely resembling performance art than theatre disrupts the play proceeding it. There are no more film elements in the rest of the play and this is its most visceral, realist depiction of violence (which for all its physicality is still digital, recorded, to a degree annexed off by the knowledge it is not repeated every performance). The rest of the play is absurd, its violence comic and mimed. The audience groan in gross delight as a performer mimes tearing off her breast and taking a bite from it, before hurling it at them.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is a comic pastiche of ‘the Korean American experience’ – protagonist Korean American slags off Asian parents and Asians in Asia, and negotiates their relationship with Korean 1, Korean 2 and Korean 3, who are in turns violent and playful. They discuss a secret Korean plot to take over the world. Ridiculous.
About half an hour in, the ridiculous comedy of the Koreans and Korean American is quietly, calmly deposed by a white American couple whose relationship is breaking down. They enter the stage and talk about themselves and their needs and wants. The scenes about them become more and more frequent until they chase the non-white characters off the stage with upturned chairs like lion tamers and spend the final fifth of the run time trying to find a shared resolution, a connection which might salvage their monogamous, white, American relationship.
The immediate reaction is to say these interruptions feel as though they come from another play. But then what play would Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven be if this soft violence wasn’t introduced? These disruptions provide a troubling of structure which make the play formally remarkable. Without the appeal to and making space for monogamous whiteness this play would be half of what it is. The Korean characters speak mainly in Korean and Cantonese, sporadically in English. Korean 3, in Cantonese, acknowledges the play’s wilful alienation of its audience: ‘They have no idea what the fuck we’re doing.’ Chaos versus order, Korean versus American, Asian versus white, players versus audience, playing versus The Play.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven uses our connection to violences and supremacies to tell itself. The opening video creates a structural context of violence which contains the whole play. Throughout the silliness of the Koreans’ mime, the slap on Young Jean Lee’s cheek rings in our ears. The violence echoes; our memory of it changes the things we see. And I have lied to you: ‘this is its most visceral, realist depiction of violence’ – bollocks. Can violence not be quiet? Is slow, creeping silence not a kind of violence? The subject gently shifting away from Asian identity to the concerns of a white couple – is that not violence? There are more comfortable violent acts we sit inside of every day. Violence, like a play, is inside and outside of us at once.
Young Jean Lee looks into the camera, at us. Such a normal part of theatre, eye contact. In her eyes, her violent introduction is a confrontation, a challenge. What are you watching? Are you enjoying this? What did you come here for? Silence, ignorance, physical violence, these are all depictions of real violence, violence experienced and meted out in the real world of the playwright and the cast – our world.
Far Away is a 2000 play by Caryl Churchill.
You can read Far Away and think its violence is elsewhere. In each of its three scenes, the action is already completed; we learn about events after they have happened. Joan snuck out of bed. The things she saw can be explained: her uncle was helping those people – the ones he was beating are traitors – there had to be blood to save the others. The world makes sense, actually, and Joan’s job is to listen to what she is told and accept that she doesn’t fully understand the actions which are necessary to keep it in motion. Fiction is a trick in which we conceal information from the audience; if they knew everything then, lesser sins aside, the work would be unbearably boring. The world is revealed through a process of selection, only ever incomplete. Our knowledge is at the mercy of the playwright. We have access only to the story we are told.
Evil is a mundane, pervading presence in Far Away. The concerns of its characters are evil because they cannot think outside of evil. In the play’s second scene, Joan and Todd talk about the parade of executionees only in reference to the ‘enormous and preposterous’ hats they have constructed for them to wear. Their moral world is anaemic to the point they are incapable of pushing against the mechanisms which keep them there, they jostle for better positions inside the machine which oppresses, murders and strips away humanity.
In Far Away’s final scene, the world is at war. Animals, light and gravity all have allegiances, shifting, unpredictable. The world exists in anecdotes the three characters share. When it isn’t present, what is their world to us but imagined? How much of the world is real or imagined to them?
When the violence is elsewhere it is also here. The world and form of Far Away is haunted by an evil which is distant and present. Showy pageantry sanctifies murder by tying it to the simple, creative output of labourers. Violence is gauche, crass, and couched in a distracting symbolism which invests us in our own small part in creating it. When the violence is wrapped up and hidden in the world of the play, so is the violence of our world wrapped up in the play itself. Far Away is revealed to us in three scenes, cut off from each other by a disunity of time and place. Our experience of the world is shuttered. The glimpses we see of it inform what we are able to imagine. The violence is somewhere else (inside the play) and the violence is only ever inside of us.
untitled fuck miss saigon play is a 2023 play by Kimber Lee.
Repetition in untitled fuck miss saigon play is a generator of meaning. The theatre audience is trapped by the form of the play, the characters are trapped, we are trapped by the shape of the world. But within the trap, we can kick back. We can twist the form and we can use knowledge of it to challenge our understanding of the world. Reiteration is fatal when nothing changes.
‘Every day we must begin anew.
This is what it is to be alive.’
When we contextualise and read the world through what we know our reference points too can be places of violence. When we draw the play into our own understanding what shape do we force it into? What violent frames live there?