Jean Tong makes her MTC debut with an international, border-crossing play set between Malaysia and Australia
It’s not often you see a work that combines and draws parallels between a plane crash, a prime ministerial corruption scandal and the feelings of disassociation that come with being an expat in Australia, but that’s precisely what Malaysian–Australian playwright Jean Tong does with Hungry Ghosts. It takes a while to see the connections – and even then they remain somewhat opaque – but the overall effect is intellectually dense and dramatically satisfying.
The plane crash – well, technically a disappearance – is probably the most familiar, at least to local audiences. MH370 vanished off international radars on the way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014, and its fate remains unknown to this day. The Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption scandal involves a state-owned investment firm called 1MDB, which has crippled the Malaysian economy while allegedly filling his own personal coffers to the tune of $US700 million.
Both issues are ongoing and unresolved, like open wounds in the Malay psyche, and as such provide a beautiful metaphor for the unnamed central character’s existential predicament. Played by Jing-Xuan Chan, she’s presumably a stand-in for the playwright. Queer, determined and yet isolated from her home country as much as from her adopted one, she’s grappling with an issue that often affects young gay people from countries with harsher attitudes to homosexuality: how do you retain a connection to a country you can no longer live in?
Tong’s play is vociferous in its outlook and jam packed with ideas. From the pistol prawn (one of the loudest creatures in the ocean, capable of interrupting sonar and therefore problematic to underwater search efforts) to the financial backing of Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street and its connection to the Prime Minister’s son, the playwright is constantly threading information together, forging unusual and germane synaptic pathways.
Chan is excellent as Tong’s avatar, confident and curious, but also capable of suggesting the depths of despair running just under the surface. The other two actors, Emina Ashman and Bernard Sam, play a variety of supporting parts, from family and friends to what at one stage seem like oily state apparatchiks. Director Petra Kalive has a strong and pragmatic approach to pacing and rhythm, and the piece moves along at a cracking speed.
It’s also expertly designed. Eugyeene Teh’s set, with its modular suggestion of the exoskeleton of the crustacean as well as the fuselage of a commercial passenger jet, is incredibly flexible and evocative, aided immeasurably by Emma Valente’s lighting and Darius Kedros’ sound composition. At one point, we are deep on the ocean floor, with the actors manipulating pod-like sections of the set around the space, and it’s as atmospheric as the best Hollywood sci-fi.
Hungry Ghosts is a welcome and refreshing addition to Melbourne’s theatre scene. It has that post-colonial abundance of ideas and multiplicity of perspectives that is often lacking from the rigid, dogmatic approach to storytelling we see in the majority of Western theatre. It’s also genuinely representative, in a way that we see all too rarely on our stages. But more than that, it’s fascinating and moving, an intellectually rich piece that also taps a deep emotional vein. MTC should be encouraged to invest further in work like this, and the best way to motivate them is to go see it.