Caroline Guiela Nguyen’s Saigon is remarkably beautiful theatre that reminds us what a main stage play can be, says Alison Croggon
Update: Sadly, the final two performances are cancelled at the touring company’s request
Watching European subsidised theatre can be both elating and depressing. A work like Les Hommes Approximatifs’ Saigon – on at Arts Centre Melbourne for Asia TOPA after a hit season at the 2017 Avignon Festival and acclaimed tours of théâtre nationals around France and the European festival circuit – reminds you that a main stage play need not be, as we see too often in our state theatres, a mediocre branch of commercial theatre.
In Australia, work that has ambitions for its vision rather than its box office is largely considered to be the province of independent theatre, its best ideas picked over and exploited by larger theatres when, against all the odds, the artists begin to find an audience. When I consider what our under-resourced theatre makers achieve in the teeth of constant precarity and indifference, I am often astonished. Imagine what they could do if that imagination and grit were properly supported?
Well, it’s an old plaint, made sharper this weekend in the face of the Covid-19 cancellations that are going to hit the performing arts for six. The usual response is a shrug – envy of European support for culture can be tedious. But it’s worth noting that the difference isn’t that Europeans are more wealthy than we are. Australia ranks higher in per capita wealth than France (according to 2015 figures, we’re 15th most wealthy, as opposed to 25), and in fact France devotes about the same amount of its federal budget to cultural subsidies. It’s about how the money is used: to build a culture, rather than an industry.
‘None of these stories is simple: the relationships between the colonised and the colonisers are profoundly complicated, informed by guilt, love, hatred and mutual incomprehension.’
Theatre maker Caroline Guiela Nguyen founded Les Hommes Approximatifs in 2009 with Claire Calvi (artistic collaborator), Alice Duchange (design), Juliette Kramer, Benjamin Moreau (costume design), Mariette Navarro, Antoine Richard (sound), and Jérémie Papin (lighting). They honed their teeth on classics before they began to devise their own works “about missing stories and missing bodies, those you don’t usually see on theatre stages”.
Saigon is the most celebrated result of this collaboration so far, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an exquisite work of theatre, with both finesse and punch – a combination we rarely see here. When a scrim rises on a set – a Vietnamese restaurant – that appears to be realistic but is also suggestively dreamlike, we know at once that we’re witnessing a complex reality in which time, place and feeling are elastic and many-layered. It’s a clever setting, as the restaurant encompasses both public and private spaces: on one side is the kitchen, where the restaurateurs are constantly cooking, witnessing, participating – every family wrangle, save one, is witnessed by the staff as well as the audience – and a karaoke stand on the other, which allows for songs as part of the dramaturgy.
The delicately alienated poetic of the work is a large part of its emotional impact, its insistence on its artifice cutting against the sorrow of these stories and paradoxically heightening their poignancy. A cool intelligence infuses every aspect: it’s in Papin’s lighting and Moreau’s sound and Teddy Gauliat-Pitois’s music, in the heightened naturalism the actors generate on stage.
It’s also in the surtitles, which not only translate the French and Vietnamese text, but announce the different “chapters” of the story, and its shifting times and spaces. But it begins with the voice over, in which Lam (apologies – as there isn’t a cast list I don’t know which actor played which role) tells us that she is telling a story of Vietnam – which will be told, as stories are told in Vietnam, “with tears”.
‘These are stories of the “missing”, those considered unimportant in the larger narratives, given an epic resonance.’
The story moves between 1996 Paris – when Vietnam lifted its ban on the return of Viet Kieu, expatriate Vietnamese – and Saigon in 1956, two years after the decisive defeat of the French by Hồ Chí Minh’s Việt Minh forces in the battle of Diên Biên Phu. Vietnam, formerly part of Indochine – a colony that included Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – was then divided along the 17th parallel, and the United States began its ruinous proxy war against Hồ Chí Minh’s Russian-backed North Vietnam.
These tumultuous events are mentioned only in passing in Saigon, although they shape the lives of every character in the play. In a culture saturated by US culture, and especially in the US narratives on the Vietnam War, it’s interesting to see these other histories in the ongoing disaster that is western colonialism. But Nguyen’s stories aren’t about these large events: they are about the lives distorted and broken by them.
These are stories of the “missing”, those considered unimportant in the larger narratives, given an epic resonance. There is the restaurant owner, Marie Antoinette, who has had no news of her translator son for 17 years because he was taken to France to work in a munitions factory, which was taken by the Germans and finally bombed by the Allies. There’s the wife of the French coloniser, racked by impatient guilt, who uncovers the story of Marie Antoinette’s son but isn’t adequate to its telling. Or Linh, who marries an abusive French soldier who is suffering from PSTD and moves to France, where she has a son who cannot speak Vietnamese. The lovers who are parted forever.
None of these stories is simple: the relationships between the colonised and the colonisers are profoundly complicated, informed by guilt, love, hatred and mutual incomprehension. Celine, a French character, fetishises her guilt to an extraordinarily uncomfortable degree: she almost adopts Hao – who has left Vietnam because he is endangered as a French collaborator – as if he is a stray dog. And the divisions within this small company of Vietnamese people are sometimes agonisingly drawn – the relationship between Linh and her French-speaking son is fraught with conflicted love, and the scene in which Hao finally returns to Vietnam is deeply, complexly, painful.
What gives these stories their power and depth is the confidently flowing texture of the production and the precise, beautifully modulated performances from an outstanding cast who pay detailed attention to every moment. Nguyen’s direction is both fluid and fluent, cumulatively knitting together present and past, memories and dreams, loss and joy.
Time is permeable: sometimes dialogues from two different times and places cross each other simultaneously on the stage, infusing each with a strange fragility. Yet what shines through these stories of irreversible breakage is human resilience in all its forms. It makes remarkably beautiful theatre. If you want to see one thing before we’re all in quarantine, this is the show.
Saigon, by Caroline Guiela Nguyen and the whole artistic team, directed by Caroline Guiela Nguyen. Artistic collaborator Claire Calvi, set design by Alice Duchange, lighting design by Jérémie Papin, costume design by Benjamin Moreau, sound and music design by Antoine Richard, compositions by Teddy Gauliat-Pitois, dramaturgy and surtitles by Jérémie Scheidler and Manon Worms, translators (Vietnamese/French) Nguyễn Đức Đuy, Tô Thị Thanh Thư. Performed by Dan Artus, Adeline Guillot, Huỳnh Thị Trúc Ly, Lê Hoàng Sơn, Maud Le Grevellec, Nguyễn Phú Hậu, Nguyễn Thị Mỹ Châu, Pierric Plathier, Tô Thị Thanh Thư, Trần Nghĩa Ánh and Trần Nghĩa. Les Hommes Approximatifs Theatre Company at Arts Centre Melbourne, for Asia TOPA. Until March 15. Bookings
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