Robert Reid finds himself suspended in time in Jean Tong’s new Melbourne Theatre Company play, Hungry Ghosts
Jean Tong’s Hungry Ghosts hangs in the air like the cloud that drifts through its own set, like the mystery that surrounds the disappearance of Flight MH370. It shows us glimpses of a world largely unfamiliar to the Melbourne stage: suburban Malaysia, as seen through the eyes of a young woman leaving it, maybe forever.
There are big ideas on this stage: subconscious ghosts and monsters of the void move like cyclopean shadows through the swirling fog that reveals and conceals the actors.
The story threads through an assemblage that includes recitations of facts and theories about the disappearance of the plane which are reminiscent of a Greek chorus, diary-like reflections on Tong’s personal life, street and family scenes from home and Pinteresque rhythmical motifs that recur at intervals to mark the passage of what passes for time in this world.
There is no time here, outside the implied story of a young queer woman leaving Malaysia and coming to Melbourne. Even this story is fragmented, forcing us to piece it together retroactively. It’s splayed amongst its symbolic detritus like the scatter-pattern of a plane crash.
(That’s the second time recently – the other is Luke George’s dance piece Public Action – that I’ve needed to describe something in a performance as a scatter-pattern… Is there a feeling of impending explosion in the air?)
The action moves in and out of a set of modular, cabin-shaped arches, lit by fluorescent strips that suggest cabin lighting in the event of an emergency. They pulse, flash and change colour, rippling with ominous signification. The modules pull apart and scatter across the space, transforming into broken fuselage, a train (or tram), a kitchen or an abstract space, suspended in the dark black of the theatre and the ever-present trails of smoke.
This plane is going down because it is always going down. It exists now in a suspended state, mythical, tragic and stripped of its reality. For all but those personally affected by the loss of the plane and its 227 passengers and 12 crew, who may never fully achieve closure, this vanished flight to Beijing joins the mysteries of Bermuda Triangle and Amelia Earhart. They speak to our primal fears of the true chaos that exists all around us.
It is difficult to grab a hold of anything for too long in this production. The fragments of story and world crash around each other. When the play is in motion, the pieces don’t lie static on the ground: instead they fly past us, suspended in their impact trajectories. Mother and Father at home, friends talking politics (did you know that the son of the prime minister of Malaysia was the major financier of The Wolf of Wall Street? I didn’t.) There are lovely glints of Malaysia reflected through the flying debris; but collectively the debris makes me wonder, what is it that we’re seeing crash here?
Because everything is in motion around the impact it is difficult to see what it is that is crashing. Each moment is pitched at the same high level, and never actually impacts. Here again is the plane that never crashes because it is always crashing. Suspended before us in ether, in myth, in a black box. Threatening but not quite landing. Never impacting, always having impacted. Hovering like identity in flux, scattered between the old and the new.
Hungry Ghosts by Jean Tong, directed by Petra Kalive. Set design by Eugyeene The, costumes by Sophie Woodward, lighting design by Emma Valente, sound Darius Kedros. Performed by Emina Ashman, Jing-Xuan Chan and Bernard Sam. The Lawler Theatre, Southbank. Melbourne Theatre Company. Until June 7, then touring Bendigo, Mildura, Geelong, Launceston, Wangaratta and Sale. Bookings
This production contains coarse language, mature themes, smoke effects and loud noises. Recommended for ages 15+. For detailed information about the production’s content please call the MTC box office on (03) 8688 0800.
This venue is wheelchair accessible and hearing assistance is available.