First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee is charmed by Barking Gecko’s A Ghost in my Suitcase
For their latest show, Barking Gecko Theatre have adapted a relatively recent novel, Gabrielle Wang’s A Ghost in my Suitcase. Exploring grief, death and cultural identity through a story that explores the paranormal traditions of Asia and Australia, it won the 2009 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Long Fiction, was shortlisted for the 2011 Sakura Medal and received a Highly Commended in the 2010 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
For Barking Gecko, Western Australia’s major children’s theatre company, it was adapted for the stage over three years of collaboration by half-Filipino playwright Vanessa Bates, who grew up in Penang, Malaysia. Under Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton’s direction, it makes for a really cute show.
The story begins after the death of 12-year-old Celeste LaClaire’s (Alice Keohavong) mother. Celeste, who is half Chinese and half French, leaves her father and younger brother Robbie in Australia to travel with her maternal grandmother Por Por (Amanda Ma) to the Isle of Clouds to return her mother’s ashes at the top of Mount Mystery. When she arrives in China, Por Por reveals that Celeste comes from a long line of ghost hunters.
Living with Por Por is a young girl, Ting Ting (Yilin Kong), an adopted orphan with a turbulent past. She’s an apprentice ghost hunter who isn’t happy about Celeste as the new addition to their team. Ting Ting must overcome her jealousy toward Celeste and face her dark history in order to accept Celeste as family, and to join her in a battle against evil to save Por Por. The three main players are accompanied by two ensemble members (Frieda Lee and Imanuel Dado) who switch between characters and assist with set changes. They’re dressed in white, matching the set.
In the world we discover in this seamless adaptation, the hunters trap mischievous ghosts in mirrors and then keep them in a pond as fish. If the souls are evil, they are dissolved. If they are simply lost, they are attached to a lamp and sent off to the afterlife. In one scene in which a young ghost is helped onwards, it’s symbolised by a single red lantern floating away into the darkness. It was such a beautiful image that I wanted it to last longer.
Zoë Atkinson’s impressive design consists of a two-storey structure of blocks that folds into itself, becoming smaller or larger as needed. It looks a little wobbly at times, which made me nervous for the actors. Smaller blocks are used to creates staircases, a boat, a bus, or even a tree for a ghost to hide in. Projections of houses, marketplaces and rivers play a huge role in setting the scenes.
Ghosts are represented in many ways: as silhouettes through a white sheet; a boy huddled in a box with a torch lighting only his face; a taut sheet flying through the air accompanied by a convulsing bed. The final evil ghost is a long-haired, faceless presence. The apparitions are accompanied by creepy sound effects and Rachael Dease’s spooky music. Matthew Marshall’s lighting ranges from bright colours to eerie shapes staggered across the space, with bright lights flashing straight at the audience to permit characters on stage to disappear.
Keohavong maintains the childlike energy to contrast the wisdom and weight of Ma’s portrayal of Por Por. However, her vocal pitch and dialogue at times makes it feel as if Keohavong is playing a character younger than 12, which can become a little grating. Amanda Ma, with her stoic presence and melodic voice, is the strongest player in the production. Ma maintains a balance between the roles of fearless ghost hunter and wise grandmother.
The fight choreography is cool, enhanced by Yilin Kong’s skill as a trained dancer: she gives the fight scenes a wonderful physicality. The banter between King and Keohavong as bickering young girls works well, although it often feels as if Ting Ting is closer to playing the correct age of their characters. It increases the feeling that Celeste is significantly younger than she is.
The characters occasionally speak in Mandarin. I wished there were translations, because the Mandarin speakers in the theatre were giggling at some wonderful inside jokes. There are cheeky moments – phrases like “I never knew Australians looked so much like Chinese,” or “This would never happen in Australia” – that reverse the usual context of these comments. I’m hoping white Australians, on the receiving end for once, notice just how ridiculous these observations are.
This female-driven story is a success in so many ways, especially in how it explores the nuances of culture, family histories and overcoming grief. For me, the most important part of the story was Celeste navigating her existence in this new country as a young Australian-Chinese woman. A Ghost in my Suitcase shows what it feels like when ethnicities can’t be categorised as simple binaries. As Ting Ting says, “Half of this, half of that, that just means that you’re not really anything.”
Although this story is filled with the supernatural, at its heart it’s about Por Por showing Ting Ting and Celeste – and everyone in the audience – how it’s possible to overcome adversity and grief and seize our place in the world.
A Ghost in my Suitcase, original story by Gabrielle Wang, adapted for the stage by Vanessa Bates, directed by Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton. Music and Sound Design by Rachael Dease, set and costume design by Zoë Atkinson, lighting design by Matthew Marshall, puppetry consultant by Michael Barlow. Performed by Alice Keohavong, Amanda Ma, Yilin Kong, Frieda Lee, Imanuel Dado. A Ghost in my Suitcase at the Arts Centre Melbourne of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available