Review by Sam Waite
A friend once told me that, for years, Miss Saigon had been her favourite musical. Her repertoire has since grown, and she's come to be aware of the issues around representation in not just Saigon, but many Asian-centric stories by non-Asian writers – still, the reason it had resonated was so pure and simple, “It was the first musical I saw that I thought, ‘I could be in this!’” This lack of roles for Asian performers, and the similar exoticism and two-dimensional quality of the roles available, is at the centre of Kimber Lee’s untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play.
Now open at London’s Young Vic, this co-production with Manchester’s Royal Exchange tells the story (or stories) of Kim, a young woman repeating endless tragedies in only cosmetically different realities. She begins as the heroine of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which she conceived a child who she gives up to a better life in America before ending her own life. The shock of this moment quickly gives way when the narrator introduces a new story, in which young Kim – now a Polynesian woman in the Pacific Islands – conceives a child who she gives up to a better life in America… before ending her own life.
Lee’s part-parody, part-retelling of endless tales where a beautiful heroine lives an impoverished and tragic life before losing the man she loves become increasingly mocking in their comedy. Kim’s progressive awareness and failed attempts to not have the same ending, all thwarted by the uncaring narrator and the other actors following the script, helps to establish that the point is how repetitive and ridiculous the whole affair is. When the narrative shifts to a modern setting, Kim is too aware of the past events to push the memories aside again, and Lee’s script, though still strong, could stand to lose a few minutes of runtime.
A strong cast of only six brings this myriad of stories to life, beginning with Rochelle Rose’s narrator – grand, deliberately overselling the importance of her words, and progressively less interested in telling the story in full. A hilarious mockery of an over-important storyteller, Rose milks her role for all it’s worth, relishing the brief time she manages to insert herself into the story rather than relaying it to the crowd. The narrator duty is partly shared by Lourdes Faberes, who plays Kim’s mother (and other variants) with a deft balance of conniving, imposing Madame, and hilarious character role. The heart Faberes brings to the role helps greatly in reminding us how unfair these historical characters being so lacking in dimension has been on these performers, never letting them shine.
Clark, the name given to Kim’s many lovers, is played by Tom Weston-Jones, caricaturing the brave young American who represents beauty and freedom. A running gag has his non-English dialogue, translated by the narrator, made up of vaguely Asian words the audience may find familiar. Sushimi, kimchi, Haribo – sometimes the joke threatens to become tiresome, then something truly ridiculous will come out of Weston-Jones’ mouth in a serious, tender moment, giving it new life. As his many wives, all Evelyn, Jennifer Kirby has less to do until the modern-day section, where she delivers a truly hysterical and wildly misguided monologue about how she, the only white woman at the table, truly understands the struggles Kim is going through. Kirby knows she's the butt of the joke, and her full commitment to this almost offensively misguided take is delightful to watch unfold.
Tasked with representing decades, if not centuries, of mistreatment and misrepresentation of the Asian diaspora, (no pressure, right?) Mei Mac plays into all of the stereotypes asked if the many Kims. Her demure looks away, the fanning of her face to hide a blushing smile, and the sheer eroticism of there being a white man interested in her are all sold to perfection. Her increased knowledge of these repeated circumstances and her being appalled at the inability to alter the ending is tragic and hilarious in equal measure, watching her face twist in disgust as she is made to contort her dying body into elegant and symbolic positions. Unfortunately, whether the fault of Mac’s performance or of director Roy Alexander Weise, moments of rage feel lacking in nuance and emotional range, more focused on volume and getting the words out that selling the trauma of the character.
The ensemble is completed by Jeff D’Sangalang in one of the more changing, malleable roles – alternating between versions of Kim’s life as a brother and a husband-to-be, and even portraying both in one reality. In one major character, whose relevance I won't ruin here, he brings some real joy and hopefulness to the modern sequence’s proceedings, and his charming work is undeniable. D’Sangalang represents, in both his performances and his own self, the too-slow but increasingly prevalent development of representation – he doesn't have to be a bit part of a victim of tragedy, or a tired stereotype of his own history, but a real and complex person.
In exploring this idea, subtly acknowledging that change is possible and is happening in the arts, Lee sidesteps making her play too dark or too overtly tragic. Heart and humour come through in all but the darkest moments, and where some sections could stand to run for a few minutes less, no scene or section is without clear purpose. Weise’s direction seems to have been shaped around an understanding of this, giving the performances and the growing sense of unease time to build, and not pushing to have the repetitions of tragedy sped through, allowing the conceit time to fully sink in with the audience.
Khadija Raza’s set is simple and ingenious, with the bare bones of a bit able to be pulled apart and reshaped into the humble dwellings of the many Kims, and the balance between immersion and awareness that we are watching something artificial play out is perfectly captured by the “specifically vaguely” Asian motifs. A brilliant touch is having stagehands, decked out in Young Vic uniform, visibly changing these sets before our eyes, lest we fall into the trap of thinking any of these stories is to be out main focus. Joshua Pharo’s lighting is equally as well-done, bringing to life the time of day and far-off locales, while also being palpably fake and clearly part of a fictional creation.
Truth be told, the title of this play is more shocking and confrontational than its content, but that may well be the point. Untitled m*ss s**gon play doesn't seem to have been written with any malice or to launch an attack on the classics it takes aim at – instead, it wants to remind us just how awful it is that so little variety in stories for Asian leading actors has been allowed. While the 105 minute play perhaps ought to be capped around 90, with one monologue going on too long to keep its impact, I don't feel I can hold it against Kimber Lee, or her often-brilliant send-ups, that there is simply too much to say on this deep and complex matter.
untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play plays at the Young Vic until November 4th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/untitled-fck-mss-sgon-play
Photos by The Other Richard