|The year is 2007. A young Australian travel writer arrives in Rangoon, Burma, ostensibly to write a piece of “fluff”: ancient temples, local customs, tourist drawcards – that sort of thing. But when student demonstrations against the ruling military regime begin to gain momentum and the revered Buddhist monks join the fray she quickly finds herself embroiled in a much bigger story, one with global significance.Written by Aussie playwright Katie Pollock, A Quiet Night In Rangoon dramatises the real-life events that took place in Burma and came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. It’s the kind of subject matter that is notoriously difficult to bring to the stage. Not least because you’re dealing with an emotionally raw historical event that still exists in living memory; but there’s another crucial reason, one that Pollock freely admits: this isn’t our story. It’s the story of the Burmese people, a people still so oppressed that they can’t freely tell it themselves. Therefore there’s a delicacy required. A careful, gentle hand is needed and a measured approach. The play gets this right in some respects, but unfortunately falls well short in others.
The strengths of this production lie in its well-drawn and developed characters: Piper (Kathryn Schuback), the writer whose quest for the truth has a deeper personal dimension; Kitty (Aileen Huynh) a local girl who is keen to help but has complicated loyalties; Mickey (John Buencamio) a novice monk who wrestles with the demands of staying true to his religious path while attempting to settle an old score; The Major (Felino Dolloso) the military man who must convince himself that the ends justifies the bloody means; and Pluto (Barton Williams) a wounded student who has suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of soldiers like The Major.
Each of these characters has a rock-solid inner truth and an interesting internal conflict to deal with (compulsory components for good drama) and is brought to the stage by actors who have carefully done their homework and weighed up the nuances required. Felino Dolloso’s Major, in particular, is a finely tuned and powerful performance that has the ability to move us and draw us into the emotional complexities of being trapped on the darker side of the struggle for freedom. Indeed as the oppressor it becomes pointedly clear that he too is equally oppressed.Dolloso’s monologues are the high point in this production and indicate an actor of great depth who’s full of exciting promise.
Where A Quiet Night In Rangoon falters and ultimately fails, however, is in the theatrical device it employs to lighten the mood. This comes in the guise of a character that plays The Internet (Sonya Kerr). So jarring is the comedic approach taken here that we are jolted back out of any meaningful point of connection (that had been gaining momentum) into a place that’s facile and trivial. Laughter in a play of this sort just seems grossly misplaced and inappropriate to the extreme, at least that was my response to it. It made it difficult to move through and then reconnect with the more weightier and meatier elements that I was keen to be absorbed by, which was a real shame.
While I’m always keen to encourage audiences to get out and see new Australian work, particularly with such a rich and interesting multicultural cast as this one, with the case of A Quiet Night In Rangoon I’m left slightly reluctant to do so. I do believe, however, that there is a good play in here trying to get out, and with some sensitive structural adjustments it just could be a great one, but it’s not there yet.
subtlenuance in association with The Spare Room presents
Venue: New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown
This review first appeared on Australian Stage August 2011