OzAsia Festival Review: Light

18th century Englishmen communicate via smartphone, a character appears before he is born and the very existence of another is called into question. To say that Light is an ambitious undertaking is to state the obvious.

By
Overall
3

Presented by Thomas Henning in collaboration with TerryandTheCuz

Reviewed 17 October 2019

18th century Englishmen communicate via smartphone, a character appears before he is born and the very existence of another is called into question. To say that Light is an ambitious undertaking is to state the obvious. In a script that nods to Charlie Kaufman’s labyrinthine inner worlds and Michael Winterbottom’s semi-historical absurdism, the frantic first act covers decades of internecine colonial warfare in Southeast Asia with three actors skipping between characters at breakneck speed and openly questioning the very mechanism through which their stories are told.

History, according to the co-creators’ notes, is “whatever white people say happened”, and this does not bode well for Francis Light’s Asian (or Eurasian) bride. As the action begins, Light is attempting to build a personal fortune and found a port that would become modern Penang. He and his contemporaries are the ones writing the story, a narrative that will be canonised through nation-building myths and eventually accepted as fact. The ostensible villain in the piece is the “honourable” East India Company, which double crosses him again and again as his wife is progressively written out of the story and eventually has her very identity called into question (history is unclear on whether she was a Malaysian princess or a half-Portuguese commoner). Their unborn son William patronises her as he attempts to separate fact from conjecture and harries her into an epistemological crisis by insisting on the primacy of the written (English) word over oral histories in search of an objective truth. By Act 2, this has tipped him into madness as he searches for the truth of his own identity in a house on the verge of burning down. These issues have real world consequences, like the younger Light being denied his inheritance, and as Lightreaches its denouement the broader effects of colonialism and the prevailing narratives surrounding it are also touched on.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, especially for three actors. Too much at times, though the character Martina Rozells is particularly moving in her searing demands to be included in her own story, the pivot upon which Light turns from a rollicking adventure into a deeper exploration of who makes history.

The script has room for jokes about bringing light to the darkness and Adelaide being laid, but the visual gags like the neo- lit kingdom of Phuket are more successful, and the creators did an admirable job of making the show go on after customs held the set up before the world premiere. That meant there was no time for a dress rehearsal, and the breathlessness of opening night was no doubt in part due to that delay.

TerryandTheCuz’s last OzAsia show, 2016’s Sk!n was one of the most logistically ambitious shows Adelaide has ever seen, and the payoff was commensurate. Light is more ambitious conceptually, covering almost a century of history and questioning the way in which we understand history and, ultimately, ourselves. But though it showed glimpses of brilliance, it never quite reached its lofty aim.

Reviewed by Alexis Buxton-Collins

Rating out of 5: 3

Venue: Nexus Arts

Season: Until 19 Oct 2019

Duration: 2 hours 20 mins (including interval)

Tickets: $30 – $45

Bookings: https://secure.ozasiafestival.com.au/ticketing/WEBPAGES/Event/Dates.aspx

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