Ivan Heng is a young Singaporean who switched from law to theatre as a career, studied drama in the UK and is now intent on making it here as an actor. Journey West is his one-man show about Peter Ming, a young Singaporean who switches from law to theatre as a career and comes to the UK intent on making it here... you get the picture.
Heng is an able performer in a wide range of theatrical forms and a keen, intelligent observer. He pokes fun both at reductive English views of his homeland ("Spit in the street and you cough up one thousand dollars") and the naiveté of a young Asian, wandering around Lie-cester Square and Convent Garden; he even aims a dart at the defensive-aggressive hybridisation of some "BBCs", British-born Chinese. On a virtually bare stage he serves up slices of Peking Opera, patronising Brit stuffiness and deeper sentiment, breaking off periodically to pass an imaginary joint round the audience or paint a few huge strokes of the Mandarin character for "longing" with a mop on the backdrop. But that is about all there is to it.
The aims of Heng and his Tripitaka company are more laudable in principle than successful in practice. His idea of "constantly redefining the relationship between performers and audience" is to smilingly press-gang punters into service, either by requesting them to fend off imaginary phone calls from Ming's agent or asking them direct questions like "What is your five-year plan?" or "How much do you earn?" (The Times critic was markedly reluctant to answer the latter inquiry.) He may not recognise this strategy as coercion, but for reticent theatregoers who need to be seduced into active participation it amounts to as much.
His "contemporary theatre with a cutting edge" boils down to navel-gazing observations, albeit skilfully presented, but neither telling us anything revolutionary about cultural clashes and misconceptions nor presenting his material with quite enough virtuosity to overcome that failing. The tone of the piece falls somewhere between theatre-in-education for adults and preaching to the liberal converted.
Most tellingly, he lampoons the mentality of the anxious-to-ingratiate Oriental, but demonstrates a more subtle and insidious version of the same attitude. Heng is trying to charm us, make friends with us, through impressing us with his skills and material; his eagerness to be appreciated and approved is tangible throughout, even in showing us something of his (or Ming's) heart in a downbeat tears-of-a-clown final phase.
Journey West is currently being performed as part of BAC's "I Wish I'd Seen That" season. Personally, I wish I'd seen what Heng intended me to see, but I simply do not think he showed it to me.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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