Saigon brings ex­iles' loss and long­ing to the stage

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Ahugely mov­ing de­but drama about ex­ile set in a Viet­namese restau­rant has be­come a sur­prise hit at the world's big­gest the­atre fes­ti­val, with stand­ing ova­tions every night and the au­di­ence in tears. "Saigon" by Caro­line Guiela Nguyen-whose fam­ily fled what is now Ho Chi Minh City in 1956 -- has been hailed for shin­ing a light on the suf­fer­ing and sac­ri­fice of Viet­namese emi­gres, whose fate has long been en­veloped in si­lence in the United States and France.

De­spite play­ing in a small venue at the Avignon Fes­ti­val in south­ern France, the near four-hour fam­ily saga has had crit­ics reach­ing both for su­perla­tives and their hand­ker­chiefs. "This is a play like no other," the French daily Le Monde said, com­par­ing its bit­ter-sweet melan­cholic nos­tal­gia to Wong Kar-wai's clas­sic film "In the Mood for Love". "The play ends with the line, 'This is the way we tell sto­ries in Viet­nam; with lots of tears.' Well, we love these tears that French the­atre has been so long de­prived of," it added.

"Saigon" tells the story of the heart­break and long­ing of Viet­namese who were torn be­tween France and their home­land when French colo­nial rule col­lapsed in the wake of mil­i­tary hu­mil­i­a­tion at the hands of the na­tion­al­ists and com­mu­nists of the Viet Minh at the Bat­tle of Dien Bien Phu. "The play is framed by two dates -- 1956 and 1996," Nguyen said.

For­eign Viet­namese

"1956 was when the last of the French sol­diers and colonists left Viet­nam. But many Viet­namese who had French na­tion­al­ity left with them (be­low decks in steer­age). They were called the 'Viet kieu', lit­er­ally the for­eign Viet­namese," she said. They would not be al­lowed back for an­other 40 years, hav­ing to wait un­til 1996 when the US lifted its em­bargo against Hanoi. When the teenage Nguyen went back a few years later with her mother she be­gan to see the depth of her loss.

Bar­gain­ing with some fruit sell­ers in a Ho Chi Minh City mar­ket, the women could not stop laugh­ing at the quaint way her mother spoke. Her Viet­namese no longer ex­isted, a relic of an all but for­got­ten past. Like every one of her 17 cousins who grew up France, Nguyen does not speak Viet­namese. "Our par­ents so wanted to in­te­grate that teach­ing their chil­dren Viet­namese was for them go­ing back­wards. They were afraid it would hold up our French." She re­mem­bers the di­vi­sions in her own ex­tended fam­ily about whether to re­turn or not. "Some of my aunts and un­cles never wanted to go back, while oth­ers longed to end their days there."

Haunted by lost world

Nguyen, who spent two years fly­ing back and forth to Viet­nam gath­er­ing sto­ries, in­sisted that her own fam­ily his­tory was "only a start­ing point" for her play. "We gath­ered testimony but also sounds, im­ages and at­mos­phere, and from all that our fic­tion was born." The play takes place in a Viet­namese restau­rant in Paris in 1996. Some of the 11 ac­tors speak Viet­namese and oth­ers French. All are haunted by a world that no longer ex­ists.

Grow­ing up, Nyu­gen said she was al­ways aware of the gulf be­tween Viet­namese par­ents and their chil­dren. Later while re­search­ing the play a Viet­namese-born mother told her, "My son is my Num­ber One for­eigner." Like the dou­ble agent hero of last year's Pulitzer prize-win­ning novel "The Sym­pa­thizer" whose fa­ther was a French mis­sion­ary priest-Nguyen's char­ac­ters are caught be­tween cul­tures, be­tween pity and sus­pi­cion.

Un­like that scorch­ingly bril­liant satire by her name­sake Viet Thanh Nguyen, her sub­tle, el­lip­ti­cal script es­chews politics, even though her own fam­ily is al­most a case study of French col­o­niza­tion in Asia. One of her mother's par­ents was Viet­namese, the other from Pondicherry, a for­mer French out­post in south­ern In­dia. Her fa­ther's side are "pieds noirs", French colonists in Al­ge­ria. "Clearly the ques­tion of col­o­niza­tion is al­ways there, but to stop there would be a bit lame," Nguyen said. "What in­ter­ested me was to look at peo­ple whose fates have been de­cided by col­o­niza­tion, to see what it left in their bod­ies and in their hearts."

(From L) French ac­tors Cyril An­rep, Lau­rent Joly, Va­lerie Keru­zore and Martin Seve per­form dur­ing a re­hearsal of the play ‘L’im­par­fait’, by French di­rec­tor Olivier Balazuc, at the ‘Chapelle des Pen­i­tents Blancs’ in Avignon, dur­ing 71st Avignon in­ter­na­tional the­atre fes­ti­val. — AFP photos

French ac­tors Thomas Ju­bert, left, and Martin Seve per­form dur­ing a re­hearsal of the play ‘L’im­par­fait’, by French di­rec­tor Olivier Balazuc, at the ‘Chapelle des Pen­i­tents Blancs.’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.