Martin Thomasson reviews the world premiere of Kimber Lee’s award-winning play at The Royal Exchange
For much of its two hour running time (no interval), Kimber Lee’s Bruntwood Prize winning, “Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play” is an anger-fuelled, sardonic rant against western cultural stereotyping of Far Eastern people (particularly women). In mitigation, there is a great deal to rant about – and the multiple Oscar successes of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” have at best merely pencilled a dotted line under those injustices.
The production divides into two halves (no interval, even so). The first part is an extended satirical sketch, deriding representations of Far Eastern culture (especially the women) in western performance art, beginning in 1904, with the premiere of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and running through to the titular (well, almost) “Miss Saigon,” premiered in 1989, but set in 1970s Vietnam (quintessentially an updating of the original Butterfly story – an innocent local girl is seduced by an American officer, who later returns not to marry her, but to take their young son back home to live with him and his new white American wife). Along the way, Lee’s script metes out the same treatment to “South Pacific” and “MAS*H” (though these require a fair amount of contortion regarding their actual plots). The comic conceit is that each is the same story, with minimal set changes and almost identical spoof dialogue. Importantly, each also culminates in the ritual suicide of the young woman; here always called ‘Kim’.
The humour is aided by having Rochelle Rose, standing at a lectern at the rim of the stage, reading ironic screen directions through a microphone (kind of like an audiobook version).
It’s funny but, for my money, increasingly less so as the repetitions pile up (and become more laboured).
There is a serious point behind all this, and the spoof takes a late tragic turn when Kim (Mei Mac), who has been the sacrificial bride throughout these skits, re-enacts in rapid succession a series of violent suicides (now more graphic, more brutal, than in the preceding bathetic mode).
Cue the second half of the production (no interval, remember), set in New York, 2022. Cue also echoes of “Everything Everywhere..” (not forgetting Nick Payne’s 2012 play, “Constellations”) – for Kim is now revealed as a desperate traveller through the multiverse.
Even though this new Kim inhabits a swish (albeit, rather beige) apartment in the Upper East Side, she’s far from happy. Her mother, Rosie (Lourdes Faberes), is preparing for an engagement party – Kim’s brother, Afi (Jeff D’Sangalang) is planning to marry blonde, white, Evelyn (Jennifer Kirby). Even the realisation that, in this reality, she is finally and properly married to the All-American boy, Clark (Tom Weston-Jones) only seems to compound rather than allay Kim’s unease. This is not a racially-integrated American Dream come true.
As Kim continues to act up, her mother delivers a diatribe against the younger generation (in particular, her daughter) for always seeking something to moan about. Rosie’s own take on life as an Asian American is plausible and moving, accepting that she and hers will always be ‘guests’, yet focusing more positively on the benefits hard work has brought and on such progress as has been made. It’s not clear to me why this monologue is delivered using the Narrator’s microphone (so that Rosie is addressing the audience, not her child). Key dramatic potency is diluted by this choice.
Unable to escape this particular reality, Kim now finds herself alone with Brenda (the actor formerly known as Narrator, Rochelle Rose). Kim decries Brenda/Narrator for having witnessed it all – all the violent deaths, all the rapes, all the thefts of all the sons – and made no move to intervene. It is unclear whether Brenda/Narrator is being addressed as omniscient being or as an African American woman. It feels like this matters (perhaps, quite a lot) but we now move on, rapidly, to the finale.
Kim ends up at the fish market, where she has two tender exchanges: one with Goro (Jeff D’Sangalang) a young Asian American fishmonger who loves her; the other with the ancient fish-packer, Cio Cio (marvellously embodied by Lourdes Faberes). This latter is tender but not all that comprehensible.
And that, as Kim tells us, is “end of motherf*cking play!”
Roy Alexander Weise’s production meticulously caters to the round (which happens too infrequently at the Exchange), and there are lovely quirks (like having stage hands occasionally play to the crowd). It’s a production powered by comic verve and righteous anger, with energy levels touching red from the start and rarely dipping right to the end.
The ever-excellent, Tayo Akinbode ensures much fun is had with the music, and Movement Director, Shelley Maxwell has this team sharp and ready for an Olympian challenge.
The cast perform unflaggingly, with Mei Mac evidencing the frustration, wit and rage that must have been bubbling in the writer’s chest for years.
Gold star of the night, though, goes to Lourdes Faberes, whose spirit fills a diverse bunch of characters with guile, empathy and utter physicality.
Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play is at The Royal Exchange Manchester as part of Manchester International Festival 2023 from 24 June to 22 July. Age Guidance 14+. The play contains haze, strobe, strong language and depictions of suicide and blood.