Review: Hungry Ghosts at the MTC

15 May 2018

I’m not well-versed in theatre, so Jean Tong’s new play Hungry Ghosts with the Melbourne Theatre Company was quite a new experience for me.

The play didn’t use many props, didn’t really introduce the main characters—in fact, there were only three main actors. At the heart of the play is a Malay student in Australia, and her experiences of queerness within her Malay identity. Tong explores the protagonist’s navigation of her identity against the reactions of her parents when she leaves for Australia, and through her family’s commentaries on two major political issues: the disappearance of flight MH370, and the corruption scandal involving 1MBD—a publicly-owned development company lead by Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of money laundering.

Narratives about the two polemics, as well as the departure of the protagonist for Australia, are separated by thunderous flashes of light and electric sound. It’s a clever playwriting technique by Tong: while the viewer can tell the play has moved to a new scene, it hasn’t formally been introduced. She does well to remind the observer that there is a cross-cutting theme under all the stories.

There’s a fundamental question of loss, and how we collectively experience it. Tong strategically shows relatives of MH370 victims sobbing, demanding answers from their government, the protagonist’s family asking how on earth $900 million in public funds could just go missing, and the family talking about how their daughter had started speaking English like an Australian, and stopped returning her grandfather’s letters. The scenes illustrate the diverse ways loss divides us, the forms it can take on, and what it can entail: from demands for justice and accountability, to demands for commitment and togetherness.

Quietly, there is a discussion of the confining power of social relations. What does it mean to be alienated from the social structures you find yourself embedded in—be it a political system riled in corruption, or a family holding onto a cultural identity from which you find yourself estranged? What might social responses to corruption, mysterious disappearances and leaving one’s family have in common? A quote from Judith Butler highlights a key insight of the play: “Grief displays… the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain… that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control”.

The play is quite humorous, but overall, very sombre. It is marked by collective confusion and absurdism, and a general feeling of helplessness. I wouldn’t necessarily pick the play for the storyline, nor would I pick it for casual viewing. But it’s a fascinating work of deconstruction and left plenty of food for thought.

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