The latest production out of the prolific INK program at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Dan Lee and Chi Nguyen’s Flake/ Mảnh is underscored by the temptation to flee. Staged in the kitchen dining room of Bob’s long-term rental on the outskirts of Hanoi, Lee and Nguyen delicately unfold the psychology of departure through a series of encounters and interventions between Bob, Duyen and Murph, who must all confront their atomised circumstances. The three-strong ensemble is composed of Robert Menzies as Bob, an Australian-born Hanoi resident for the last fifteen years, his high school friend Murph (Joe Petruzzi) visiting on holiday, and Duyen (Phoebe Phuoc Nguyen), a young Vietnamese woman returning home from her studies in Australia.
Murph laments the “bondage of language” over beers with Bob, foregrounding a faux-philosophical discourse that the men alternatively invoke to (transparently) veil their personal shortcomings. A tourist on holiday, Murph repeats his desire to “communicate authentically” with the locals. Unable to speak Vietnamese and making little effort to learn, he instead expounds the virtues of non-lingual communication. Though Bob scoffs at Murph’s arrogance, he too reveals beneath a local sensibility an obsession with accessing cultural authenticity that imparts a Western view of the ‘East’ as mysterious and acquirable. Flake/ Mảnh is self-aware of its narrative foundations on the trope of “white ghosts” in South East Asia–white Australians in their middle to later years who reside permanently in communities not their own. The issues that arise for the white ghosts, far from family, and for the locals whose spaces they inhabit, are critically engaged by the production.
A deep sense of mortality is kicking in for Bob and Murph as they reach their late sixties. Despite the miracles of modern medicine, friends pass away unexpectedly; some look fifteen years younger than they are; others, fifteen years older. Bob’s ambivalent attitude towards the multi-generational bonsai tree gifted by his landlady blatantly metaphorises his denial of the natural aging process, which he threatens to circumvent entirely with a vial of dodgy drugs. At interval, the narrative risks becoming an aimless old boys’ catch-up. The second half rescues the depth of the story, expanding a web of motivations and circumstances leading to what first appeared to be a chance encounter. Failed fatherhood becomes the spring of dramatic tension in Flake/ Mảnh rises when, inevitably, children enter the friends’ nostalgic conversation. The playwright’s notes in the program suggests the relationship between fatherhood and fleeing in the text is an allegory for Lee’s capricious relationship to writing. The status of the writer as “father” of their text is eschewed in the theatre-making processes, which entails the expansion of the text into dramatic work assembled by many contributors. Indeed Flake/ Mảnh is co-created by Chi Nguyen, a Victorian College of the Arts graduate, and realised by a large creative team (listed below). The critical portrayal of Bob thus becomes, tangentially, a reflection on the detractions of solitary artistic practice and the benefits of theatrical collaboration.
The tensions of familial distance belie the warm yellow walls of Flake/ Mảnh’s intimate set. Bob and Murph are divided from their adult children across seas and borders; Duyen has been parted from her mother since she left Hanoi to study medicine in Australia. Mutual love and shame fuel the tragic withdrawals between parents and children, although these sentiments never wholly realised onstage. Duyen compares the fragmented family culture of nursing homes in Australia to Vietnam, where families care for the older generations in their own homes. Flake/ Mảnh is situated at an awkward mid-point between fragmentation and connection, in a space that both is and is not home for Bob and Duyen.
Robert Menzies evokes a middling empathy in the midst of Bob’s tragic failing health that aligns superbly with Bob’s unpitiable choices and attitudes which betray his masculine arrogance and embedded Orientalist notions. The play fails to garner strong emotional investment despite the performers’ fantastic portrayals. Menzies’ thick reading glasses and quivering hands are particularly convincing. Phoebe Phuoc Nguyen’s Duyen is both cunning and kind as she stages an intervention for Bob’s wellbeing whilst also negotiating her own encounters with grief, resentment and regret. She wittily undermines Bob and Murph’s pseudo-intellectual conversation, disclosing its baselessness with increasing frustration. As the two men persist in “figuring out” Hanoi with clichés veiled in originality, Duyen finally yells “Go back to where you came from,” effectively inverting a common racist discourse targeting Asian immigrants in Australia. Flake/ Mảnh’s denouement sees Bob stripped of his bravado as Duyen lays out her ultimatum. Although Duyen’s powerful exit is overweighted with symbolism, her assertion and agency redresses the imbalance of voices between the trio.
Flake/ Mảnh is showing at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in St Kilda until the 5th of November.
Writer Dan Lee
Co-Creator Chi Nguyen
Director Ella Caldwell
Set/Costume Design Jacob Battista
Lighting Design Jason Ng Junjie
Composition/Sound Design Daniel Nixon
Set Design Associate/ Scenic Painter Khue Nguyen
Dialect Coach Yuanlei (Nikki) Zhao
Dramaturg Tom Healey
Stage Manager Finn McLeish
Assistant Stage Manager Finleigh Wadsworth
Phoebe Phuoc Nguyen