Haunted by Burma’s past, a new voice explores its struggle for reconciliation – SMH – 17 Aug.11 (John Buencamino in a play at the New Theatre)


AMID Burma’s monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007, the country’s military rulers began offering prisoners their freedom.

It was not an attempt to pacify the regime’s critics, for release came at a price. The prisoners had to agree to shave their heads, dress in robes and spy on the real monks.

That was just one of the dirty tricks by which the military spread suspicion and reasserted its iron grip, says playwright Katie Pollock.

”You never know who is watching, who is on your side, who is talking behind your back,” Pollock says. ”That’s how that government operates.”

As the uprising began, Pollock was gripped by the unfolding events wondering whether – finally – the brutal regime might topple.

”I was listening to the news, reading about it and trying to imagine what it would be like being in the situation,” she says. ”Everyone was very hopeful at that time that something would change.”

Change seemed a possibility, at least briefly. Her play, A Quiet Night in Rangoon, is set during the uprising when hope still flickered that two decades of tyranny might end.

Pollock has long been interested in Burma. She spent three years in Thailand in the early 1990s – when memories of the 1988 crackdown were fresh. Her American housemate was involved with refugees on the Thai-Burma border and at times provided shelter.

But Pollock has never visited Burma. She chose not to after the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a travel boycott.

”They [the National League for Democracy] didn’t feel it was helpful,” she says. ”And it’s really only been in the past year since Suu Kyi was released from house arrest that they’ve relaxed that advisory. ”

In her play, an Australian journalist arrives in 2007 intending to write a fluffy travel story when she is swept up in the drama. The play interweaves personal and political stories, including that of a young Buddhist monk and a veteran of the 1988 struggle.

”[I wanted to explore] how to reconcile yourself with what has happened in your past. That may be nothing you have done, it might be something your society or family has done,” she says.

The play includes two non-human characters, including the internet, which takes it out of the realm of naturalism.

”The net is important in terms of conveying information but also disinformation and how we as a culture deal with that,” she says.

With only one Western character, director Paul Gilchrist has used non-Anglo actors – and proved wrong the naysayers who said casting would be problematic.

”We did get some negativity in some circles that we wouldn’t be able to cast decent Asian actors, which is a bit sad – and it isn’t true,” Gilchrist says.

As co-founder of independent theatre company subtlenuance, which stages new Australian work, Gilchrist says the play appealed to him because it transcends naturalism and raises serious questions. Although set in Burma, its themes are universal.

”It doesn’t give simple solutions,” he says. ”How we deal with politics and with personal ethics, there’s a big tension. It gives dignity to the characters, they make mistakes. It’s not a quaint bit of orientalism.”

While recent debate has focused on the lack of plays by women, Pollock suspects that assumptions about ”appropriate” themes for women playwrights have gone unchallenged.

”The women’s playwright issue is really a problem, but subject matter is a lot more insidious,” she says. ”You should not be scared of writing the stories that are important to you. As a person out there in the world engaging with political stories in our living culture why would that not be something you’d choose to write about?”

A Quiet Night in Rangoon opens at New Theatre, King Street, Newtown, tomorrow.

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