REVIEW: 'A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars'
The show’s writer and (sole) performer Tabitha Woo describes her Verge festival play A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars as a mix of documentary and historical theatre piece. As you experience this intimate production it becomes apparent that it’s more than just that. In A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars, Woo has managed to create a multi-genre monologue which is at once comedically self aware, historically intriguing and poignant memoir.
It’s not a long production. Clocking in at little over half an hour, Woo uses the Cellar Theatre to create an intimate connection between herself as player and her audience. The space is decorated with nice little touches, from paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling to an omni-present and borderless map of the world. This theme of borders is one that Woo returns to throughout the show, from the economic borders constructed between the British and Chinese Empires (leading to the Opium Wars of the play’s title) to the language borders which affect Woo’s relationship with her Chinese past.
Woo’s production also engages with Western failures to properly engage with China and East Asian cultures, most pointedly in a scene where Woo (as Queen Victoria) dances and sings along to ‘It’s a Puzzlement’ from the musical The King and I. This isn’t the only time that Woo samples music from classic musicals, and in doing so she speaks to our own shared heritage as people living within a Western nation.
It’s scenes like this that point to Woo’s ambition with this project. She brings together genres to create a highly personal story, speaking at once to the story of the Opium Wars, her own Chinese connections and the loss of family narrative. In one of the more poignant moments of A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars, Woo relates the story of her grandfather and the way in which this family story was revealed to her.
A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars is a personal story, but it’s one that Woo invites the audience to partake in. That the story is personal allows it to develop its own personality - allowing Woo to indulge in a variety of genres within her short runtime. It makes for a unique experience, and most definitely an enjoyable one.