Finborough Theatre, London (****)
Amy Ng’s impressive debut play takes us deep into the heart of one of the most hidden but pressing issues of our day. Cultural tourism. How many of us have indulged, wandering off beaten tracks, following dreams to find what we thought might be the ultimate destination: a Shangri-La?
When I was coming of age in the 1960s, Shangri-La, the road to Nirvana, and Tibet were all the rage for the young, part of the hippie and guru trail. I never quite made it to Shangri-La although I did reach that other nirvana, Machu Picchu in Peru. And the highest lake in the world, Lake Titicaca.
What did I expect to find? Perhaps it was the journey that mattered more than the destination. But did I ever stop to think of the impact I was making on the indigenous environment? I doubt it.
For Ng’s American traveller, Sylvia (a convincing Rosie Thomson), her search is about rekindling a burnt out marriage by finding strange Tibetan rituals. Later Thomson reappears as Hope Leahy, an adventuring Irish photographer who in encouraging a young village girl, Bunny’s interest in photography, produces an outcome only revealed in the play’s final moments.
On the way there, Ng throws several elements into the melting pot: China’s takeover of Tibet, its corrosive effect on its people; sustainable tourism and its own pitfalls; most of all, survival and the compromises required.
Ng writes amusingly about balancing western naivety against local pragmatism and the `authentic’ but too often, time sequences and flash-backs confuse and come over-loaded with polemic.
Nonetheless Charlotte Westenra’s beautifully cast production makes the very most of the Finborough’s slender resources and succeeds in transporting us so that you can almost imagine being in villages above the tree-line and on the cusp of witnessing traditions that should probably remain unseen.
In the end, Shangri-La is actually very modern in the sense of Ng constructing a political parable about Tibet and China that is also about breaking taboos in order to move forward – a progress that will ultimately demand a heavy price.
Be careful what you wish for! It could cost you dearly.
Shangri-La ran at the Finborough Theatre to Aug 6, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Aug 2016