Review by Oliver Wake
In 1988 a failed revolution in Burma (now Myanmar) led to thousands of deaths, lengthy prison terms and torture for dissidents, and the rise to prominence of Aung San Suu Kyi as a leader of resistance to the country’s military junta. These events were broadcast to the rest of the world – and, crucially, to other Burmese – by junior BBC World Service journalist Christopher Gunness. 25 years later he returned and was reunited with human rights lawyer U Nay Min who, under the codename ‘Eastern Star’, had been his primary contact and source amongst the dissidents during the uprising.
Written and directed by Guy Slater, Eastern Star tells the true story of their reunion. It plays for three weeks at the Tara Arts theatre in Earlsfield for what they call its world premiere, although an early version of the text was given as a benefit performance at the Cockpit last year. The play’s subject is again topical, and Tara Arts dedicate its run to the two Reuters journalists, U Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, recently jailed for seven years in Myanmar for allegedly breaching official secrets laws after reporting on the regime’s massacre of the Rohingya people.
The play gets off to a slow start with what felt like superfluous scene setting with Gunness (Michael Lumsden) and his partner Patrick (Jack Hansard) when the invitation for his return to Myanmar arrives. Things improve when we get to the substance of the play, Gunness and Nay Min’s (David Yip) first meeting for 25 years. Yip is the main attraction, giving a strong performance in a role which has him swinging at the drop of a hat between zen-like calm and outbursts of fury as he recalls his fate at the hands of the Burmese authorities (brutal torture and two eight-year prison terms, one merely for trying to contact Gunness) and his paranoid suspicions that Gunness may have betrayed him. Lumsden is at his best in his moments of shock, guilt, and despair at his former ally’s suspicions and on learning of his treatment.
Julie Cheung-Inhin as Maya Tun Aung provides the perspective of the young ‘Millennial’ Myanmarese, trying to make their way in the world, but gets little to do. Cheung-Inhin makes the most of a weak part, seemingly included largely to give Nay Min an outlet for his exposition when Gunness is absent, and it’s a shame the role couldn’t have been expanded. Much the same can be said of Patrick, though in his case it’s hard to imagine what else could be done with the character, whereas Maya has greater potential.
With its small cast, minimal set and lack of physical action (it would make a good radio play), the play suits the tiny – let’s say intimate – Tara Arts theatre. That said, a little more space should perhaps be allocated for the set. It was frustrating for those of us in the front rows to be almost on the set itself and at times I felt uncomfortably close to an actor giving it his all with his back practically in my face in the opening and closing scenes.
Regrettably, it seems the cast hadn’t had quite enough rehearsal by press night, with both Yip and Lumsden requiring off-stage prompts on one occasion each. No doubt that’ll improve with the following performances but it is a shame for it to happen at all as it had the effect of catapulting the audience right back from Myanmar to SW18.
Pre-publicity for the play promised that it “examines the responsibility of global news corporations towards their sources, touching on the theme of news manipulation and fake news. The piece shines a light on what happens when a journalist walks away from the subject of their story. At its heart, the play questions who writes history – the activist or the journalist?” These are all interesting themes and questions but most of them are touched on disappointingly lightly. There’s an amusing moment of bemused irritation from Gunness as he learns 25 years too late that the news Nay Min was feeding him, and which he had faithfully broadcast, was sometimes deliberately inaccurate. But it is only one moment and I would have liked more discussion of the journalist’s role in propagating propaganda and the use of ‘fake news’ if you’ll excuse a horrible expression. Gunness undergoes plenty of soul-searching and hand-wringing over his role in Nay Min’s incarceration but that final question – “who writes history – the activist or the journalist?” – is left tantalisingly unexplored. Given its brevity, at 75 minutes, it’s a shame the play couldn’t have found time for more discussion of these fascinating themes.
Eastern Star is intriguing and for the most part engaging discourse around the intersection of journalism and dissidence but, despite its revision since last year, it still feels like work-in-progress in places. With the tightening of some longueurs and perhaps the expansion of the core scenes to further tease out its themes, this could be excellent.
Eastern Star is on until 29 September https://www.tara-arts.com/whats-on/eastern-star