Review: A Westerner’s Guide To The Opium Wars (Thirty Five Square Theatre)

Venue: M2 Gallery (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 25 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Tabitha Woo
Director: Kevin Ng
Cast: Tabitha Woo

Theatre review
In Tabitha Woo’s mostly autobiographical work A Westerner’s Guide To The Opium Wars, it is not the historical event in China mid-1800’s that takes our focus. The conflict between East and West that Woo is concerned with, is a personal one. Being of both Asian and European heritage, Woo’s understanding of her own Australian identity can be a complicated one, shaped by our society’s persistent rejection of affiliations with neighbouring cultures.

As Woo traces her lineal descent, through Tasmania, Malaysia and China, we begin to gain a greater understanding of our collective character as a singular yet diverse nation. We think about the meanings of migration, and the tension between having to leave behind that which is unsatisfactory, and the need to remember where we come from. In the construction of new identities as we flee from one place to another, a deliberate renunciation occurs, of things and memories best left behind, but the nature of time requires that we return eventually, usually momentarily, for a more honest evaluation of states of being.

The show is often fascinating in the way it uncovers decades and centuries of information behind Woo’s smiling exterior. Its juxtapositions of cultural influences from all over the world makes for a rich experience, although transitions between the theatrical forms it explores, could be handled more imaginatively. As performer, Woo makes up for her reticent presence with clarity of thought and intention, always ensuring that our understanding of her work is accurate and comprehensive.

Each person carries with them, ghosts from generations past, yet we can only regard our acquaintances with a sense of egalitarian homogeneity. We have no choice but to make assumptions of uniformity in how we deal with the world, but in relation to the self, a thorough authenticity is necessary or existence can turn unbearable. How a person wakes up every morning, depends on how much they respect the mind and body that is being nourished. The better we know ourselves, whether as individuals or as communities, the better a life we can create.