Monday, 1 June 2020

British People: The Uncertain Kingdom

My short film, British People, is out now in Volume 1 of The Uncertain Kingdom anthology on BFIPlayer, iTunes, Amazon Prime, Curzon Home Cinema and Google Play.  

Jennifer Lim as Jane (Still: Edward Lui)
The film was commissioned from over 1100 submissions for The Uncertain Kingdom, a fast-response project of 20 short films, chronicling the UK in 2019 – pre COVID-19, but spookily prefiguring many of the themes and inequalities that have emerged in the pandemic.  

The central characters, however, had lived with me since 2018, when I was commissioned by Chinese Arts Now (CAN) to write a site-specific live audio drama, Citizens of Nowhere?, for première at London’s Southbank Centre, as part of SBC’s China Changing Festival. The premise was that the three actors (Jennifer Lim, Siu Hun Li, and Pik-Sen Lim) mingled with customers in a café, with the audience “eavesdropping” through earphones on their apparently private drama.  

The aim was to explore British Chinese identity in the UK today, and as I am half Chinese (my late father was born in Shanghai, mum was Welsh), I decided to interview a few other people, to canvass opinion and compare experiences. One of my interviewees was actor Siu Hun, on whom I based the character of Jun Chi in the play; his Scots Chinese background, with its many layers of identity, was the inspiration for the Edinburgh roots of the Lo family: Jun, mother Linda, and sister, Jane.

Pik-Sen Lim as Linda & Siu Hun Li as Jun
(Still: Edward Lui)
The play was written quickly in August 2018. At the forefront of my mind at the time was the Brexit vote and Prime Minister Theresa May’s now infamous dismissal of cosmopolitans as “citizens of nowhere”. What did that say to people like me, who were born with multiple identities, who had grown up in a Britain that was “European” or at least part of the EU (with all the opportunities that afforded my generation), and who lived in multi-cultural cities like London? Were we to be censured for embodying diversity and internationalism?

The audio drama, which also played at Duddell's Restaurant in London Bridge in January 2019 and the Edinburgh Fringe that August, told three interwoven stories of the Lo family: actor Jun, frustrated to be typecast in stereotypical “Oriental” roles and planning his wedding to Dutch fiancée Marit; sister Jane, a successful businesswoman, announcing her intention to stand for selection as a Tory by-election candidate; and mother Linda, a first generation immigrant, contemplating her future as a retired divorcée.

(Still: Edward Lui)
Chi Thai, producer of British People, came to see the show at Duddell’s, and asked me if there might be the germ of a idea for a short film that we could submit to The Uncertain Kingdom, as she was keen to see some representation for British East Asian artists in that project. Time was tight – she approached me on a Thursday and the pitch had to be in on Sunday! – but we managed to put a package together. The next hurdle was a first draft script (again written in just a few days), and finally an interview with the Executive Producers, John Jencks, Georgia Goggin, and Isabel Freer. Director Lab Ky Mo was the third member of our team, and we were delighted to be commissioned in April 2019. It was then down to me to get the script into shape by the shoot in August.  

Obviously, it’s not possible to condense a 45’ audio drama into a film of 15 minutes or less. We had to find one central narrative that allowed us to explore the key themes. By then, the Brexit situation had moved on; nationalist ideas, bound up with English exceptionalism and WW2 nostalgia, had become even more ingrained in British politics, crystallising division between Leavers and Remainers.

I decided to focus on the journey of aspirational Jane, on the evening of her local Conservative Association hustings to be selected as the party’s by-election candidate.  Little did we know that we would be facing another General Election within months that would change the political landscape still further! 

A lighter moment on set...
The character of Jane had in part been inspired by the story of Alan Mak, Conservative MP for Havant in Hampshire, who was at the time of writing the only MP of Chinese heritage and asserted on his election that he was “not here to represent the British Chinese community” - which seemed to me an interesting provocation for drama… 

There’s a perception that BAME voters lean more naturally toward socialism (as does Jane’s brother, Jun), but Conservative values of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism can be very appealing to first- and second-generation immigrants, ambitious to carve a place for themselves and their families from humble beginnings. This is the dichotomy we examine, through the conflict between Jane and Jun.  

Along the way, we considered the form of the film, and whether we could make it more intrinsically visual and further removed from the play; but ultimately we decided to embrace its dialogue-based origins, which had won us the commission. Across the 20 films in The Uncertain Kingdom anthology, there is a huge range of style and form, encompassing both documentary and fiction. Our film had been pitched as a tightly structured debate of ideas and family loyalties, centred on the characters and performance; to unpick that would be to go in search of a different film…

Since we wrapped shooting last summer, Sarah Owen has been elected Labour MP for Luton North - the first British Chinese woman MP. However, politicians of South Asian heritage have become notably more visible in the Conservative Party, with Cabinet posts for Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, and Alok Sharma – all of whom have espoused a hard right agenda (arguably a precondition of their advancement in a Vote Leave government).

It would be easy for those who disagree with this political stance to question the motives of BAME figures who seem to be pulling up the drawbridge behind them, but these beliefs, as much as the contrary, can be sincerely held, and I wanted to explore the psychology and personal landscape behind them. 

Immediately after we shot the film, the actors resumed their roles in the play, when that transferred to the Edinburgh Fringe – quite a challenge for them to keep the different versions in their heads! 

Now we’re all in lockdown in our respective homes, wondering how we can resume work as creatives, when social distancing is the antithesis of performing and film-making. The planned cinema release of The Uncertain Kingdom, including première at BFI Southbank, has had to be cancelled, due to the pandemic; and the origins of COVID-19 have thrown an unfortunate spotlight on East Asians that has given some people an excuse for prejudice and hate crime. The issues in our film are more pertinent than ever. 

The wrap in August 2019

(Want to know more? Listen to a Vimeo cast and crew discussion with director Lab Ky Mo, Jennifer Lim, Siu Hun Li, and me, and a Q&A with Executive Producer, Georgia Goggin on YouTube...)

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Twenty-Four Hours Released on YouTube

My new short film for LAMDATwenty-Four Hours, was released on YouTube on 21 June 2019. Directed by A.J. Quinn, with score by Simon Slater, it features graduating actors Scarlett Courtney, Joe McNamara, Sanda Bourenane, Chloe McClay and Charlie MacVicar. 

London Blitz, 1940: nightclub singer Violet prepares to marry RAF airman, George.  His 24-hour leave proves a day of reckoning for them and their friends...

Friday, 2 November 2018

Twenty-Four Hours

Filming wrapped last week on my new short film for LAMDA, Twenty-Four Hours.  Set in the London Blitz of 1940, it showcases FdA course students graduating in summer 2019.

RAF wireless operator George and his superior officer, Laurence, are on 24-hour leave. It's the day of George's wedding to aspiring singer, Violet, with Laurence as last minute Best Man.  But Violet's bridesmaid and cabaret colleague, Mariette, has another appointment that day that brings her into contact with Laurence's sometime girlfriend, the upper-class Dinah; and when Dinah reveals controversial leanings at the wedding reception, Violet breaches convention to stand up for her beliefs...

When these twenty-four hours may be your last, who are your allies…?

Directed by A.J. Quinn, with music by Simon Slater, Twenty-Four Hours will première at the Sainsbury Theatre, LAMDA on 19 June 2019 and will then be available on LAMDA's YouTube channel.  

Meanwhile, here's a sneak preview of the cast, waiting to be called onto set... 

Scarlett Courtney as Violet
Sanda Bourenane as Mariette
Chloe McClay as Dinah
Charlie MacVicar as Laurence and Joe McNamara as George
Me, with Joe McNamara and Charlie MacVicar

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Citizens of Nowhere?

This summer I was commissioned by Chinese Arts Now to write a site-specific live audio drama for London Southbank Centre’s China Changing Festival, exploring British Chinese identity.  

In rehearsal: Siu Hun Li, Pik-Sen Lim, Jennifer Lim
(Photo: Ikin Yum)
Directed by David Jiang, the show was tailored for the Concrete Café at the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall – a wide-open space in the concert hall’s foyer, with busy through traffic and challenging acoustics.  The technical premise was that the actors would be seated among the audience in the café, with ticket-holders listening into their conversation via headphones, as if eavesdropping on fellow customers.  

This audio concept had been premièred by Beijing 707N Theatre (a partner organisation of CAN), at Shanghai Xintiandi Festival in 2016; but while it was novel enough to attract an audience, I knew that to hold attention for the 45 minutes it would play in real time in a public setting with many distractions the content had to be strong in narrative and emotional involvement.  My brief was for a play with three characters, to run no longer than 45 minutes; other than that, I had carte blanche to create an entirely new script, storyline, and characters for the UK context. 

Siu Hun Li & Jennifer Lim (Photo: Ikin Yum)
As I’m mixed race myself (my late father was born in Shanghai and came to the UK in 1957; mum is Welsh) I was able to draw on personal experience, but also wanted to canvass others for their real-life stories and opinions to avoid cliché.  So, during July, CAN’s Artistic Director An-Ting Chang and I conducted interviews with a number of people from the British-Chinese community, which became our source material.  One of the interviewees was Scots Chinese actor, Siu Hun Li, whom we later cast as a character inspired by his own story!

Jennifer Lim (Photo: Ikin Yum)
The catalyst for the title, Citizens of Nowhere?, was Prime Minister Theresa May’s controversial 2016 Conservative Party Conference speech, in which she contended that those who believe themselves “citizens of the world” are “citizens of nowhere”, with no roots and no allegiance. Our play was commissioned to reflect its setting in the tourist heart of multi-cultural London, arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world, and one which had resoundingly voted to Remain in the European Union in the Referendum of 2016.  As a Londoner myself, who has grown up with multiple cultural identities, my starting point was to think about the characters we might encounter in this café on the Southbank on the eve of the rupture of Brexit – who could they be, where did they come from, why were they here, where did they feel they “belonged”?  And what would this emotionally-charged point in time mean for them?

I decided on a mother, Linda Lo, arriving for a rendezvous with her son, Jun Chi, and daughter, Jane.  A first generation immigrant in childhood, Linda is divorced from her children's father, with whom she had spent 40 years building up a successful chain of restaurants, and now has an announcement to make; but actor Jun Chi is mystified by her refusal to engage with plans for his upcoming wedding to Dutch fiancée, Marit, while his businesswoman sister, Jane, has big news of her own...

Pik-Sen Lim (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Schedule for the work was tight, with the script written in August and in rehearsal by early September.  Siu Hun was joined in the cast by Pik-Sen Lim, playing his fictional mother, Linda, and Jennifer Lim as ambitious Jane.  We were lucky to be able to rehearse from the beginning in the Concrete Café for half the time, so that the actors could get a feel for the performance space and its particular challenges.  For instance, on the day of our dress rehearsal we were unexpectedly joined by a large party of school children, attending a Schools National Poetry Day Live event.  Not only did this mean we had to move our rehearsal to a different part of the venue and compete with the sound of their performance, but the loos were closed to adults for the whole afternoon for safeguarding reasons - a good test of concentration…

In rehearsal, we experimented with different types of audio tech, at one point aiming to offer audience the option of listening via their own smartphones on an internet connection, but this proved too risky; we decided on a more stable radio mic system, using tour-guide headsets.  

Excited to see our listing on the billboard outside
a windy Southbank Centre!
The script was fine-tuned, not least to allow for entrances and exits in the café to be timed in real distance, with the performance style as naturalistic as possible: the audience would be able to see the actors among them, but to those outside the ticketed space, the drama would be imperceptible – just a normal afternoon in the café.  The acoustics were such that dialogue was not audible without headphones, while for those equipped with head-sets it was a surprisingly intimate experience.  

This Instagram photo (taken from the audience by Daniel York) gives an idea of how the show appeared in performance.  The actors are the three people in the middle of the shot (Pik-Sen Lim with her back to camera; Jennifer Lim with ponytail, left; Siu Hun Li with beard, right.)  The audience inside the black ribbon cordon and with their backs to us are listening via headphones; people outside the cordon by the window are going about their own business, oblivious.  

Siu Hun Li & me
With only four performances over two days (6 & 7 October 2018) during the China Changing Festival, adrenaline was running high.  In addition to producing the play, An-Ting also assisted director David Jiang and played a waitress who serves the characters with “champagne”, whose pop she engineered for each performance with chemical expertise!  Along the way, the cast coped with distractions including the late running of a concert in the main auditorium, which disgorged its audience of hundreds into the foyer ten minutes into the start of our show.  

We were delighted to find the show sold out and received positive feedback, with many audience members recognising their own experience in the story of familial conflict and identity crisis – with, thankfully, a few laughs along the way! 

Our time at the Southbank was over all too soon, but we look forward to reviving the show at Duddell's restaurant, London Bridge, for Chinese Arts Now's own inaugural festival (#CANFestival2019) in January 2019, and at Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham on 4 February 2019.  Meanwhile, this review gives a flavour of the piece.  

Update: we sold out all performances at Duddell's, but you can read more about the production there in this interview for Cathay Pacific Discovery Magazine and a review. The show also played to acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2019. Reviews here: Exeunt MagazineThe Student NewspaperThe Skinny.

Photo: David Hepburn

Monday, 19 March 2018

Schlaf Nicht Première at Curzon Soho

Schlaf Nicht screens at Curzon Soho on Thursday, 22 March 2018, as part of LAMDA Film Premiéres - four professionally written and directed short films, showcasing LAMDA FdA students graduating this year.

It's directed by A.J. Quinn, with cast Lili Miller, Shelby Flannery, Andrew Laithwaite, Joseph Whitworth, and Lion-Russell Baumann.  

Watch the trailer and the full (18') film on YouTube.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Three: West Yorkshire Playhouse

Enjoyed working with West Yorkshire Playhouse on Three, a trilogy of short plays co-created with people living with dementia, for Every Third Minute, a Festival of Theatre, Dementia and Hope.

My play, 'Hamari Yaadain (Our Memories)' was co-created with members of the Touchstone Hamari Yaadain Memory Café in Harehills - a group providing support for people living with dementia and carers from South Asian communities in Leeds.

The cast for all three plays is Susan Cookson (BBC Casualty), Jem Dobbs, Manish Gandhi, and Balvinder Sopal (Call the Midwife). Directed by Alex Ferris, Three includes live music from singer-songwriter Fran Wyburn, and is stage managed by Leann Young; it premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse on 9 March and will tour care homes and community venues in Leeds until 24 March 2018. 

The producer is Martha Rose Wilson, and the tour is co-ordinated by Maggie De Ruyck. The Every Third Minute Festival was curated by Nicky Taylor and a panel of people at West Yorkshire Playhouse living with dementia. 

Hamari Yaadain (Our Memories)
 Cast (L to R): Susan Cookson, Manish Gandhi, Balvinder Sopal, Jem Dobbs
Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse 
Members of the Hamari Yaadain Memory Café

Before the show...
... and after, me with two of the Hamari Yaadain ladies

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Riot Girls: Male Order

Riot Girls: Male Order goes out on BBC Radio 4 at 2.15pm on Tuesday, 20 February 2018, and will be available on iPlayer for 30 days thereafter.

Part of Radio 4's Riot Girls season, exploring transgressive behaviour by women, it's a comedy drama with cast including Belinda Lang (2 Point 4 Children, Second Thoughts), Lino Facioli (Game of Thrones), and Carolyn Pickles (Broadchurch, Vera).

59-year-old dentist Barbara (Belinda Lang) has been arrested; the victim of her alleged crime is 20-year-old Brazilian waiter, Fabio (Lino Facioli) – her new husband…