Smoking With Grandma

Sun 6th – Tue 15th August 2017

reviews

Anna Ley

at 14:08 on 16th Aug 2017

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Speaking volumes in its silence, the alarmingly quiet ‘Smoking with Grandma’ is a movingly minimalist play. Probing the concept of home, breaking and rebuilding the idea of belonging, ThreeWoods Playwright’s piece forces its audience to reconsider the refugee at a time of tragic resonance. Maia (Katherine Leung Ki Kwan) explores the story of her grandmothers flee of Chinese occupation to the haven of Tiu Keng and as this tiny island disappears off the map, so too does the connection to one’s community. Reading Grandma’s diary entries alongside Maia creates an imaginatively intimate piece, set in a tiny venue with a minuscule audience, it is therefore left to be questioned why a closer connection with the actors was not built.

Lit solely by an unnerving white light that catches the sockets of Grandma’s mask of anonymity, the face of thousands of other refugees similarly suffering, ThreeWeeds playwright’s feverishly hollow set is haunting. Mirroring the ballerina of Grandma’s music box, who ‘lost in her own little world’, this intriguingly intimate piece physically isolates its audience, leaving them imagining ‘what was there on the other side of the sea’ as Maia’s refugee Grandma did.

Specifically strong was the emphasis of props. Seemingly simple yet strikingly symbolic, the minimalism magnifies the lack of significance given to such a crisis exterior to the artistic platforms. Maia’s movements play out the significance of the props from the isolated ballerina to a free bird, cleverly mimicked by the claustrophobia of a small studio against the unconfined movements of Katherine Leung Ki Kwan. Through the discomfort of the tiny audience and jarred relationship with the actors, the audience feels totally disconnected, left yearning to smoke with Grandma so as not to ‘feel alone’. The audience are too are caught within the bubble of the ballerina, the suspended hope of the refugee’s isolated optimism but, like the dissipation of smoke, such hope soon diminishes.

Enriched by a chorus of voices and native music, ThreeWoods Playrwright portrays the pulse of the forgotten. As their hope for safety struggles, our yearning for resolution too dissolves. While they are suspended in hope, the audience is suspended in surrealism, too consumed by the smoke of Maia’s Grandma’s cigarette to make any clarity out of such a plot. Cuttingly confusing, ‘Smoking with Grandma’ is a deliberately disorientating depiction of home, leaving an audience as uncertain as refugees were of their own futures. Unpicking the ostracised other, it is a poignant and probing piece of theatre in today’s age and with some polishing, holds the potential to push the boundaries of selfhood.

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Nina Attridge

at 20:16 on 16th Aug 2017

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‘Smoking With Grandma’ is a puzzling and complex medley of spoken word, music, dance and theatre- but is not to be confused with its all-singing all-dancing brothers and sisters at the Fringe.

‘Smoking With Grandma’ is quiet, it is still, it is confusing. The identity of the white-masked ‘woman’ is unclear throughout the performance. However, once your belief was suitably suspended the silent movement and dance became a visual respite from the stillness and intensity of the monologues performed by Katherine Leung Ki Kwan as Maia Lee. The slow-burning first half made me lose all optimism for the progression of the performance, but hope was reignited as a disjointed narrative came together with the gradual clarification of the context of the story. Multiple mediums were employed to tell the plight of Taiwanese refugees fleeing Chinese occupation to find safety in Tiu Keng Leng in Hong Kong. Props, some of which relevant, some less so: were central to the expression of emotion. The pipe, journal and lamp all held clear importance to the staging and the story. The flowers- to which the masked ‘woman’ (Angel SY Chan) spent the bulk of the first half attending- seemed little more than a way to bring colour and something ‘pretty’ to the staging. Projections of videos on the walls and ceilings made the cast feel bigger and more powerful, and the constant presence of audio clips and music kept the sometimes slow monologues from becoming tedious.

The concept of belonging, and the meaning of being ‘home’ were, on the other hand, more satisfying. References to travel, by air and sea, were prevalent: bringing to the grateful room a metaphor we could all understand against the backdrop of complex Sino-Taiwanese political relations. An all-female cast, writer and director (Cathy SK Lam) is also a welcome sight. There is in my eyes; always credit for the women sharing new perspectives to the depleted female view of history.

Some elements of the production lacked context- the biblical quote at the end, the flowers, the aforementioned purpose of the masked woman in the story. However, this ambiguity often created a yearning for more information rather than total disrepute of their relevance.

It was undeniably well-executed, captivating and told a complex story with some relatable aspects. However, the sad fact remains that this Taiwanese group unfortunately failed to meet a Western audience halfway. It was sometimes too abstract and too subtle, though this did not detract from appreciation of or interest in the work, it did, sadly, detract from its enjoyment.

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