“This is how we tell stories in Vietnam – with lots of tears.”
Paris, 1996. The play opens in a Vietnamese restaurant run by Marie Antoinette and her niece Lam. The restaurant has a warm, homely vibe, and is clearly loved by the regular clientele who frequent the spot for the interactions with each other as much as for the connection to Vietnam. We meet a number of central characters within the first scene: the restaurant owners Marie Antoinette and Lam, Antoine, a young French man, his Vietnamese mother Linh, and her friend Hao. At the end of their meal Antoine attempts to pay for his table, but Linh, in classic Asian mum fashion, does not allow it. For such a simple premise, this turns out to be a loaded scene which gently introduces many of the themes that will be explored over the next two and a half hours: cultural contrasts, family values, personal histories, political realities, trauma and grief, language, belonging, connection and distance.
SAIGON is performed in Vietnamese and French (with English surtitles). The languages of the work are a powerful expression of what is at the heart of this play: the idea of lived experiences and the nuance and complexity of perspectives. The play frequently switches between Vietnamese and French, between Paris in 1996 and Saigon in 1956, between the perspectives of locals and expats, both in Vietnam and in France. There are also regular shifts in focus between all the characters, fleshing out all their stories and timelines which are interwoven with each other. Even when the individual stories appear to be separate and unconnected to the stories of the other characters, they share a deep emotional vibe, shaped by the overarching political and historical events of the time. The events in the play do not unfold in linearity of timelines – they unfold instead in a masterfully presented emotional chronology of sorts, where each story is told in parts that build towards their emotional peak, no matter where that peak lay between 1956 and 1996.
SAIGON is an epic work that spans practically the entire spectrum of the human emotional experience. From romantic love to parental/familial relationships, from friendship to neighbourly help, from colonial occupation and systemic racism to individual instances of toxicity and abuse, from collective grief and loss to individual resilience, the play not only touches upon a wide variety of topics but does justice to them all. It is simultaneously incisive, enlightening, and healing in its treatment of its subject matter. The stories within this play are told with lots of tears, but also with laughter, wonder, poignancy, and reflection. Every word and movement in this work resounds with authenticity. There is deep impact in not only the contrast between Vietnamese and French experience and expression, but also in the contrast between the experiences of the “Viet Kieu” (Vietnamese foreigners) and the Vietnamese who stayed in Vietnam.
There is hardly a scene in this play that does not tug at the heartstrings. Whether it is Marie Antoinette’s grief over her missing son, a translator, whom she learns much later was unnecessarily killed in a factory bombing in WWII. Or the tragic fate of Mai, whose parents withheld her lover Hao’s letters from her, leading her to despise both Hao and herself, spiralling into depression and suicidality. Or the anguish of Antoine, who grew up hating his father Edouard but never knowing why, while his mother Linh tried to balance her love for her late husband and the impact of the trauma from their toxic marriage, while keeping up with what she saw as her maternal responsibilities. When so much is lost, when so much is irreversibly damaged, there is no question of happy endings. This play honours the grief that its characters have traversed, and brings them to a place of forging new paths and connections and futures, making the best of what is available to human beings after tragedy has had its way.
SAIGON is a poetic, haunting, and universally relevant picture of humanity at its raw and vulnerable best. It is a rare play that fully does justice to its long duration, that makes the most of the time, space, technology, and cultural resources that it draws from, to deliver an experience that will stay etched in its audience’s memories for a long time to come.