Brighton Festival 2011
The play tells the story of the heroic struggle of the Burmese people for freedom, and the life of their democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has suffered years of imprisonment at the hands of Burma’s military junta.
This year Brighton Festival’s guest artistic director is not a famous artist or musician who can give talks about their work and parade around the city looking important, but is instead a political activist, leader and prisoner, who cannot even attend the festival in person. Aung San Suu Kyi is known around the world as an incredible figure in Burma’s quest for democracy, and this year her position as artistic director of the festival places democracy and culture in parallel with each other. Her support of Brighton Festival highlights the lack of any such freedom of expression in Burma, and aims to brings the fight of the Burmese people into the minds of those lucky enough to be able to see what they want, say what they want and be who they want.
The Lady of Burma was performed at the Brighton Fringe a few years ago, when Aung San Suu Kyi was still in jail in Burma, and for its 2011 tour it has been updated to include a postscript about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from jail in 2010.
It is a powerful play, a one woman show performed by Liana Gould who at the Brighton Festival has an even greater responsibility, as in effect she is the mouthpiece of Aung San Suu Kyi. Fortunately she does an excellent job, portraying the esteemed leader with sensitivity. The play takes a little bit of time to warm up. Gould seemed quite stiff at first, and at times the delivery seemed quite unnatural. However, as the play progressed and the story became more personal to Aung San Suu Kyi’s own struggle, I found myself gripped and horrified by the trials and injustice this brave woman and her compatriots have gone through in the ongoing struggle to overthrow Burma’s long standing military dictatorship.
The Theatre Royal was not the ideal space for this performance. It is a quite, personal show, with only a few sound effects to help paint the pictures Gould is conjuring with her words. The raised stage and the distance of the performer from much of the audience did little to create the atmosphere of intimacy this production so needs. I believe that the show would have had a greater impact in a smaller space, as the Theatre Royal’s setup only helped distance the audience from the story – the exact opposite of what the play should do. That being said Gould did very well in the difficult space, and was compelling to watch.
Although the play (since 2010) has been able to end on a slightly more hopeful note than in previous years, Suu Kyi is quick to say that the struggle is far from over. Burma’s cruel dictator still has the country in his iron grasp, or as she described it, controlling the strings like a puppet master. Suu Kyi is unable to travel and lives in fear that she will be thrown back in jail at any moment, so the more people who see this performance the better, as it is only through pressure applied worldwide, combined with struggle within the country that the dictatorship will be overthrown.