How could you possibly not think that The Lady of Burma, a solo show about Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement, is not a good thing? It is a fine, indeed an admirable thing, but it is not a great night out in the theatre. It is slight and short.
Richard Shannon’s sketchy play, just 70 minutes long, was first performed by Liana Mau Tan Gould at an Old Vic gala last year and comes to the Riverside Studios via this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a one-off charity event at Soho Theatre. Tan Gould as Suu Kyi sits in a drab prison cell and revisits her own life on our behalf. You always think at such plays: why is this person talking to us?
In this case, the answer is simple. The campaign to free Aung San Suu Kyi from her house detention order is a focal point in the growing international concern with the military regime in Burma. The recent demonstrations by the monks highlighted the problem. And Tan Gould’s performance, which is charming and graceful, will make an audience feel good about sympathising.
Suu Kyi is everyone’s political heroine these days. The text of Shannon’s play, published by Oberon, carries a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “She has demonstrated just how potent goodness is ... She has already won, and they (her oppressors) know they have lost.” Quite. So where’s the drama? Shannon doesn’t energise her struggle. He just reports it.
There are two crucial sequences: the uprising in 1988, the brutal suppression (thousands of people were murdered) and the subsequent election victory by the newly formed National League for Democracy which the Junta then overruled; and her attempted assassination, and return to house arrest four years ago.
There are some domestic details: the death of her brother (a swimming pool accident), her Oxford memories, the tensions in her marriage to Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar, who died of prostate cancer in 1999 without being allowed to visit his wife.
Suu Kyi is visited by a general who regrets her inability to participate fully in national life, but the comedy is fleeting. The predominant sound – apart from the ingratiating Pachelbel canon she could pick out on the piano - is that of boxes being ticked on a narrative chart.
At the end, the Lady puts a bunch of jasmine in her hair and a national flag unfurls in a sop to theatricality. Otherwise, a half-hour spot on the radio would have been ideal.
- Michael Coveney