Theatre: Miss Saigon @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Ben Podmore
Ashley Gilmour as 'Chris' and Sooha Kim as 'Kim' - Photo by Johan Persson
Miss Saigon has been a controversial musical since its first staging 28 years ago. The resetting of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly at the end of the Vietnam War places the tragic story of two lovers who are torn apart quickly after finding one another in the deeply unsettling history of interventionist politics practiced by the West and its results, creating some difficult problems for this spectacular production.
The musical’s human centre which draws out the audience’s empathy revolves around the love-at-first-sight relationship between Chris (Ashley Gilmore), an American GI about to return home following the US’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War, and Kim (Sooha Kim), a Vietnamese peasant who fled to Saigon following her parents’’ deaths only to be captured and pimped out by the corrupt entrepreneur The Engineer (Red Concepción). While the talented and experienced cast were much more than capable of bringing out the anguished struggles of each of these characters with varying confidence, nuance and intimacy, the underlying inequality of the relationship between a US soldier who, despite his supposed naivety, is ultimately out to get laid and a sex trafficked Vietnamese girl who ultimately kills herself in a desperate attempt to transfer parental responsibility of their child to Chris, makes the sympathetic relationship between audience and protagonists conflicted at best.
"Given the uneasy tension between this impressive production and the trivialisation of culture, gender, and real social problems which are embedded in it, what should today’s audiences make of Miss Saigon?"
An exceptional feature of the musical, and one I’m sure many audience members came for, was the sheer spectacle of its staging. From the very first musical numbers ‘The Heat Is On’ to ‘The Transaction’ the extravagance of the set design is fully apparent as the brothel, featuring drunken American Soldiers costumed in vintage army garb and glamorous but suffering prostitutes, offers a grotesque if romanticised look at debauched underground of an anarchic and violent time in Vietnam’s history.
This builds as Miss Saigon progresses, through the celebratory scenes of Vietnam’s reunification featuring beautifully choreographed acrobatics and large dragon dancers during ‘The Morning of the Dragon’, to Kim’s nightmarish flashback to the US’s withdrawal from Saigon complete with impressive projections and a full-sized chopper airlifting troops out of the besieged city in ‘Kim’s Nightmare’, and The Engineer’s cynically-aware fantasy of life in America ‘The American Dream’. However, like a Hollywood blockbuster the impressive visual effects felt like an overcompensation for the one dimensionality of some of the musical’s other elements.
Given the uneasy tension between this impressive production and the trivialisation of culture, gender, and real social problems which are embedded in it, what should today’s audiences make of Miss Saigon? The human drama, the moving quality of the musical accompaniment, and impressive visuals make for a highly affecting and entertaining experience. In terms of Miss Saigon’s capacity to view the context in which it is set critically the doomed optimism of ‘The Movie in my Mind’ and the touching transformation of John (Ryan O’Gorman) from hyper-masculine GI to self-aware CEO of an NGO reuniting Vietnamese orphans with their American fathers in ‘Bu Doi’, give it some legitimacy. But this may not go far enough for those coming to it with fresh eyes in 2018, the problematic racial stereotyping and glossing of the horrors which war creates and leaves behind, and as well as the figure of a white male American saviour place its narrative firmly in the time it was created.
Indeed, the script largely depoliticises the war in which the romance is set; seeking to isolate individual struggles and obscure the wider social context which produces them – a tacit endorsement perhaps of US individualistic ideology. By showing only people, their struggles, and predicaments, devoid of adequate representation of the political environment responsible for these problems, Miss Saigon risks being unduly uncritical of a widely reviled American military intervention. Of course, one need not look too far into the background of the script to see signs that this war was not one that the US ought to be uncritical of. Red Conception as The Engineer, perhaps the standout performance in this particular production, does a mesmerising job of shifting between displays of violence and manipulation to humour and sympathetic ingenuity. The glamour that this character brings to this production, and his valorisation of the American individualism, embodies many of the reasons that people have found this script so problematic – we perceive the violence of context only momentarily before being distracted by depoliticised individualistic concerns and big musical numbers. Ultimately, we may find ourselves forgetting that this character is not a lovable sympathetic rogue but rather a sinister and violent exploiter vulnerable people for the pursuit of money.
Despite its problems, this production of Miss Saigon is an intellectually interesting and viscerally exciting spectacle: qualities acknowledged by the audience’s standing ovation at the end of this performance. Variously criticised while transforming itself by degrees over the years, one important question remains: can Miss Saigon respond to our changing times or should it be left in the past?
Decide for yourself, and catch Miss Saigon on the rest of it's tour.