Light. Pic: Darshen Chelliah

Festivals, Reviews, Stage

Light review (OzAsia Festival, Adelaide)

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“The Theft of Penang, Birth of Adelaide and the Rise of the British Empire.” This is the revisionist history of Light. Commissioned three years ago for OzAsia, it has now had its world premiere in Adelaide before heading to the George Town Festival in Penang.

The story of Colonel William Light who laid out the visionary plan for the city of Adelaide, while fascinating, is mostly obscured from history.

Born in 1786 in Kuala Quedar, Malaya he was second son of Captain Francis Light and Martinha Rozells (spelt Rozzels in Light) a Princess of the Sultan of Quedar. In his marriage to Martinha, Francis claimed the island of Penang as part of her dowry and proceeded to on-sell it to the East India Company to establish a trading port there.

From there things go downhill. Francis is swindled out of his share of the plan, Martinha’s claim to royalty is repudiated and she is left with neither lands nor title. William embarks on a career in the military, and as an imperial entrepreneur, only to be constantly dismissed and discriminated against for his mixed-race heritage.

As the liner notes for Light describe it, the scenario is “Drugs, guns, love, freedom, racism and free market capitalism.”  

Writer and director Thomas Henning (from the Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm) in collaboration with Kuala Lumpur-based company TerryandTheCuz, has taken this story of piracy, duplicity and gangster colonisation as an example of the way history is hijacked by the winners, erasing narratives and individuals in the process. It is part polemic, part diatribe, part ripping yarn.

Henning and the crew make no effort to maintain historical accuracy. Anachronism is the name of the game. Costumes range from business suits to wigs and tunics. Information comes via shortwave radio. Francis Light has conversations on his iPhone. The pistols they wave around are more Tony Soprano than Napoleonic. The infamous pirate Captain Kidd makes a cameo covered in heavy bling and spluttering through Bond villain gold teeth.

Exalted Instruments of Empire like the East India Company are presented as vicious buffoons, running a ruthless and fabulously profitable trade in opium and guns. Like upper class twits from Monty Python they disdain, insult and humiliate this family Light. Francis mostly deserves it. William much less so, Martinha not at all.

There is a pirate’s hoard of material here and Henning has tried to use it all. He says himself – “Light is a near impossible task; 98 years of semi-remembered history across four continents, performed by three actors in under two hours.”

Light, in its present form, is the sum of too many parts but it is a play that gets under your skin

It is too much, but they try it anyway. The timeline is extruded, the exposition often breathless. The opening scene bogs itself down with rhetorical questions about memory and history and the unreliability of versions of the past.

The core of the story is William Light and his thwarted destiny, his great promise ruined by envious rivals (Kingston looms like the school bully Flashman). Martinha is impoverished and abandoned – especially by William who can never be a gentleman, claim entitlements from his late father, or be a titleholder in the East India Company cartel.

Light deliberately breaks the rules in its indifference to staging conventions, continuity and shifts of tone and dialogue. There are absurdist gags, slapstick moments, jarring expletives and costume pranks. Often they energise the play, but also they can throw it off keel. Henning and associates are hoping to have it both ways. But when you turf out the rules you have to create new ones. When Light fails to do that, it becomes repetitive and trying, and verges on juvenile.

At times the performers excel, at others they are valiant with whimsical, undeliverable material. Martin Blum is wildly comic as Francis when he is vainglorious and finds more sympathetic shading when his fate turns. Blum also animates a range of John Cleese-ian aristocrats and bureaucrats, and is especially sinister as Kingston (did he really burn down William Light’s Adelaide house ?)

As Martinha Rozzels, Junji Delfino brings an almost operatic pathos to her abandonment. Her presence on stage restores her to history and it is one of the strengths of the play. Gavin Yap is also memorable as William Light, his earnest capability, his bewildered disappointment, unresolved hostility- then reconciliation with his mother, and his wretched death, are vividly presented.

Light, in its present form, is the sum of too many parts but it is a play that gets under your skin. I have heard that the tech run for its short season was difficult which may be why the video projections and lighting, along with TerryandThe Cuz’s clunky set design were disappointing. But Thomas Henning has found a hell of a story which needs only a little tweaking for Light to become the invigorating, creative irritant it aspires to.

Light played Nexus Arts, Adelaide as part of OzAsia Festival.

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