Arcola Theatre, London – until 17 November 2018
The obsessive focus on highly-skilled migrants that characterises so much of the administration’s thinking on immigration neglects one crucial detail – that it is so often migrants who end up doing the kind of criminally low-paid, thankless jobs that our society relies upon and rarely acknowledges. Of course, this kind of erasure is nothing new but it is still a shock to discover the history lesson that Daniel York Loh has in store for us in Forgotten 遗忘.
For his new play tells us the story of the Chinese Labour Corps – the hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese workers who were recruited to work by Britain and her allies in the trenches in World War I. Not as soldiers but labourers cleaning machines, digging trenches, removing bodies – an integral part of the war effort but one whose contributions remain entirely undersung. And as we approach the centenary of Remembrance Day, what better time to redress this.
In the process of giving these people back their voice, Kim Pearce’s production also gives them a framework familiar to them in which to tell their story. So the group of labourers who we meet are part of an amateur theatre group and they use the form of Chinese opera as a medium. Stylistically, it is a most vivid treatment and one which can take a little getting used to but it also has a strange power which soon weaves its spell over the Arcola’s Studio 2.
The company of six – Rebecca Boey, Jon Chew, Zachary Hing, Camille Mallet De Chauny, Michael Phong Le and Leo Wan – all do well to portray the social and cultural chasm between their world and the terrible realities to be found halfway around the globe. And there’s humour too, necessary to offset the tragedy, as they try and wrap their heads around the different kinds of pale people trying to kill each other and the strangeness of having to adopt names that Westerners can recognise as opposed to their preferred descriptives.
There’s much here that is fascinating and it ought to provoke a real consideration about who gets to define what we call history, particularly when it concerns any hint of British colonial legacy and/or imperialistic attitudes. The weight of that history sometimes does feel too much for the play in its later stages though, as theatricality is sacrificed for a didactic approach which is almost close to being heavy-handed. But when the message is as raw and heartfelt as being literally painted out of history, maybe that’s ok because no-one else is telling these stories.