REVIEW: Roots (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Matt Baker

[Journey to the Past and Future]

New Zealand is a country with a strong migratory history, but too rarely are the stories of our Asian roots given room to breathe and grow on stage, which is one of the reasons why Proudly Asian Theatre represents an integral component to both our theatrical and cultural landscape. With only four stage productions since 2013, PAT is in many ways a boutique theatre company, presenting infrequent yet sophisticated works to what would once be considered a niche market to the now wider public. Roots, written by Oliver Chong, directed by Chye-Ling Huang, and performed by Amanda Grace Leo, examines the ancestral journey on which many people find themselves at some point in their lives, and, while presenting a protagonist, Hsu Hsien, who is both from and begins said journey in Singapore, it is one to which many can relate.

Huang’s direction is incredibly well-measured. It’s detailed yet subtle, allowing Leo to focus on the story being told while maintaining a natural strong and consistent theatrical flow – a vital necessity for Chong’s script, which reads more as a short story than an inherently theatrical piece. Presented in English and Mandarin, with surtitles in both, both the script and Leo’s performance flow seamlessly between the two languages. It’s an excellent example of interculturalism and our ability to accept bicultural narratives in New Zealand theatre.

Sound, an often misused if not altogether disregarded component to theatre, sets the tone of the show well, with Tom Dennison’s design evoking a mystery and nostalgia evocative of a time passed, but not forgotten. Add to this a lighting design by Ruby Reihana-Wilson which utilises the colour of the performance space as well as the contrast between its vastness and the performer, and Roots provides a successful theatrical trinity of story, creatives, and cast.

This cohesion means that’s Chong’s story makes the successful transition from page to stage, with audiences being taken on the journey with Hsien in a compelling yet comfortable way. As with all great theatre, the play doesn’t provide a theatrical (or even literal) answer, but raises questions, because in the end it’s not about the truth, or even what you know, it’s about what you are willing to accept, and, once again, PAT have provided Auckland audiences with a show that accepts everyone.

Roots is presented by Proudly Asian Theatre and played at Uxbridge and Q as part of Auckland Fringe. 

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