“I thought it was terrible, fulfilling every Orientalist trope that I had studied and was opposed to… it fits perfectly into the way that Americans, and Europeans, have imagined the Vietnam War as a racial and sexual fantasy that negates the war’s political significance and Vietnamese subjectivity and agency.”
Those are the words of Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen on Boublil and Schonberg’s enormously successful musical Miss Saigon, which Sheffield Crucible recently announced they will be producing next summer.
Miss Saigon has a long history of controversy in centring on a Madame Butterfly-type narrative about a teenage Vietnamese sex worker in a war zone who, after a liaison with an American GI who abandons her in pregnancy, commits suicide.
It is something of a landmark (albeit one we collectively consider a sad one) that this unashamedly commercial show, which has only ever been produced commercially, is now being revived for the first time in a publicly subsidised theatre.
BEATS recognises that there are a range of opinions about the merits or otherwise of Miss Saigon. But we find ourselves in agreement with Nguyen (quoted above) as well as Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen and fellow Vietnamese American writer Diep Tran who wrote a powerful article, ‘I Am Miss Saigon and I Hate It ’, about the effect the show has on her.
We also recall Asian American playwright Kimber Lee as finalist for the Bruntwood Prize with the untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play a sentiment we find it difficult not to echo.
So while some might rejoice in the show’s high drama and slick musical numbers, we can never shake off the disturbing fact that Southeast and East Asian women are fetishised and hyper-sexualised, harassed and even physically attacked with the lingering trope of pliant availability, while Southeast and East Asian men are emasculated and erased.
These are damaging cliches which a work like Miss Saigon perpetuates, while also erasing of the real experience of war and violence suffered by millions of Vietnamese women, men and children.
We may well be a minority voice. But publicly subsidised theatres have a responsibility to listen. We have spoken to Asian actors in the past, particularly women, who felt demeaned and conflicted about appearing in the show but felt they had ‘no choice’. Now here we have one of our Arts Council funded ‘regional powerhouse’ theatres sharply reinforcing that lack of choice.
We’d like to say the time for a publicly subsidised production of Miss Saigon has surely passed.
But tragically the time for a publicly subsidised production of Miss Saigon had never actually arrived. Until now. In a post-pandemic British theatre industry that has promised to ‘build back better’.
In presenting a story of Vietnam war that is so deeply traumatising to many our communities, Crucible's decision compromises theatre's attempt to do so.
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