Have you been on The Trip? You know the one, the one that seemingly 3/5 of middle-class Britons take at least once in their lifetime. The Trip that involves a rough sweep of Asia down to Australia and possibly back up again. Even if you haven’t been, you have probably heard the countless tales of sky-diving in Oz, meditating in Thailand and something to do with a beach in Goa (I’ve usually tuned out by that point). Those who have done The Trip come back with a tan that walks too close an edge to sunburn and a radiating smugness. Nothing, they tell you, could ever come close to the absolute awesomeness of diving off a bridge whilst suspended by a piece of elastic or doing yoga by the sea. They’ve really experienced something, really found themselves.
Amy Ng’s first full-length play, Shangri-La, deals with a variant of this type of tourism, specifically focusing on an area of the Himalayan foothills of China’s Yunnan Province. Ng, unlike me, is both far better informed about the complexities inherent in this type of tourism – especially that involving visiting remote areas where small tribes of people live – and lends a fairness to the different participants that exceeds my own haphazard derision.
Shangri-La is a play in which, to varying degrees, all the characters are contemptible, or at least behave in ways that stretch an audience’s sympathies. Yet, there is never the suggestion that Ng is sneering at them. The clearest example of this is Sylvia Bass (Rosie Thomson), the wealthy white American in search of the SUBLIME.
We first meet her downward-dogging in the inauthentic yurt she doesn’t know was borrowed from a Genghis Khan film set. She wants to sip yak milk tea – despite its foul taste – and learn how to meditate. Then her requests become more demanding, culminating in an insistence to see a sky burial (vultures feeding on a corpse). Her jewellery is tasteless, her voice is annoying and her actions towards those she meets in Shangri-La are offensive. Despite all this, Ng avoids making her into a simple caricature of the ignorant Westerner. Glimpses are offered of the reasons behind Sylvia’s crassness – her marriage is failing and she is desperately lonely. Behind her obsession with seeing bones stripped white in the sun is an attempt to reconnect with her estranged husband and a need to reconcile herself with ageing and death.
In the rich woman’s misguided visit to find Zen in the Himalayas, there is genuineness. Her motivation circles like the birds around a basic need for freedom. This same basic principle is then repeated for all the other characters in the play. Each time corruption is shown, for instance with the guide Karma Tsering (Andrew Koji), it is countered by revelations of whatever external situation each character pushes against.
Ng shows that the whole question of tourism to areas like Tibet is almost unanswerably complex. What we know, or think we know, about all the different players is almost certainly wrong or one-dimensional. Eco-tourism and conservation tourism are often as harmful to communities and areas as obvious big business ventures.
The main character, Bunny Mu (Julia Sandiford) shifts like sand from one end of an egg timer to the other, refusing to stay still and let her actions be categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Because, as the play points out, we like our tribal people to be easy to categorise. We like them to need us to help them just the right amount so that they are reliant on us, but also picture-perfect in the National Geographic. The second they become autonomous and try to escape being the photographable Other with interesting piercings and bare breasts or cutesy embroidered dresses, we don’t know what to do. It is notable that Bunny’s ultimate transgression involves using a camera. This young woman from an ethnic minority that may cease to exist in a few generations is taking the photos headed for the Guggenheim, rather than being captured in national costume. This confusion of roles and her desire to escape the constricted culture she comes from, rather than preserving it for Western tourists to visit, is the point around which all the other assumptions and ideas start to crumble.
Shangri-La presents items known to be beautiful, information known to be truths and feelings thought to be correct, then reveals them all to be bullshit. Which, fittingly, is fairly similar to the path to enlightenment.
Shangri-La is on at the Finborough Theatre until 6th August 2016. Click here for more information.