nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
November 16, 2011
Another play that concerns a disenfranchised character caught within an oppressive, flawed institution is Burmese Days, by the British company aja, who are here as part of Brits Off-Broadway. A sort of concert version of George Orwell’s first novel, the play reveals the dark side of British colonialism through the tragedy of John Flory, a guileless teak merchant trapped in the intrigues of a small village in colonial Burma. Orwell wrote the book from his own experiences in Burma as part of the Imperial British Police, honing his critical edge by filing it against the British raj. “We English could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves.”
On the whole, Ryan Kiggell does a fine job adapting the novel and staging it sparsely but effectively, although there are moments where Flory avows his feelings for Elizabeth a little too lengthily. In lieu of plants or any set elements on the bare wooden stage, the Burmese jungle is effectively brought to life through the whirrs and clacks of small percussion instruments. A water buffalo is played by two actors, one piggybacked upon the other, while tropical birds are ingeniously portrayed by an actor fluttering a bright pink umbrella. The most cunning device in the production is that the same actor plays two opposing characters. Jamie Zubairi plays Flory with an ingenuous sensitivity, but with smirk and more deliberate delivery, he transforms into U Po Kyin, the Machiavellian Burmese magistrate. Amerjit Deu plays both the Burmese doctor Veraswami and the racist British timber merchant Ellis who despises him.
With the recent worldwide demonstrations against corporatocracy and dictatorships, it’s interesting to note that both plays concern disenfranchised characters who challenge oppressive institutions. The British colonial system as portrayed by Orwell was a racist and misogynist hierarchal order, placing white men at the top and forcing everyone else—including white women—to vie for their favor. “If I were a young girl, I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!” declares Mrs. Lackersteen, as she plots to marry her niece Elizabeth first to Flory, then to the pompous Lieutenant Verrall. “You do not know what prestige it gives an Indian to be a member of the European club,” asserts Dr. Veraswami. Burmese Days is an interesting reminder of a suffocating and inequitable system of a prior generation that has largely been dismantled. As such, it is sensitive, eloquent, astute, and incredibly relevant.