From 17–29 November the Butterfly Club will present The Yellow Wave as part of Melbourne's inaugural Poppy Seed Festival. Jan Chandler recently had the pleasure of talking with director Beng Oh about himself and his work.
Born on Penang Island in Malaysia Beng Oh's earliest memory of theatre is seeing a touring production of Twelfth Night. He can't remember how old he was but the memory has stayed with him. Later he came to Melbourne to study law. He was involved with theatre whilst at university but it wasn't until he undertook a post graduate directing course at the Victorian College of the Arts that he realised that he wanted to work in theatre. For a while he continued to juggle law and theatre but eventually, thanks to a supportive partner, he was able to devote himself to working in theatre. The money may not be a good but it is where his passion lies.
The Yellow Wave is the latest production from 15 Minutes from Anywhere, a creative collaboration between Oh and writer Jane Miller; their aim is to create new Australian works, as well as explore lesser known and interesting parts of the repertoire. The company was officially launched in 2011 with a production of Miller's award-winning True Love Travels on a Gravel Road (2011 R.E. Ross Trust Playwrights’ Script Development Award) at fortyfivedownstairs; Oh directed the play. The following year La Mama and fortyfivedownstairs presented a season of George Tibori's Mein Kampf, described as a dizzying and demented play that blends multiple comic genres and humour both high and low; and directed by Oh. Later in 2014 Motherfucker, created by Miller and Oh, with direction by Oh and text attributed to 'Miller, Ted Hughes, Sophocles, Seneca and friends', premiered as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
For their latest work Oh and Miller have drawn their inspiration from an epic 19th century Australian novel The Yellow Wave, subtitled 'A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion'. When Oh first came across the novel in the State Library archives he was fascinated by the fact that it was written by a well respectect man – a soldier, author, and politican – whose story spoke so openly of the fears and prejudices of his time. It is a tale of love and war, prejudice and boat arrivals set against the invasion of Australia by a Russian led 'Mongol horde'. The prose is turgid and the attitudes expressed are ones that Australians would prefer to forget; attitudes that Oh believes are, unfortunately, once again revealing themselves in today's society.
Despite his fascination with the story and his belief in it's relevance to Australian society in the 21st century, Oh was unsure how to bring it alive for a contemporary audience. Then he thought of having just two actors play more than 20 different characters. Quite a challenge but Oh thrives on challenges and believes that they make life worthwhile and interesting. So he approached his 'partner in crime' Jane Miller and, together with actors Keith Brockett and John Marc Desengano, they each 'waded' their way through the book; all 400 pages of it.
Oh decided that comedy was the appropriate genre within which to explore fear and the ways it manifests itself within society. He had worked with the actors before and believed that they had the ability to make the show both entertaining and thought-provoking. He is happy with the outcome and describes The Yellow Wave as an action-packed 70 minutes of fun and laughter which, by the end, has the actors dripping in sweat. He hopes that audiences will have fun and also be provoked into starting a conversation about the issues raised; a conversation that Oh strongly believes is much needed in today's world.
The Butterfly Club may not have been Oh's first choice for the production, but he has now fallen in love with the space. Oh's experience has been really positive and The Poppy Seed Festival have been very supportive and helpful. 'It's been a great experience... It is really important that independent theatre is given such support.'
The Yellow Wave plays at The Butterfly Club, Carson Place (off Little Collins St) Melbourne, November 17 – 29, 2015. Bookings www.poppyseed.net.au