Review: Summer Rolls
A story of inter-generational trauma packed with nuance and social insight at the Bristol Old Vic
If you can believe it, Summer Rolls, now on at the Bristol Old Vic, is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK. For this reason alone, it is an important play. It is also a fascinating play in its own right: wrangling with huge topics but in a tiny domestic setting, it plays beautifully with the personal living with the political.
We’re introduced to Mother, the strong, sharp-tongued matriarch of the family, as she hurries her young son, Anh, to board a boat out of war-torn Vietnam without her. The next time we see the family together is years later, where Mother and son are reunited and joined by Father and daughter, Mai. And so begins a searching, painful exploration of how pain and trauma are inherited and re-shaped for the next generation; of how war never really goes away; and of how family is a mass of contradictions.
Language plays a really interesting role in this play. One conceit is that Mother and Father, although we hear it as English, are speaking in Vietnamese throughout; Mai is scolded for speaking English at home, and so often when she is talking to her parents, we hear it as a Vietnamese/English hybrid. It feels stilted and uncomfortable for Mai: indeed, at one point, she tells her partner David (a non-Vietnamese, non-Catholic, black man – a whole world of trouble in the eyes of Mother and Father), “I have so much to say but I can’t say it. When I speak Vietnamese it’s like the sounds are choking me”. There is so much in this story about words being insufficient for feelings; about languages demarcating identity and belonging, or feelings of isolation and rootlessness.
If anything, there is slightly too much going on here. The fact that it is Tuyen Do’s playwriting debut may have something to do with this: at times, it feels like a lifetime of thoughts, insights, and character development has been packed into this single piece. Some of the lines are so heavy with meaning and implication, at times I would have liked to be able to unpack them more, sit with the storyline rather than move onto the next plot-point. But perhaps it is so jam-packed because there is clearly so much to say, and it’s only now that all of it has got stage-time.
What’s special about this play is that it is uniquely about the British-Vietnamese community and it specific experiences, but at the same time it is about family displacement, love, loss, and art: because marginalised voices also have universal experiences; and life is both individual and generalizable.
If Summer Rolls acts as a call to arms to open out British theatre and to push understanding on why representation matters, then what an achievement that would be.
Summer Rolls is on at the Bristol Old Vic until Sat 27 July. Tickets from £13.
Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol BS1 4ED. Box office 0117 9877877
Words Alex Sayers. Photos Danté Kim.