The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 and its presumed tragic end is a source of pain without resolution or closure, as more than four years later authorities are still yet to pinpoint what happened to the plane and its passengers. For the families of the missing, the agony of not knowing their fate must be unbearable, and like us all, they must play out the many and varied scenarios of what might have occurred in their minds repeatedly. From a graceful dive into the ocean as the plane ran out of fuel, to an unreported landing on an unnamed island, and straight up insurance fraud, the theories are endless.
Being originally from Malaysia, yet studying in Australia when the tragedy transpired, writer Jean Tong has attempted to reconcile her feelings of emotional and physical distance from her home and the people personally affected by this heartbreaking disaster through a succinct one-act play. Put simply, in Buddhism hungry ghosts are spirits manifested from a death caused by evil deed. Drawing from her own experience Tong has merged it with those of her compatriots, and added a generous helping of conspiracy theory to create a play that is an open expression of the need to cast blame, connect emotionally and make sense of the feelings brought to bear by the event and to feed the hungry ghosts.
Using three actors – Jing-Xuan Chan, Emina Ashman and Bernard Sam – to illustrate the experiences of passengers, theorists and that of her own migration, Tong skilfully weaves together three lateral tales to illuminate a story that cannot be put to rest. Director Petra Kalive picks up these threads and draws the perfect tension and framework for her cast to define each story with clarity and meaningful intensity. Chan, Ashman and Sam work beautifully together as an ensemble, with Chan stepping up as the main protagonist and as Tong’s proxy. As a team, the cast, director and writer do an extraordinary job of empathising with the fate of the passengers in a tasteful and touching way.
Bringing the whole thing together is an exceptional set design by Eugyeene Teh. Like an airplane fuselage sliced into seat-width sections, it serves to play the role of the jet, various vehicles, luggage and even blackboards through Kalive’s highly inventive usage of the individual parts. But it’s when Emma Valente’s eerie lighting design shoots up the centre of the pieces that it is at its most effective, casting a shadow like the carcass of a dead whale on the bottom of the ocean. Floaty fabrics in Sophie Woodward’s lovely costume designs also add chilling effect, conjuring thoughts of bodies lost at sea.
Seeing work by new young writers in MTC’s Education program is always welcome. As confronting as this story can be, and complicated by the addition of a theoretical cover-up conspiracy involving 1MDB (the Malaysian Government owned strategic development company), this play is nevertheless sure to generate fascinating interrogation by students.