Eastern Star

Eastern Star

Image by Tara Theatre

Daniel Nelson

Though Eastern Star is about a failed revolution in 1988, it could hardly be more topical. 

The student uprising in that year in Burma was crushed, but only after it demonstrated that the military's iron grip was not immutable. Forty years later, the struggle for supremacy between military and civilians is still the key political issue.

The uprising also provided a stage for The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, to enter politics as a potential civilian leader. Today her sheen is pockmarked by her dispiritingly shameful failure to speak out against the military's shocking violence against the Muslim Rohingya community.

Thirdly, the battle for freedom in 1988 has been echoed during the play's three-week run at the Tara Theatre by the jailing for seven years of two journalists after a trial that even by Myanmar's tattered standards was ludicrously unfair.

Fortunately, not only is the play topical, it is also engrossing.

I was ready to be annoyed by another view of Asian affairs seen from the perspective of a white journalist - the former BBC World Service reporter Christopher Gunness, now a UN official. He inadvertently played an important role in the student revolt and the play centres on his reunion, decades later, with a key mover and shaker of the uprising, human rights lawyer U Nay Min - who is the Eastern Star.

When they meet again ("I have unfinished business"), Gunness has moved on and has a life and career to celebrate, but U Nay Min has not been so lucky. Captured by the military as it mounted its sadistic backlash against the students, he spent 16 years in jail, tortured as well as incarcerated ("My country was abandoned. I was abandoned").

It's true that the play is framed more through Gunness' eyes than U Nay Min's, but you have to accept that and take it as it is - and writer Guy Slater ensures that their moving confrontation has a kick that gives the play an emotional force as it picks at the moral ambiguities of the relationship between journalistic and activist.

It's an intense, 75-minute study, about what U Nay Min calls "a little bit of history". He's right, it is, and it's well worth re-living or discovering..


Tara Theatre has dedicated the play's three-week run to  two Reuters journalists given seven-year sentences in Yangon, U Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Announcing the dedication, Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts, said, “When we planned this run, we had no idea that Eastern Star would become so painfully current. The sentences handed down to these two men are truly shocking even by the standards of justice we have come to expect in Myanmar today. We urge for them to be released immediately.”

A petition book, calling on the authorities in Myanmar to release the two men, is available for theatregoers and members of the public to sign. At the end of the run, Verma will present the petition to Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

+ Post-show discussions: 

19 Sept, The Reporter & The Activist, Lyse Doucet and Christopher Gunness

26 Sept, Myanmar Today: How did the student uprising of 1988 change history?, Tin Htar Swe, Martin Smith and Michael Marrett-Crosby 

* Eastern Star, £17.50, is at the Tara Theatre, 356 Garratt Lane, SW18 4ES, until 29 September. Info: 8333 4457/ TARA@TARA-ARTS.COM

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