Blood Links, The Pit, Barbican, London

Time for a banality check

Rhoda Koenig
Saturday 08 February 2014 03:51
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Is William Yang the Chinese Alan Bennett? There are a few moments during this illustrated talk when one thinks this middle-aged Australian has or is affecting the same persona as the prissy-but-tender Yorkshire homosexual. "She came down on me like a ton of bricks, which I didn't appreciate,'' he says, as we see a slide of the relative who was shocked to discover he was gay. Over a slide of a family gathering where the same topic hovers in the air (Blood Links has lots of scenes of weddings, Christmases, and other feasts), he mutters, peevishly: "I wondered if they were going to bring it up before lunch.''

This sulky gentility and mild double entendre, though, is not worked up into a characterisation; nor do Yang's travels through China and America in search of his family yield any fascinating anecdotes or personalities. Annoyed by the naïve curiosity of the locals while touring his show through Australia, Yang says that he would grumble, "Why do I have to be the first gay Chinese they've ever met?'' – which, considering the experience of even most cosmopolitans, seems a bit hard on the Tasmanians.

The complaint, however, is disingenuous, as the selling point of Blood Links is just that. On the BITE programme it is listed as "Australian/Chinese'', and of course if one adds "gay,'' one has a nice little market niche. But the label is the only exotic aspect of Yang's presentation. A photographer, he decided, after his parents died, to go in search of the relatives he knew only through his mother's stories.

He finds that they have assimilated with a will, and his cousins and nephews are half Latvian or Italian or Vietnamese. We see numerous slides of Bessie and Wilma and Frankie and Ruby – "That's Nancy and her husband, Joe'' – but learn very little about them, and nothing remarkable. Everyone is described in a manner that is bland to the degree of opacity ("she was slightly alternative'') or that is merely self-centred condescension and cliché. Of a teenage girl who wants to be a dancer, Yang says: "We've both got theatre in our blood,'' so "I know that all her hopes and dreams, as well as her joys and disappointments, will be similar to mine." I wonder if that "knowledge'' would survive a reality check.

Elsewhere, the patronising tone implicit in such remarks becomes evident, as when Yang shows a slide of relatives dozing on the sofa after a big meal and says: "Like some Americans, they eat and drink a little too much.'' A trip to Nevada elicits the insight, "I thought Las Vegas was one of the most amazing, incredible places I'd ever seen. I also thought it was totally soulless.'. This banality, of course, may comfort rather than irritate the many who have seen Blood Links over the years. Beneath the foreign wrapping is the message that everyone is as ordinary as everyone else, the bullying conformism behind so much "brotherhood'' rhetoric. Yang may call this a "performance piece'', but all that separates his from your own relatives' slide show accompanied by monotone commonplaces is that you have to pay for it.

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