The Lady Of Burma, The Old Vic, London

A portrait of a lady defiant

Kate Thomas
Tuesday 14 November 2006 01:00 GMT

There is silence. A light shines on the crumpled form of Aung San Suu Kyi. To her left is the blood-red flag of Burma's National League for Democracy; to her right, a simple bamboo hut. Still silence.

Such is the life of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, portrayed by Liana Mau Tan Gould in this special performance of The Lady of Burma at the Old Vic. Democratically elected as the leader of Burma in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi has never been allowed to govern her country. Under arrest in her own home, she isn't allowed to see her friends or her family; all visitors are banned. Her phone line is cut and her post is intercepted. She has nothing in her life but this simple bamboo hut - and her cause.

The director, Richard Shannon, could have let the silence linger. It would have served as a powerful reminder of the 11 years Suu Kyi has spent alone.

But that would not have made for such an entertaining evening. When Gould eventually rises, and begins a one-woman interpretation of Suu Kyi's life, the crowd - and it is a crowd, not an audience; the support for the cause is palpable - breaks into applause.

Rarely is a show with so few props so powerful. A red cloth becomes a child. A soft breeze lends it life - and then, as Gould recounts one of the many massacres that have claimed the lives of children in Burma, it falls to the ground. It is a pool of blood. It stays there. Nobody comes to take it away.

Gould tells of how Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris, an Oxford scholar, was denied the right to visit her in Burma, even as he knew he was dying from cancer. Aris's friends and family must be among those here this evening. So transfixed is the crowd that even in the Old Vic, where the sound of the seats creaking and the walls shrinking is usually part of the performance, there is quiet.

As the soliloquy draws to a close, there is an unexpected eruption of emotion from the solitary figure on stage. Oh, how this calm, graceful woman has suffered. And then there is silence. But a light shines on Gould's crumpled form, and does not go out. The lady of Burma may live in solitude, but tonight she is not alone.

"The one-woman performance was the best way of telling Suu Kyi's story," says Maureen Lipman, hosting the second part of the evening in conjunction with the Burma Campaign UK. "Humanising a political crisis is the best way of bringing it to the people."

Lipman is joined by Neil and Glenys Kinnock, John Pilger, Annie Lennox and Prunella Scales. "When a cause attracts campaigners as different as John Pilger and myself, you don't need me to tell you how much anger and resentment against the Burmese junta there is," Neil Kinnock says. A gravelly voiced Lennox, having just flown in from New York, relays a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a vehement campaigner for Burmese democracy. "Men, armed to the teeth, are running scared of Suu Kyi," she reads. "When those men are no more than the flotsam and jetsam of history, her name will be emblazoned in of gold. She has already won, and they know they have lost."

The evening ends with an address by the young human-rights campaigner and ethnic Karen refugee Zoya Phan, who, in traditional Burmese dress, tells the audience that she wants nothing more than to go back home. While her eyes express desperation, her words, even as she cries: "I hope I have wrapped my arms around your heart," do not sound trite. "But I do not want your heart," she continues: "I do not want your words. I want your actions." Her soft Burmese lilt lends urgency to her pleas, and as she walks away to a standing ovation, there is not a dry eye in the house.

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