A Westerner’s Guide to the Opium Wars is an ambitiously sprawling look at identity, culture, family, and history. Festooned in a cloth meringue and a tiara, Tabitha Woo embodies Queen Victoria, Empress of India (and a hell of a lot of other places that desperately wanted freedom from colonial rule in the following centuries) as she slowly studies German from her iPhone, and walks us through the rambling history of the English monarchy and the war with China.
Simply put, nothing is quiet as it seems, and history and identity can be as complex or as simple as you wish to make them. This one woman show entwines the personal and the historical, to walk audiences through this colonial war of drugs and tea, but more important still is her own family history and culture. Leaping through the centuries with the aid of sock puppets and Rogers and Hammerstein we see the echoes of these events in the family of this Tasmanian born actor.
For all the historical shenanigans and the show stopping numbers that make us cringe with the underlying racism threaded into the classic lyrics, it is that personal journey that is the most heart-warming, honest, and intensely moving. Woo leaves a little bit of herself up there on the stage, sharing with us those moments that have moved and effected her. Her charisma and honesty (as well as the vastly ambitious nature of the piece) are recompense for a little bit of lacking polish. You can see how those events touch her, and hear the catch in her voice as she recounts them.
Which is what A Westerners’ Guide to the Opium Wars is truly about. It’s sharing the experience of a diaspora, that which a migrant carries with them, be that in their hands or in their heart. It’s also the realisation of how vast and diverse our own roots are, and how we can chose to connect, or reconnect, with them.