Hetain Patel was born in Bolton the son of a car worker who came to the Britain from India in the 1970s (we don’t hear anything about his Mum but maybe that’s for another show). At the start of the show Patel communicates with us via projected captions/sub titles, or through speaking Chinese translated for us by YuYu Rau, a dancer who came to this country from Taiwan more recently. Via Rau, Patel tells us he is doing this because this because he doesn’t want us to make assumptions about his Northern accent. Actually, later in the show he does talk directly to us and at one point Rau tries to correct his pronunciation to‘proper’ English, like hers- although, of course, she speaks with distinctive Taiwanese inflections. In the course of the piece Patel uses a number of other accents, depending on what or who he is talking about. At one point, speaking about his Dad he puts on an ‘Indian accent’ before going on to note that, in fact, his father has exactly the same Bolton accent as the British born people he works within in the factory because that is where he learnt his English. When Patel engages in verbal mimicry of his father it becomes noticeable that this is a far ‘broader’ Northern accent than his own.
Carrying on the theme of mimicry, although Patel is speaking Chinese, it turns out that he is simply repeating the same paragraph over and over again, much to the amusement of the Chinese speakers in the audience who (obviously)got the joke before the rest of us.
This paragraph, which he picked up during a trip he took to China and which expresses his frustration at not being able to speak the language, was taught him by rote, or rather ‘as if’, he says ‘it were music’. Because the person who taught it to him was female and there is a gendered tonal variance in this language, he has been told that to the Chinese ear when he says it he sounds ‘like a woman’. Of course, he also ‘sounds like a woman’ when translated by Rau, although she is not really ‘translating’ what he actually says but rather what he wishes to say but cannot in the Chinese language. Eventually, Rau becomes tired of this role and suggests instead that show’s musician Ling Peng, who plays the classical Chinese guzheng and the erhu, takes over. Peng then translates for Patel via the medium of the erhu, and when this instrument is used to mimic his speech, its normally plaintive and melancholy tones become comic.
The substance of the show is autobiographical, touching on Patel’s experience of growing up in Bolton, where he overcame his dislike of occasionally being expected to wear ‘Indian clothing’ by re-imagining it as a ‘ninja costume’. This image, in a sense, both differentiates and merges together his main role models, Kung Fu master star Bruce Lee (with Patel borrowing the show’s title from a comment in a Bruce Lee film) and his Dad. A similar process of differentiating and merging these two disparate figures is played out in episodes within the show. As well as translating for him vocally and trying to correct his English accent, Rau has been teaching Patel a series of balletic (fake?),‘Kung Fu moves’ loosely borrowed from a scene in the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and at different times, they perform parts and versions of this sequence, sometimes together, sometimes alone.
In contrast to this mode of impersonation we see slides of durational art project that involved Patel growing his hair and moustache so that he resembled his Father’s passport photo from when he first came to Britain (although when Patel’s moustache grows a little too luxuriant, passers by on the street start shouting ‘Andele! Andele!’, not the cultural reference he was aiming at). Later, a video of Mr Patel senior shows him at the car factory talking us through the various parts of his job, and in the first instance his son reproduces these moves on stage but coming back to the video a second time, he transforms them into moves from the Kung Fu sequence.
Ultimately it is Rau who performs this sequence ‘properly’ and in full, while Patel works to capture it on a live feed, multi camera set up, so as reproduce the shots used in the ‘original’ film. Once again then she ‘translates’ for him. However, as well as voicing Patel’s stories she slips in a some of her own, telling us of her training in classical ballet in Taiwan, her move to London, her discovery of contemporary dance and her acclimatisation to this form and to colloquial English. Further, the ‘climax’ of the show belongs to her, as she performs an extended dance sequence to a mix of recorded Western music and Peng’s live playing in the Chinese tradition, and using choreography which similarly seems to literally to embody and ‘speak’ her movement ‘between’ cultures.
As all this suggests, and as indicated by publicity for the show, Be Like Water is ‘about’ cultural identity. Yet this bald statement like my own bald (and incomplete) summary above does not do justice to this innovative, beguiling and multilayered piece. It lends itself as a classic ‘case study’ for Homi Bhabha’s, Avtar Brah and Stuart Hall’s aanalyses of the way certain types of ‘hybrid’ postcolonial subjectivities are created ‘in between’ cultures and ‘in between’ history, fantasy and mimicry and are constantly shifting in ways that (like water) overflow and confuse boundaries, not just of nationality and ethnicity but also of gender and class. Like those subjectivities (as theorised) however this means as a show itself is fluid and paradoxical, resisting easy description or definition.
Technically Be like Water is a very simple and direct and funny show performed with a lightness of touch. Yet as exemplified by Peng’s playing this ‘lightness’ arises from virtuosity and segments such as those relating to Patel’s Dad or Rau’s final dance, convey intense emotion and overall the piece is clearly the result of a painstaking process of exploring complex ideas and of crafting, polishing and assembling. For instance the sound and lighting are operated from the stage and the ‘set’ is simply a couple of screens, some flight cases and several cameras but the way these are used is unexpected, imaginative and sometimes magical. There is a brilliant section where by means of projections and using a long ruler (which in the course of the show has been used as a ‘pointer’ and as a ninja weapon) bit by bit, Patel conjures a message apparently out of thin air, as if written on water.
Finally, it is an autobiographical piece about very specific identities and experiences. Yet it also invites broad identification in terms of the ways in which our sense of self is produced and reproduced, formed, performed and transformed through encounters with others, real and fictional, and how our own fantasies about the self we project may be recognised or misrecognised.
I loved this show because it is made with love and also at its core ‘about’ love. The ‘message’ referred to above that Patel makes magically appear (and disappear) is ‘My Father worked hard and struggled so I don’t have to. But I want to work hard and to struggle’. Be Like Water is ‘about’ cultural identity but it is also ‘about’ a son’s love for his father, who works in a car factory in Bolton and in his own way is every bit as much a ‘hero’ worthy of emulation as the lead character in a Kung Fu film.
Unfortunately, I saw this show on the penultimate night of its tour but if you get a chance to see Patel’s work, grab it.