Review: The Golden Dragon, sex.violence.blood.gore, Terrain ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Review: The Golden Dragon, sex.violence.blood.gore, Terrain

The Golden Dragon

L-R: Jan Friedl, Ash Flanders, Rodney Afif and Roger Oakley in The Golden Dragon. Photo: Melissa Cowan

Roland Schimmelpfennig's deconstructed play The Golden Dragon teases out the verities of performance by pushing the text into the face of the audience. We are not asked to "believe" in the reality on stage: instead, we are asked to understand it. Everyone is cast against type: women are played by men, Asian characters by westerners, old characters by young actors, and so on. Actors move fluidly between different parts, with spoken stage directions serving as narration: the usually silent parts of a playtext - especially the pause - are said out loud. This is something like the conceit of Elevator Repair Service's Gatz - the most baffing avant garde hit of all time, in my isolated opinion - but much wittier. And, as its story unfolds, of much more significance.

The Golden Dragon is a series of vignettes featuring characters who live in an apartment block, on the ground floor of which is an Asian restaurant. The catalyst for what becomes a meditation about the treatment of illegal immigrants, exile, misogyny and violence is the extraction of a young waiter's poisonous tooth by the other restaurant staff. Daniel Clarke's sharp production takes Schimmelpfennig's conceit at face value and flies, with a top-flight ensemble cast who judge both the comedy and pathos unerringly. It also features Andrew Bailey's ingenious pop-out set, which is unpacked at the start of the play from a shipping container. After Robert Reid's On The Production of Monsters, this demonstrates that the Lawler Studio season at the MTC has invested in some classy writing. Closes July 7, so hurry.


Matt Furlani and Zoe Boesen. Photo: Sarah Walker

It's no surprise to read that Singaporean enfant terrible Alfian bin Sa'at is a poet as well as a playwright. sex.violence.blood.gore (co-written with Ching Tze Chien) is a play that exploits the poetic of theatre, pushing at the edges of rupture that also concerned Jean Genet. Like Genet, bin Sa'at explores a queer aesthetic that links sexual and colonial violence, invoking disturbing fantasies of power that open up the perversions of repression and lacing the anger of his writing with moments of unexpected lyrical tenderness. He is a moralist in the same sense as Genet, wrenching open the hypocrisies and hidden desires that writhe inside conventional moralities and offering up the resulting complexities, with a curiously dispassionate air, for our inspection. Which is to say: MKA has done us a service in breaking our Anglocentric bubble and bringing this significant writer to our notice. Singapore is just up the road, people: we (meaning me too) should know more about what's going on there.

The play itself is really a series of short plays: a repressed geography teacher whose suddenly released sexual rapacity must be destroyed at all costs; a viciously satirical skit on British colonial women fantasising about their Cantonese maids;  two lovers and two soldiers in the wake of the Japanese occupation of China and the infamous Rape of Nanking; two teens meeting a pair of transvestites on a train; a monologue from Annabel Lee, a cross between the "world's biggest porn star" Annabel Chong and Lee Kuan Yew. Stephen Nicolazzo directs a compelling production: Eugyeene Teh's set frames the action in a pink simulacrum of a traditional proscenium arch, all wonky Grecian columns and Hans Belmer naked limbs, and the cast is costumed in archly pornographic corsets, dog collars and panties, with the white-face make-up of Kabuki theatre. The performances - as in The Golden Dragon, cast against expectations - are outstanding.


Anyone who saw Frances Rings's Artefact, half of Bangarra's double bill of earth and sky, will be aware of the power of this choreographer's sensual expressiveness. Terrain - a nine-part dance work inspired by Lake Eyre - is her first full-length work, and it's a dazzler. Springing from the Indigenous traditions of this inland sea, Rings weaves a dance of dualities - salt and water, male and female, fluidity and obduracy, body and landscape - into intricate harmonies of movement.

Parts of this work made me cry for the sheer unashamed beauty of it. This is no anodyne prettiness, but a tough, detailed and confronting grace that offers an experience of the sacred which is rare in Australian theatre.  (There's a solo by dancer Elma Kris - who must be some kind of shaman - that gave me goosebumps.) As this dance reminds us, this knowledge of the sacred is no anthropological curiosity, but as contemporary and alive as the continuing struggle for land rights. Beautifully scored by David Page with sounds ranging from Indigenous songs, throbbing electronic sound, chants for Land Rights to unadorned lyric melody, it also features a stunningly minimal design from Jacob Nash. This is a work that totally possesses you for the duration and leaves you exhilarated.

Why the short reviews? Here's why.

The Golden Dragon by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by David Tushingham, directed by Daniel Clarke. design by Andrew Bailey, lighting by Emma Valente, sound by Russell Goldsmith. With Rodney Afif, Ash Flanders, Jan Friedl, Dana Miltins and Roger Oakley. Melbourne Theatre Company, Law Studio, until July 7.

sex.violence.blood.gore by Alfian Bin Sa'at (with Chong Tze Chien), directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Design by Eugyeene Teh, lighting by Yasmine Santoso, sound by Claudio Tocco. With Genevieve Giuffre, Caherine Davies, Matt Furlani, Whitney Boyd, Amy Scott-Smith, Zoe Boesen and Caitlin Adams. MKA Theatre at MKA Pop-Up, 64 Sutton St, North Melbourne, until July 17. Bookings.

Terrain, choreographed by Frances Rings. Composed by David Page, set design by Jacob Nash, cosotume design by Jennifer Irwin, light design by Karen Norris. Bangarra Dance Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 7. Sydney Opera House July 18-August 18. IPAC Wollongong August 24-25. Adelaide Festival Centre August 29-September 1. Canberra Theatre Centre, September 13-15. QPAC, Brisbane, October 3-7.

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