By Carly Fisher
If you don’t yet know the name Anchuli Felicia King, you’ll want to learn it quickly. In only her mid-20s, King has shows this year at Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir’s 25A Program, as well as productions of her works in London and Washington DC coming up as well. It’s a big year for this young playwright who, no doubt, is likely to become one of the most significant Australian voices of playwrighting if her stardom continues like 2019.
In Melbourne this week, King’s The Golden Shield opened to full houses. Based on the Chinese government’s internet firewall and surveillance program, the play tracks an American law firm forming a class action brought up by a group of Chinese dissidents against a US-based company accused of collusion with the Chinese government – essentially of helping them create software designed yes, to increase internet speed but also to reduce privacy and enhance censorship.
From the outset of the play, King reminds us about the challenges of language and warns of the jargon and intense dialogue to come. That said, though the 2 and a half hour play is very dialogue-centered, the topic is interesting and the staging so slick that the audience stays attentive and follows the characters through their journey.
This is a big concept script – for those familiar with the works of Lucy Kirkwood, keep that style of script in mind. It tackles large thematic concerns and dances between two languages flawlessly, never dropping the audience for a moment. This is likely due to the very clever interweaving of the political and the personal that King has mastered – yes, the story is of government collusion, censorship, corporate greed, abuse, and other political concerns, but the heart of the story follows two sisters each making their own mistakes in the world that makes it impossible to forget each other but equally, too challenging to trust one another either.
Fiona Choi plays the Beijing born US lawyer, Julie, with a complicated family history but an obvious bone to pick with her motherland of China and the memories she clearly has not only of the country but of its people, particularly her mother. Distanced from her heritage, she has not kept up the language like her sister Eva, played by Jing-Xuan Chan, who is then employed to be her translator through China and this case working with the dissidents.
Chan steals every scene she is in. A beautiful performer who glides through each of her scenes, you’re left quickly questioning her character’s life choices at the same time as sympathizing for her throughout. When she reveals her often-considered-promiscuous profession, little judgement is passed in the way that often characters like hers attract in intellectually charged shows and instead, her plea to be more than a mindless prop but to be taken seriously for her own thoughts and opinions is as heart wrenching as it is thought-provoking. Who do we listen to in society? And why?
A narrator, Yuchen Wang, walks us through the complexity of the script – our translator through Act 1, speaking the context of each of the characters, and then in Act 2, a more literal translator from Mandarin to English, and then movement to words. He serves as a nice literary device through much of the play, offering spots of humour through scenes of heavy jargon or that are rich in dialogue.
The ensemble of 8 are tight and with some actors doubling up on characters, their transitions are smooth and their characterization masterful. Sophie Ross as both Amanda, an Australian activist, and Jane, a British corporate lawyer, is especially impressive within the Ensemble and in adopting both characters.
In a show dominated heavily by language – both in rhetoric quantity but also in its trying to make sense of translation and cross-cultural communication – it is so powerful when that language stops entirely and we witness the power of communication through movement. This is especially effective in a scene shared between Yi Jun and Gabrielle Chan (though I wish the narrator hadn’t spoken through the scene) which reminds us that there is always a possibility for retribution through the simple gestures and physical interactions we share.
The staging of the production is considered and exceptionally well executed. Sarah Goodes’ direction has ensured a fast-moving yet careful presentation of the themes and her ability to direct a perfect interaction between the on stage action and use of multimedia is testament to her experience and skill as one of Australia’s leading directors. The Sisters Hayes – Rebecca and Esther – have designed an incredibly impressive set that is at once rich with complexity in its function, yet so simple in its initial appearance. The set domineers; appropriately, it never allows any characters to feel comfortable or the locations to feel warm. It is a triumph of a set that continues to surprise through the piece and is supported magically by Damien Cooper’s striking lighting design that picks up the intensity of each scene perfectly.
Realistically, this show will not be for everyone because of its consistent wordiness throughout, however, for those looking for an intellectually stimulating play that forces you to consider your own opinions on censorship, surveillance and the use of the internet, this play is quite perfect and I would highly recommend it.
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.