Review by Scott Whitmont
First staged in Brisbane by La Boite Theatre, to the delight of Sydney audiences, The Poison of Polygamy is now showing in collaboration with the Sydney Theatre Company.
Lyrically written by Anchuli Felicia King, this sweeping and epic historical play is based on a novel written in serial form in 1909-1910 by Wong Shee Ping - the first book written in the Antipodean Chinese diaspora. It was only rediscovered and translated to English in 2019.
Covering the early history of the Chinese in Australia, it spans the Opium Wars, mass Chinese migration in the Gold Rush era and the contribution of Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs to our 19th and early 20th century economies. At the same time, it examines the cultural waters in which they swam as well as their many travails and injustices perpetrated against them (which continue to modern times) in the wake of the White Australia Policy, widespread social discrimination and mistrust from ‘Aussie’ society.
The Poison of Polygamy’s plot revolves around the story of a cynical ‘new arrival’ nicknamed ‘Sleep-Sick’. He battles the Opium addiction he brought with him to our shores, yet is determined to make a success of himself and remit money to his long-suffering wife, Ma (played passionately by Merlynn Tong), back in China. The standout performance in an impressively strong cast all playing multiple roles is from Shan-Ree Tan as Sleep-Sick as well as ‘The Preacher’ - a ghost in the present-day who, as narrator, addresses the audience with philosophical sermons on questions of history, identity and immortality whilst recounting the tale of Sleep-Sick and his cohorts. Shan-Ree Tan is clearly a performer in full control of his craft. With a splendidly resonant voice, whilst he sermonizes to a captivated audience as The Preacher, he successfully pivots his way around the mostly bare Wharf 1 stage, recently renovated and now ‘in the round’. Clearly following instructions from their obviously talented Director, Courtney Stewart, all of the cast shows a special talent in ensuring that at whichever side of the theatre they may be sitting, each patron feels appropriately played to and addressed - often, also, from directly next to them in the audience aisles.
In the second half of the play, The Preacher is joined by a fellow-ghost narrator, Sleep-Sick’s conniving concubine, Tsiu Hei, a deliciously machiavellian villain who becomes a linchpin in the ultimate fates of Sleep-Sick and Ma. In another impressive performance, she is played by Kimie Tsukakoshi with supreme confidence, allure and charisma.
Sleep-Sick’s business partners/friends are played by Silvan Rus, Ray Chong Nee and Gareth Yuen and though in smaller dual roles, they likewise captivate and dazzle. The whole ensemble company impressively showcases Australian acting talent as they perform the often sorry history of their own cultural ancestry in this country.
The set is almost non-existent save, as scenes require, for the versatile use of large moveable red columns expertly rolled around the stage by the cast and forming gateways, doors or even a ship rolling on the high seas - inspired design from Designer James Lew.
Lighting Designer Ben Hughes makes clever use of strobe and spotlight lighting to dramatically emphasize the show’s denouement moments, further enhanced by clever use of smoke effects and haunting Chinese background melodies from composer Matt Hsu.
Choreographer Deborah Brown has the ensemble dancing and prancing with precision and dramatic effect. Props are minimal (a periodic bed or table and stools) and costumes are simple and mostly unaccessorised - Yet the overall effect perfectly recreates the world of the Chinese migrant with just the appropriate hint of its cultural milieu.
At an epic two hours and fifty minutes, The Poison of Polygamy is not for the faint-hearted theatre goer and could, perhaps, do with a slight edit. Overall, however, as a morality tale of the history of the Chinese community in Australia and the plight of non-White immigrants, it’s a theatrical triumph - innovative, relevant and stimulating. In the end, it showcases the pride that the Australian Chinese community can and should feel at the resilience, determination, triumphs and successes achieved by their forebears against often overwhelming odds. The Poison of Polygamy is a fine example of what theatre entertainment can and should be.