Review by Gemma Keliher
A relatively new Australian play, which was developed in 2018 and premiered at the National Theatre of Parramatta as a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company in 2019, White PearI takes a satirical look at various themes across the corporate workplace, the cosmetics industry, and global relations. Written by Anchuli Felicia King, the play seems designed to make the audience question, re-evaluate and discuss the lens through which these issues affect their life, all while providing a platform for marginalised voices.
Set in modern-day Singapore at a successful startup skincare company, whose bestselling product is their skin whitening cream, the play opens amid a crisis. The company's latest advertisement for the whitening cream has been leaked online and they face global backlash for racist messaging. While we watch the all-female office scramble to come up with a solution to save face, tensions rise as relationships, racial views, beauty standards and workplace culture all come under the microscope.
Anchuli Felicia King has presented a beast of a play that threads together multiple issues of modern life. Her use of comedy to showcase these darker themes provides an entertaining view that can comfort the audience through relatability, while also setting up moments of discomfort depending on the life experience of the audience. The actors had the audience in their grasp from the start – any moments of tension on stage would ripple out through the audience, and the comedic beats that were being consistently hit would elicit laughter. Whether the laughter was from discomfort, relating to the content, or simply being given permission to laugh would depend entirely on the demographic of the audience. It is interesting to think of the various receptions a play that touches on so many topics would have.
Cheryl Ho, playing the character Sunny Lee, was particularly strong in her comedic timing and bringing light and energy to the stage. Deborah An, as the chemical consultant Soo-Jin Park, showed great dynamic as both a caring and loyal friend, and a fierce fighter who is willing to blackmail to get what she wants. While there were certainly moments of differing power dynamics between the ensemble, I would have liked to see some more emphasis or play with status, to highlight this power shifting throughout the play and how this affected the interactions. Moments where this was clear and therefore quite impactful were in the bathroom scene between Built (Nicole Milinkovic) and Marcel (Matthew Pearce), and the final scene of the play with all the women turning on their fearless leader. This final ending of a descent into chaos rather than a storybook resolution was satisfying to watch and felt true to the story being told.
For those familiar with the Billie Brown Theatre, you would know its corner stage inspires unique stage design and the use of set and the staging of White Pearl was a great example. Jeremy Allen’s creative use of space was able to capture multiple locations within an open plan office including the toilets, a conference room, and the lobby of the building. The re-direction to a new space on the stage and the changing of sets operated smoothly and demonstrated both the actors and creative team clearly working as a well-oiled machine. Seated at the utmost left of the audience, there was some blocking in the bathroom that left me unable to see actors for sections of the scene, but for the most part any scene based in the cubicle had been well blocked with the audience view in mind. The incorporation of technology was appropriate, as a theatrical element through the large screen used to highlight the dark side of social media, as well as the set and props tech used to aid the setting of a modern, successful startup company in Singapore.
As events unfolded during the duration of the play, in which we saw the increasing online backlash towards the fictional skincare company, there was a constant balance of themes that impacted each character. Issues such as toxic corporate culture, particularly the niche issues found in startups that find early success, as well as an all-female dynamic, pan-Asian relations and racial clashes, the impact of western culture, and differing world views and beauty standards were present during each scene, even if they weren’t directly pointed at.
Anchuli Felicia King certainly has a lot to say with this production, and it would do us all well to listen. Certainly, an Australian playwright to keep your eye on. White Pearl runs at Queensland Theatre until July 10th, book your tickets soon for an entertaining night that will surely provide the basis for many insightful conversations.
Want to see White Pearl - here is where to catch it:
White Pearl is Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside's National Theatre of Parramatta production touring to Queensland Theatre (until July 10); STC Wharf 2 (19 July - 4 Sept); Riverside Theatre, Parramatta (9 – 11 Sept); and Canberra Theatre Centre (15 – 18 Sept).
Image Credit: Phil Erbacher