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Review: White Pearl at Riverside Theatres

By Carly Fisher

Earlier this year I went to see Golden Shield at the Melbourne Theatre Company and learnt a little about this young playwright taking four of the world’s most prominent theatre companies by storm simultaneously, Anchuli Felicia King. In my review of Golden Shield I said then that if you didn’t know this name, it was time to start to learn it and quickly.

It’s only been two months since I wrote that and already this weekend I was back in another Anchuli Felicia King opening night, this time for Sydney Theatre Company, in co-production with the National Theatre of Parramatta for another stellar piece of theatre, White Pearl, and though I will elaborate for the next 500 words, if you read only till here in my review, take this away from it; buy tickets now, and follow this young playwright because she is going places and has something important to say on her way.

White Pearl tells of a nasty truth that goes viral – when Clearday, a Singaporean based cosmetic company selling whitening cream creates an extremely racist ad that is leaked before it is approved or edited, it doesn’t take long before the world’s criticism is on their doorstep. With views increasing by the second, the tight-knit band of female colleagues from all different parts of the world, quickly turn on each other to lay blame, pulling up not only personal gripes with one another but generations of cultural assumptions, misunderstandings and pure bigotry associated with one another’s heritage as well.

To start with, the writing is smart, witty and layered – these characters are each guided by personal stakes that makes this crisis, and its outcome, more or less distressing for them. Whilst I wish that some of these side stories had further air time (let’s talk about the tax embezzlement and ‘gifts’ for example), the lightening speed of the piece packs such a punch that I understand where those storylines hit the edit room floor. A story of corruption however was a well developed side plot that really gave us insight into the world that some of these characters come from – a job is not just a job for everyone.

Perhaps most successful here, and I will admit that this is said from an outsider’s point of view, is the clear expression of the cultural bias between each of the women and their heritage and why. I appreciated that it was explained and not left simply to the audience’s imagination – I liked that we in Sydney were finally privy to a story that separated Asian cultures and unpacked the tensions within the region as well. More than anything, I really appreciated that not only was there finally Asian representation on stage but it was not generic, rather intensely informed. It is about time we see this representation on the stages of major theatre companies…and that it was a predominately female cast too…icing on the cake! May this be the beginning of a great trend towards more of these kinds of works that offer these casting opportunities.

On casting, what an incredibly talented ensemble this show boasts – Vaishanavi Suryaprakash has certainly burst onto the Sydney theatre scene of late and this show is but another feather to add into her already impressive and accomplished hat. Suryaprakash takes on Priya, the founder of the company who is of British Indian descent and who proves that though she may have started the company with the best of democratic intentions amongst her team, in the face of a PR crisis, it’s each woman for herself first and foremost.

Deborah An commands the stage as Soo Jin, the scientist of the group and of a Korean background. Feeling desperately misunderstood by her boss and her peers, it takes little convincing from a desperate friend, Xiao, played hilariously and to perfection by Shirong Wu, to lie and throw the company under the bus in order to help protect her friend. In Soo Jin presents one of the most interesting debates of the show as well – is this a PR disaster because the Western world will see us as racist? Or has it worked because we will be closer to our Asian customers who agree with this message? It’s a complex argument that Ann gives such justice to and really causes further discussion post-show.

Wu’s comic timing is impeccable and delivered alongside her character’s emotional arc in which the stakes are so high for her character due to her father’s corruption conviction in China, Wu delivers a layered and charged performance of Xiao. Also calling on some great comedic skills is Merlynn Tong as Sunny who serves to lighten the mood and provide Priya with a right-hand-man throughout.

Catherine Van-Davies returns to the Sydney Theatre Company stage as the wealthy, American-educated but of Thai descent Built whose confidence in the office, in a toxic relationship and in her dealings with the other women is fierce throughout. Her moments of vulnerability are tackled with such honesty and grace, whilst her comedy is fast and exciting.

Ruki, played by Mayu Iwasaki, rounds out the office team in a quieter performance (with a few accent drops) but one that still grounds her as the pillar of morality in the office.

In the supporting role of Built’s ex-boyfriend, Matthew Pearce is manipulative and divisive to all the right degrees.

The show not only exposes racism within the workplace, within the advertising world and within a crazy world of viral videos, but also uncovers corporate greed, corruption and questionable ethics in the name of business. Though this company does unravel through the course of the show, it is only for the day…all of this drama happens within the day and considering four of them will continue to work there tomorrow, we can assume that the company goes into crisis strategy mode after this. It really makes you question how many of the brands we know, love and support experience very similar situations and to what frequency.

Directed by Priscilla Jackman, the show has a perfect balance of ensemble work whilst simultaneously featuring each storyline and character equally and appropriately. The show maintains an incredibly fast pace throughout and momentum never drops thanks in part to Jackman and also to the excellent design strategy by the whole design team. With projection designs by the uber-talented mid-20s writer herself, a very clever set by Jeremy Allen and great lighting and sound by Damien Cooper, Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay, the design team has worked in perfect unison to support this piece as it moves through spaces, times and storylines.

This has easily been one of my favourite shows produced by STC (in this co-production with the National Theatre of Parramatta) this year. I’m excited by the writer, by the casting and by the interesting story and I hope to see more from this whole team again soon! Sydney Theatre Company audiences who may not have included this show in their season yet because of the different venue (this one is at Riverside in Parramatta, slightly out from the usual STC stomping ground), do yourself a favour and jump on the M4 quickly to get to this one. It’s well worth it!

Image Credit: Philip Erbacher

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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