Deftly balancing international corporate intrigue with intimate human relations, Melbourne Theatre Company’s world premiere of new Anchuli Felicia King play Golden Shieldis riveting, thought-provoking adult-oriented entertainment.
The first new production to originate from Melbourne Theatre Company’s visionary, generously funded NEXT STAGEprogram, Golden Shield could proudly take its place on the international stage, and probably will. Young playwright King seizes upon the fascinating legal battles deriving from American involvement in China’s “Golden Shield” (internet firewall), teasing out the inherent complications of global and interpersonal communication and censorship.
Three aspects of King’s writing significantly elevate the interest level of the material. Using a non-linear timeline adds to the tension whilst also providing many a satisfying moment as myriad mysteries are solved along the way. King’s ear for natural dialogue grounds the characters in realism. Finally, King laces the action with welcome humour, deriving solely from the foibles of the characters.
At a time when theatre often responds to the call for diversity by practising colour blind casting (mostly involving supporting roles), Golden Shield provides meaty leading characters for actors of Asian background. Hopefully, in the near future such a move would not require comment, but for the moment, the creation of fascinatingly flawed characters is surely a most welcome opportunity for the actors involved.
King’s focus on world communication is crystallised in the character of The Translator, a personable young man who is not only our conduit into the world of international law but also proves to be an adroit interpreter of subtext and even of non-verbal body language. Explaining and illustrating the differences between English and Mandarin, the presence of The Translator adds extra zest to scenes that would be rather dry in lesser hands.
The challenges and choices of translation are further explored when crusading lawyer Julie Chen engages her estranged sister Eva as translator for her search for litigants in Beijing. Key plot points hinge on Eva’s difficulty in separating her personal feelings and judgements from her duty to impartially translate speech. With sisters Julie and Eva scarred by life with their grimly oppressive mother, the parallel of their battle with freedom and censorship is neatly made with the same issues on a vast scale.
If there is one fault with the play itself, it is that at 150 minutes (including interval) it is overlong. Additional denouements after the dramatic conclusion of the trial simply seem superfluous. Still, tension is tightly maintained for the majority of the running time, and enjoyment of the engaging characters scaffolds the entertainment.
Director Sarah Goodes creates the seamless flow of a movie, performing something of a miracle in that the frequent jumps in time and place are clearly telegraphed. Working with King’s natural dialogue, Goodes has drawn neatly underplayed performances from the cast. Stakes are high, but there is no need for melodramatic moustache twirling when the writing is this good.
Goodes’ makes canny use of The Sisters Hayes’ austere yet handsome setting, creating multiple locations with the simplest of furniture. The high grey slate walls give a sense of grandeur as well as neutrality in regard to culture. Banks of windows carry live projection from the stage, a gimmick that can be overused but is impactfully well judged here.
Damien Cooper’s lighting design draws the eye about the open stage and contributes to the late coup de théâtrewhen the ceiling lowers, creating a sense of claustrophobia with a central circle of light in the centre of the stage. Composer Luke Smiles enhances the play’s tension with subtle but insistent beats that convey the relentless drive of a ticking clock.
In what is essentially an ensemble piece, Fiona Choi emerges as the heart of the play, her unshowy portrayal of determined lawyer Julie making the character’s eventual downfall as believable as it is affecting. Choi enjoys easy chemistry with younger sister Eva, deftly played Jing-Xuan Chan, who does not allow Eva’s personal revelations to derail the young woman’s integrity.
Nicholas Bell plays a pair of straight guys, his dithering internet executive played for deliberately uncomfortable laughs. Josh McConville brings out the brash yet cowardly self-centredness of fellow internet executive Marshall McLaren, the best kind of villain who simply believes he is right.
Sophie Ross portrays an extraordinarily distinct pair of characters, contrasting as icy British corporate lawyer with a sunny Melbourne activist. First seen as coldly assertive Deputy Minister Gao Shengwei, Gabrielle Chan later brings noble heart to wounded wife Huang Mei. Yi Jin draws sympathy and understanding as long term activist Li Dao.
In a breakout performance, Yuchen Wang brings a delightful sense of fun to The Translator, successfully bringing a sense of spontaneity to the role so as to give the sense that he is actually there on stage to react and interpret the play for us in real time as it unfolds.
The relatively rare piece of theatre that respects audience intelligence and leaves hearty food for thought, Golden Shield is highly recommended.
Golden Shield plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until 14 September 2019.
The Golden Shield program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby