Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Learning to live with the dead

Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 16 – November 6

“You have to write everything down,” newbie funeral director Steve (Mitchell Bourke) is told by a colleague on his first callout. Thankfully for theatre-goers, Toowoomba born playwright Steve Pirie has done exactly that, with “Return to the Dirt”, winner of the prestigious Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (QPDA), the largest playwriting award in the country, which sees a guaranteed Queensland Theatre production of the winning play. The work, which has been inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home is not only one of the best ever QPDA winners, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment.

In it, a playwright called Steve invokes a version of himself as he recalls his one year in Toowoomba where he traded his unemployed life as a struggling theatre artist for work in a funeral home as an undertaker. It is two weeks before Christmas in 2014 and Steve and his fiancé Claire (Sophie Cox) have a wedding to pay for, and so we see the story literally rotate, courtesy of the revolve stage design, through scenes from waiting room anticipation of his interview, and then the realities of his induction to the calling that becomes his day-in and day-out.

The narrative is framed by Pirie himself as The Playwright, recounting the events in asides to the audience while also critiquing the big business approach of the funeral industry. The credibility of the show’s commentary is enhanced by the device, however, it also enables his reflection on who he was and how he dealt with issues around mental health. And we see this complemented by creative choices such as the oversized suits that reflect young Steve’s youth and sense of never feeling fully at fit within himself.

The play brings with it big themes not just around death, but about finding one’s place in the world, the power of personal redemption and humility. Renee Mulder’s design elements mean that we are immersed into intimate experience of and connection with the story, not just through the stage’s proximity to the Bille Brown Theatre audience that could otherwise be lost in a big space, but also through its Act Two projections, which provoke active audience engagement towards appreciating the age range of deaths in the city, for all sorts of reasons.

While the work deals with a number of heavy themes, “Return to the Dirt” is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offers a refreshing take on a young man’s story, in what could easily have been clichéd. It is littered with identifiable small town allusions, not just to Toowoomba but regional areas everywhere and very real characters like there-for-everyone Deb (Jeanette Cronin), Steve’s older funeral director mentor. Every workplace in every town probably has a Deb; she tells her truth sometimes without consideration of social etiquette, and we love her because deep down it’s maybe ours too. And Cronin’s performance highlights her compassion and matter-of-factness in equal measure, effectively breaking the tension on many occasions to balance the show’s tone.  

The show is well-acted throughout, by performers who are all making their Queensland Theatre debut. Onstage for almost the entire time, Bourke is excellent as the young Steven, in increasing conflict between his personal demons and the psychological price of collecting and caring for bodies and interacting with grieving family members. The small ensemble handles the show’s revolving door of characters and props with ease, adding many moments of perfectly-pitched comedy, that ensures that even a well-timed background character wink can erupt the audience in laughter. And vibrant Act One scenes, in which The Playwright shares information about embalming, funeral insurance and alike, provide a buoyant balance with the pathos that follows after interval.  

“Return to the Dirt” is a big, layered play of two halves, however, under Lee Lewis’ direction, it rarely feels long until its bunny-hops to a conclusion. It is fascinating, confronting and comforting in its examination of what it means to die in the 21st century and with its universal themes and engaging presentation it can easily transfer to a season in any location. With “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” now postponed until next year, it also serves as perfect conclusion to the 2021 Queensland Theatre season, in thematic bookend with its opener “Our Town” in its universally human consideration of who we are and how we measure our lives.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Looking to ’22

On the Sunday sliver of space between the end of Brisbane Festival and the Tony Awards celebration of Broadway being back, Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis has launched its 2022 season with promise of continued celebration of the resilience of the arts and cultural sector, and the power of great stories told by talented artists. And season tickets are on sale now!

Finally making its way to the mainstage, after 2020’s false Brisbane start, is the rarely performed and highly anticipated “Othello”. Adapted for the stage by Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein (who is also the production’s director), the work’s examination of race and gender politics through an Australian lens will be occurring at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre from 10 September to 1 October as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival. The trilingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) production promises illumination of the vital role of the Torres Straight Light Infantry Battalion during World War Two.

Shakespeare also makes an appearance of sorts with Theresa Rebek’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet” directed by Lee Lewis, which, with support by Phillip Bacon Galleries, will be take audiences to the fashion and feminism of late 19th century Paris in the Bille Brown Theatre from 28 May to 18 June. Forget ‘to be, or not to be’, for theatre star Sarah Bernhardt absolutely will when she sets her sights on playing Hamlet because who better to take on the greatest part ever written than the greatest actress of the century?

Classics continue to feature within the season’s framework with a reminder that nothing good ever happens after 3am, courtesy of Edward Albee’s big and bold domestic comedy, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” (most recently seen at Brisbane’s Ad Astra), which will be showing at QPAC’s Playhouse from February 12 – 26. Directed by Margaret Harvey, the fresh State Theatre Company South Australia production, supported by Production Partner Griffith University, promises a fresh and unique vision of the classic portrait of a marriage in crisis in its veer between reality and illusion, and hatred and desire.  

Another highlight comes courtesy of the revival of Wesley Enoch’s joyous Brisbane musical “The Sunshine Club” (with music by John Rodgers) which the Australian playwright and former Queensland Theatre artistic director will direct at the QPAC Playhouse from 9 – 30 July. In partnership with QPAC and supported by Production Partner Ergon Energy, the groundbreaking 1999 show will swing audiences into the titular Sunshine Club of 1946 where everyone is welcome and romances bloom.

Big social themes feature at the heart of many of the season’s works, including with Kendall Feaver’s “The Almighty Sometimes”, a heartfelt family drama that explores the complexities of diagnosing children and raising teenagers towards independence. Under Daniel Evans’ direction, the award-winning play will bring to its audiences serious subject matter with some funny at Bille Brown Theatre from 13 August to 3 September.

March will see the world premiere of the compelling debut work “First Casualty” at the Bille Brown Theatre, supported by Production Partners BDO Australia, the Landmark Productions Fund and Legacy Queensland. The work, written by a serving soldier and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Christopher Johnston, to be directed by Lee Lewis, will, from 12 March to 9 April, take its audiences to the high point of the war in Afghanistan in 2011. The story of soldiers more than war, promises authenticity in its depiction of the triumphs, tragedies, strains and sacrifices of defence force personnel.

Also more intimate in its focus is the world premiere of “don’t ask what the bird look like” by Hannah Belanszky, which will be directed by Isaac Drandic at the Bille Brown Theatre from 30 April to 14 May. This gently funny, almost gothic tale about land, family and reconnection from an exciting new First Nations voice promises to be a heart-warming meditation on the search for identity and belonging with a light touch of humour and a philosophical undercurrent.

The season of complex and richly diverse stories will conclude with a one of home and celebration of immigrant and refugee stories, as well as our common humanity. With hippies, cowboys and a ninja battle on stage at the Bille Brown Theatre, under the direction of Lee Lewis, the wild hip hop romance of Qui Nguyen’s American heartland road trip take “Vietgone” looks set to bring some pulp fiction style surprises along with its humour and songs (original music by Shane Rettig) to its 29 October – 19 November season.

Queensland Theatre’s season of eight plays, including two world premieres, represents a now particularly treasured opportunity to bring community together, regardless of how the reality of the year to come may pan out. And given the vibrancy of its diverse 2022 program, audiences can now only await with fingers crossed anticipation for a fantastic year filled with theatre.

Blockbuster boy

Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

August 30 – October 9

QPAC, The Playhouse

With an absent alcoholic dad and a mum in jail, Eli Bell’s (Joe Klocek) 1980s adolescent life in Brisbane’s outer suburbs is all about timing. It’s a idea established from the opening scene of the Brisbane Festival blockbuster “Boy Swallows Universe” in the clock tower of Brisbane’s Town Hall as we are flashed forward seven years to where the story will end. And it is a motif that is especially appropriate given how sustained the ‘time does not exist’ audience engagement is between these two points of the production, which is written by Tim McGarry as an adaptation of the bestselling Australian novel inspired by Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood.

The first rule of storytelling is to show rather than tell, and this is what lies at the heart of the show’s success as it moves the audience quickly through the many early fast-moving scenes of its gritty coming of age story. Swift scene changes go virtually unnoticed within Renee Mulder’s dynamic design. It is all incredibly clever as a revolving stage is used and door frames appear to drop us into the intimacy of rooms that aren’t physically there. Ben Hughes’ lighting design creates atmosphere, especially to darken us into the suffering that comes in head to interval and Craig Wilkinson’s video design widens us to be, for example, under a starry sky as moving images bleed across the blank canvas of a stage to create suburban balconies and alike to give things a 3D effect. This similarly allows for the story’s blackness to seep in as it ebbs and flows from optimism to setback such as when Eli and his brother’s hopes of a life with the newly-returned-to-them mother are dashed by her continuing to live in a domestic abuse situation, showing that there is no shying away from the local novel’s confronting themes.

Brisbane mentions are enhanced by video design reminders of the visuals of place. And just as its costumes cover the spectrum of 80s fashion, Steven Francis’ pumping sound design allows songs of the era to bring back memories alongside of-the-time pop cultural mentions from “Family Ties” to famous Olympians. In the interest of creating light and shade, however, the musical vitality is largely gone in Act Two when things get more serious as seen through Eli’s maturing eyes.  

Humour and words of wisdom are used in equal measure to engage the audience, often from the most surprising of places, such as Eli’s friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday (Anthony Phelan), convicted killer and infamous Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol. In Act One, a lot of laughs come courtesy of Hoa Xuande’s portrayal of Eli’s criminal school fiend Darren Dang. In Act Two, they are from Anthony Gooley as hard-line but quippy Courier Mail Editor Brian Roberttson, who clearly does not suffer fools easily.

All characters are created with complexity, in reflection of Slim’s reminder to Eli that there are different types of good and bad. Mathew Cooper gives Eli’s father Robert an essential empathy and Michala Banas’ portrayal of Eli’s mother Frankie’s complexity is almost uncomfortably honest. It is Klocek, however, who carries the show with his portrayal of the boy with an adult soul, barely off stage for its duration. Over its course we see him both capture the mannerisms of a 12-year-old boy and also age through to a more confident and broad-shouldered 19-year-old standing surer in himself as he begins life as a journalist.

Some of Klocek’s best moments come when in banter with Tom Yaxley as Eli’s brother August, such as when the duo listen in on a school guidance councillor’s conversation of concern with their father about the traumatic event of the past that has fractured the family and caused August to stop speaking, instead silently swirling cryptic messages in the air with his finger. And while Yaxley says few words, his communication is in-depth, especially in attempt to come to his sibling’s rescue in the violence of Act One’s climax.

A great story isn’t automatically a great play. And while transformation of Trent Dalton’s hugely successful novel has been a massive undertaking (more than two years in the planning) it has absolutely paid off in what is probably the best show Queensland Theatre has ever produced, because of its approach to the story’s words. The show’s design ensures that while only essential words are needed, they still remain at the heart of things, with protagonist Eli’s letters to incarcerated Rebels motorcycle club Sergeant-at-Arms Alex Bermudez (Joss McWillian) appearing as projections across the space.

“Boy Swallows Universe” is a story of massive scale, clocking in at slightly under three hours duration (including interval), yet under Sam Strong’s tight and pacy direction, it feels like so much shorter with audience members engaged in its details to the point of even spontaneous applause in response to events on stage and reactions so seemingly genuine as to leave you wondering if they occur in the same moments of each performance. More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, the production honours the original text and refashions it as a work of its own, grounded beyond any just aesthetic veneer.

The confronting language, themes and violence that are integral to the narrative are littered throughout. Fight scenes (Fight and Intimacy Director Nigel Poulton) are realistic, and there is simulated violence in keeping with its mature themes. While there is certainly a lot of confrontation, however, this is part of the ultimate journey to optimism that serves as a key component of novel’s resonance. Queensland Theatre retains this core celebration of the spirit of resilience and the power of love to overcome dysfunction in what is a story of characters, but also real people and a family (motley as they may be), meaning that with its lots of laughs, time-to-time tears and essential heart, the landmark “Boy Swallows Universe” is something truly special and likely the best theatre you will have seen in a long time.

Photos c/o -David Kelly

Playing with the patriarchy

Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

July 14 – August 7

Opening night performances often end with a standing ovation, sometimes as a slowly staggered act of obligation. In the case of the conclusion of Suzie Miller’s brilliant “Prima Facie”, however, Queensland Theatre audience members are immediately on their feet in an acclaim of thunderous applause that lasts through three curtain calls. It is an especially significant display of praise given that the riveting 100-minute tour de force indictment of the legal system is a one-woman show.

While it may be a little play in scale, “Prima Facie” is clearly about big #metoo type of ideas. What makes it ultimately gripping, however, is the storytelling skill of its performer Sheridan Harbridge, who plays 30-something Tessa, a self-described ‘bastard defence lawyer’ at the top of her game who likes to work hard and play hard. “The law is the law,” she says and as she has been taught, this is what she trusts, above even her own instincts. It’s a mantra that has abided as a key part of her successes as a criminal attorney… successes that have seen her esteemed by the promised prestige of new chambers.

The story is told entirely from Tessa’s point of view. The clearly-confident, cool-headed criminal defence barrister has worked hard to rise from working class origins to succeed in the upper class private school world of the law, which both legitimises and humanises her as a character. Her ruthless addition to the adrenaline of cross examination of witnesses is clear from the outset as she reveals in her charismatic retelling of courtroom experience of the game of law and flashes back to early law school days, with Harbridge effortlessly assuming a range of distinct characters with which to enliven each anecdote. It’s a very funny ease in what is ultimately a confronting tale in its truths, because while Tessa is initially unfaltering in her belief that the law is a tool for justice, something life-altering happens to her that betrays the beliefs at the core of her identity.

Before we realise, the story has darkened when, Tessa is sexually assaulted by a co-worker and she is forced to feel firsthand the trauma of experience within a system that fails so many women. And as Tess reports the crime and prepares for her day in court, this time as a witness, it becomes clear just how much a woman’s experience doesn’t fit the male defined world of the law. The role of Tessa is a challenging one, not just as it brings with it the load of carrying a one-woman drama of such lengthy duration. And Harbridge shows an incredible emotional range and expert control over every performance element in her share of what is a compelling character study.

Staging in appropriately simple; Renee Mulder’s set design focuses us on a lone swivel chair on a raised platform “Mastermind” style, while projections signpost the sometimes non-linear timeline. The choreography of movements around the platform adds much to audience engagement in Tessa’s tale, especially in work with Trent Suidgeest lighting design. Blue shades steel us into the trauma of Tessa’s recollections and warms things back to the present from which her retrospect is being presented, including as she is giving her testimony in court.

The play is well-constructed and effectively paced to take the audience from the humorous to the harrowing, but also in its arc of motifs and mentions. Though mostly told through Tessa’s narration of everything that is happening, even this is authentic, with occasional focus on small observational details alongside the big. Miller’s script considers language carefully meaning there is a truth to seemingly the simplest of lines, such as the heartbreak of Tessa’s emotional contemplation of how to tell her mother what has happened. They are brought to full poignant potential by Harbridge’s faultless performance as a determined woman, tormented by attempts to almost cross examine herself in question of her own memory, as much as by those employed to challenge her credibility. And when she speaks her truth outlining all she had lost, late in the show, it is an inspiring manifesto from within her damaged sense of self.

“Prima Face” is a crafted contemporary theatre work, controlled in its tonal shifts and offsets. The hard-hitting play not only scrutinises the Australian legal system, sexual consent laws and the burden of proof (and the impact of these upon victims), but forces contemplation of a system clearly defined by patriarchal values, through an engaging empathetic lens. And while it is piercing in its social commentary, it is also highly accessible for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Indeed, Lee Lewis’ detailed direction provides spaces enough to support audience members in their own contemplations as to what is right and fair within a legal system that, although organic, is currently faulty in its failure of so many silenced women.

The critically lauded and awarded show has had a previous life; it was written in 2017 (before the #metoo movement) by former lawyer Miller, and it is unfortunate to reflect on how little has changed in this time with regards to the patriarchal justice system catching up to society’s needs. And while extended restrictions may have meant no usual opening night celebrations, we must be of course be thankful to still have the chance to access live theatre, especially when it is as exceptional as the powerful and provocative “Prima Facie”.

Photos c/o – Griffith Theatre Company

Corporate complexities

White Pearl (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

June 17 – 10 July

Anchuli Felicia King’s “White Pearl” is set in Singapore, where women from across Asia are working under bright fluorescent white lighting (Lighting Designer Damien Cooper) in the authentically-contemporary open-plan boardroom of Clearday cosmetics (Design by Jeremy Allen). Under the leadership of Indian born, but British educated, Priya Singh (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash), the high-flying team needs to hastily draft a statement in response to an emerging catastrophe after a mysterious French social media account has leaked their forthcoming television advertisement. The White Pearl product in question promises clear and bright inner beauty along with its skin whitening claims, resulting in an advertisement with not just cultural appropriation, but outright racism in its visuals as much as its troublesome messaging.

What begins with Priya rallying the group onto the same page soon turns from squabble to scramble, appropriation of blame and demand for answers. Whoever is truly at fault isn’t particularly important, as even if blame can be attributed to the advertising agency, someone is getting fired. And as the most obvious scapegoat, having signed off on the ad, Xiao Chen (Lin Yin) is feeling nervous, so much so that she spends much of the time crying on the toilet floor.

Flashback to a year earlier when timid Japanese office manager recruit Ruki Minami (Mayu Iwasaki) joins the company… a young chill and successful brand created as an alternative to Asian corporate culture. With a confident energy in sharp contrast to the cynicism of the opening scenes, Pirya outlines the company’s democratic approach befitting what she describes as a family-like team. As they discuss aspects to a proposed reframing of product branding with a uniform, universal message to transcend local culturally-specific markets, the scene serves to sharpen audience perceptions of the characters and serves as a real highlight of the skill of Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King. So talented is the ensemble of actors in this realisation, that when duologes occur often in toilet cubicles side of stage, we spend them looking forward to scenes when the group is reunited. Indeed, the B-story of spoiled Thai-American beiress Built Suttikul’s (Nicole Milinkovic) attempts to disentangle herself from a failed relationships with Marcel Benoit (Matthew Pearce) sometimes seems almost unnecessary.

The Bille Brown stage space for this production is relatively small, but under Priscilla Jackman’s dynamic direction things happen within it at a sometimes chaotic speed, with its transitions complemented by top-of-stage screen projections moving from an advertising campaign billboard to its progression of clicks into the millions as the controversy goes viral from YouTube to Facebook to Buzzfeed, and snippets of the all-too-familiar rhetoric of social media commentary that accompanies this. The most confronting statements, however, come from those on stage through matter-of-fact discussion of what constitutes a slur and if it really is that simple, as consideration is given to reactions in the West comparative to the product’s customer base of Asian women to whom they are selling the ideal of whiteness.

The resulting discussion of Asianness and discrimination within the continent’s distinct cultures and completely different countries further layers the work’s nuanced approach to its themes. A lot of “White Pearl” it seems is to do with faces… faces desired to be shown as well as about-faces, two-faced tactics and the associated implications of appearance versus reality. Also themes of globalisation, toxic corporate culture and what professionalism means make for a very modern take on the modern world, presented by a diverse and talented cast.

Part of the script’s appeal is its clever shift of audience sensibilities though switching villains. At first we are shocked when matter-of-fact South Korean chemical consultant Soo Jin Park (Deborah An) tells things as they are to her from an anthropological perspective. Later, however, after earlier hints at her capacity for overreaction, self-proclaimed lateral thinker Priya increases the extremes of her language to rage at and mock the highly-strung and emotional Chen, before unravelling as Park deepens the crisis. There is balance not just in this transfer of the show’s provocation, but in inclusion of the comic relief that comes from Cheryl Ho as Sunny Lee, Priya’s Chinese-Singaporean offsider. Amid a stellar cast, she steals every scene with her hip-hop swagger and unfiltered Singlish sass, inhabiting her comedy not just with nuanced delivery and tension-breaking timing, but subtle physicality.

With its sometime challenging subject matter “White Pearl’s” satire will not be a work for everyone and the production comes with warning that the play contains strong language, adult themes, sexual references and discussions of race and culture in its content that may be confronting to some audience members. However, these complexities are also the things that make it such a compelling and challenging gem of production, providing another perspective of both the complications of modern life and representation of what constitutes a modern Australian play.

Photos c/o – Philip Erbacher