Review: White Pearl (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Matthew Pearce, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Merlynn Tong, Catherine Văn-Davies, Shirong Wu
Images by Phil Erbacher
Theatre review
A cosmetics company specialising in skin whitening creams, wakes up in hot water, when one of its ads appears online prematurely and quickly goes viral, as a result of its shockingly racist content. The Clearday headquarters in Singapore instantly turns into a war room, with executives desperately scrambling for damage control. All six of them are Asian women, from various parts of the world, each with a different experience of race and its associated politics. In Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, we see the group devolve into a belligerent mess of conflicting principles, unable to sustain an alliance forged initially by very dubious ethics.

It is a sensational piece of writing, thoroughly researched and passionately rendered. White Pearl throws us into a cauldron of frenzied chaos, but each line of dialogue is crafted with immense precision, for an insightful examination not only of capitalism and racism, but also of the classism and sexism that govern so much of how these characters operate. The play’s unravelling of corporate culture, engenders a caustic sense of humour that keeps us on edge, for a wildly funny theatrical ride that never releases us from its moral interrogations.

Director Priscilla Jackman keeps dramatic intensity at fever pitch for the entire duration, establishing an unrelenting awareness in our consciousness reminding us that the stakes are very high indeed, not only in the fiction that we encounter, but also the real life implications of this timely tale about our social responsibilities as groups and individuals. Sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay amplifies the women’s stress levels, to fill the auditorium with shuddersome atmospheric pressure. Jeremy Allen’s production design and Damien Cooper’s lights are nimbly manufactured, to keep the storytelling moving at lightning speed. The playwright’s own video projections feature social media comments relating to the offending incident, ranging from amusing to appalling, working as a device that constantly widens the story’s context, so that each viewer can remain personally connected with the narrative. Dramaturg Courtney Stewart does remarkable work that allows the play to consistently resonant with accuracy.

Seven actors form a formidable ensemble to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining show, that reveals many truths about who we are today. Priya Singh, the British Indian founder of the company is portrayed by the phenomenal Vaishanavi Suryaprakash, whose extraordinary range enables an endlessly textured study of a woman in deep trouble. It is a powerful performance that exposes the human and structural problems of the modern business world. Also very affecting is Deborah An, who plays Korean scientist Soo Jin Park, bringing incredible nuance and emotional gravity to the depiction of a very dire situation. Merlynn Tong (as Sunny Lee) and Shirong Wu (as Xiao Chen) are unforgettable for providing the biggest laughs, both immaculate with their comic timing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic with their respective interpretations of ethnically Chinese women, the former from Singapore, and the latter China.

Catherine Văn-Davies plays Built Suttikul, a fabulously wealthy, American-educated Thai national, with imposing confidence and a vigorous physicality that defies any underestimation of the ladies in White Pearl. Her sensitive choices for a sex scene brings surprising elevation to the character, and highlights the persistent impossibly of retaining integrity in the pursuit of commercial supremacy. Her French ex-lover Marcel Benoit too, becomes unexpectedly complex, as performed by a self-possessed Matthew Pearce. New addition to the “Clearday family”, Japanese recruit Ruki Minami is perfectly balanced between naivety and wisdom by Mayu Iwasaki, for a personality that demonstrates the limits of human integrity, in the stupefying face of money and power.

Clearday sells products nobody needs, that could very well be harmful. The people who comprise the company, expend all their energy on questionable activities, so that they may one day feel like a leader of the pack. This is the narrative not only of White Pearl, but also of many a conventional life in the modern world. Money and power are blinding, they shape our values so that we make compromises to morality, in the promise of a glory that rarely comes to fruition. We disregard justice, to uphold racist, sexist and classist ideals every day, in hope that the system would reward us with all that it professes, but in fact, as we see in the play, no one will emerge truly victorious.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP | www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: PUNCTURE (Legs On The Wall / Form Dance Projects / Vox – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs)

Venue: Riverside Theatre (Parramatta NSW), Jan 21 – 25, 2015
Director: Patrick Nolan
Choreographer: Kathryn Puie
Composer: Stefan Gregory
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Dancers are at the forefront in the exploration of theatrical space. Without the burden of words and narratives, they open up senses to what the physical presence of things and bodies can do on a stage, and how we communicate between persons, to create meaning where little or none had existed before. Puncture features a great number of people, some are dancers, and the others singers, introduced as though emerging from the audience, and we are encouraged to identify with them, and to read their performance as though what they present have come from us, even if we feel secure in our seats with temporary passivity. The mix of characters features a beautifully diverse range of ages and ethnicities that reflect the breadth of human experience, and of Australian life. The vocalists in particular, are almost a visual copy of the viewing crowd, and efforts at incorporating them into the dance, provide some of the more emotional moments of the piece.

Patrick Nolan and Kathryn Puie have created in Puncture, something that is a little less self-conscious, and a little more accessible than what we have come to expect of modern dance. They investigate the notion of inclusiveness to address the art of performance, as well as the consumption side of show business. It is a noble ambition to blur the lines of where the show starts and where it ends, but redefining audienceship is a difficult exercise. While not always successful, the ideology of breaking barriers provides strong impetus that shapes the show into something that feels adventurous and earnest. We are at our most engaged when the cast tackles the unconventional. The incorporation of rigging (executed behind the scenes by Jon Blake and Felix Kerdijk) to lift bodies 4 metres away from the ground, the soprano on an aerial hoop, and the tender interchanges between choristers and dancers; we are kept fascinated and entertained.

The 22-strong choir is led by Music Director Elizabeth Scott and Composer Stefan Gregory, with accompaniment on piano by Luke Byrne and on percussion by Bree Van Reyk. The marriage between what we hear and see is wonderfully cohesive, with the music at its most successful when it ventures into the avant garde. Even at its most daring, all the sounds are elegantly resolved, except when words like “hello” and “love” are used, disrupting the abstract beauty that wishes to be experienced in personal ways. It is noteworthy that there are many intriguing personalities in the choir, who could have been featured more heavily in the work’s choreography. Trained dancers tend to lose their individualities in the very discipline they invest in, and the juxtaposition provided on this occasion with non-dancers on the same stage is a main feature. Getting the singers to do more with their bodies is probably challenging, but it is precisely the idea of redefinition that would be elevated further, and the meanings that one draws from Puncture can therefore be more powerful.

Many in the show are dedicated and accomplished dancers, but this is not a piece about athleticism or superhuman faculties. It is an expression of how we live, feel and breathe as individuals and as collectives. Its themes are not always clear, but it articulates its concerns with sensitivity and focus. These artists intend to show us something important in their inimitable ways, and if we think that everything important can be put into words, then they have proven us wrong.

www.legsonthewall.com.au / www.form.org.au / www.sydneyphilharmonia.com