Freelancer and aspiring journalist from Adelaide. Visual Arts graduate & current journalism student. Fashion, lifestyle, entertainment, art & food. I also write for The Adelaidian // theadelaidian.net/author/georgina-tselekidis
You won't look at hot and spicy soup the same way again
Originally written by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, The Golden Dragon is a timeless text that stretches and pushes the boundaries of theatre, drama and characterisation.
The story takes place at The Golden Dragon - a Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai restaurant located at a suburban apartment block. But what makes this simple place so complex are the characters who work at the restaurant, the customers who flow in and out of this busy eatery, and the neighbours who live next to and on the upper levels of The Golden Dragon. Next door there's an overstocked shop, in another room an old man attempts to come to terms with old age, nearby a young couple are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, and two flight attendants - particularly one plays a large role in the context of the story.
The audience is introduced to the key vessel of the play - a young illegal immigrant working in the kitchen of The Golden Dragon, crying in agony over an unbearable toothache. As he yelps and begs for the pain to stop, the audience almost feels it all and we begin to cringe with every ache that he experiences. But his illegal status denies him the rights to professional dental treatment, and so the old chef of the restaurant attempts to extract the tooth using a spanner. All the lives run simultaneously or parallel, and we're reminded of this while the tooth is being freed. It bounces high into the air and falls straight into the hot soup meant for one of the air hostesses who waits in the restaurant after a flight. It is this defining moment that changes the destiny of the boy who eventually bleeds to death.
In the meantime, the story only becomes even more intricate and layered. We're rattled with an unusual scene between two insects, as a cricket is blackmailed into a dark world of sexual slavery for food by an ant. Inspired by a fable, these two characters resemble a lot more than just insects, and towards the end of the performance, the audience is confronted with an uncomfortable reality that suggests human trafficking.
Perhaps the most intriguing and mind-bending aspect of the story though is the way the characters are depicted and intersected. Everyone knows each other in some way, even though they're not aware of it yet. The characters aren't what they seem, and director Joh Hartog challenges the audience by gender shifts and displacement. Men are women, women are men and humans are insects (or are they?). Although three male actors are present, two women play three male characters in the story, adding a comedic surface to the overall production and showcasing the ability of each actor to slip into another world and change everything we (the audience) think we know about the ordinary. Because the story plays on the idea of the unreal and bizarre, it's only natural to heighten it all through characterization. Hartog proves that no matter 'what' we are, evoked human emotion is the same. The ant and the cricket exemplify this, with dark connotations hidden via humour in the beginning. Further on, we feel for the cricket as the underlying notions reveal themselves.
Clare Mansfield plays the young illegal immigrant and two other male characters, while also dominating the stage as she narrates a chunk of the story along the way. She manages to bring it all to life, with a strong stage presence and vocal ability that doesn't only seize audience attention but excites us to see what's going to happen next. You can tell from every facial expression and exaggerated physical movement, that Clare really immerses herself into the character that she connects to on a deeper level than most. Until the end of her time on stage, Clare clearly makes a notable impression with her ability to switch into different roles with ease. Likewise, the rest of the cast including Robbie Greenwell, Jo Pugh, Brendan Cooney and Mark Healey narrate different strings of events, playing multiple characters that excite our imagination. Every character seriously connects to one another to convey a dynamic harmony on stage, and as the story goes on, it feels like this crazy world that we're a part of is relatable in an unusual way. Perhaps it's how the characters ride the rollercoaster of sudden moments that capture the unforeseen events of real life, while considering the way sequences can also happen for a reason.
While the characters drive the performance, yelling out incoming orders of appetising dishes and narrating stage direction out loud, the setting, stage design and details help to create this otherworldly quality that invites us in immediately. The small kitchen area is the main focal point of the story, and like a restaurant, it's buzzing and full of energy, with the characters literally cutting ingredients and cooking them up on a portable hot plate. The scent of sauteed onions, sesame oil, soy sauce and other Asian flavours fill the room and our nostrils, until we're totally involved, and hungry. The kitchen is surrounded by large bags of rice, boxes, and equipment, just as though a restaurant kitchen has been transported onto the Bakehouse Theatre stage. Tammy Boden is the set and costume designer who has done extremely well in setting the scene, while creating simple costumes to allow the characters to shift into different roles quicker. The story is able to shine and so are the concealed themes that aren't distracted by elaborate costume, hair or makeup. The tech and lighting by Stephen Dean and Matthew Chapman give height to the overall sequence of events.
Hartog's take of Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon is a refreshing spin on a classic that allows its audience to interpret what they've seen in their own way. It loosely suggests how we dehumanise others, consuming them as we please, like exotic delicacies, particularly in such a globalised contemporary culture that's only added to society's personal alienation.
The Golden Dragon is playing at The Bakehouse Theatre from July 12 to 22nd (Wed. to Sat) at 7.30pm. You can purchase tickets here.