Friday, 2 September 2011

Theatre Review: The Golden Dragon (Arcola Theatre)

Following its successful run at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Golden Dragon – Ramin Gray’s first production as Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company – now takes up residence at the freshly reconfigured Arcola Studio 1. Written by the German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig and presented here in a lithe, expert translation by David Tushingham, the play is, I think, a bit special. The piece unfolds in an unspecified city, in and around the “Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese” restaurant of the title, and utilises the estimable talents of five multi-tasking actors (David Beames, Adam Best, Ann Firbank, Kathryn O’Reilly and Jack Tarlton) to portray a range of characters of various ages, ethnicities, and even species.

Tipping their hat to Brecht, play and production boldly “bare the device” throughout. Stage directions are spoken; props, wigs, instruments and costumes are positioned around the stage and taken up as required; and the actors slip fluidly from first- to third-person, both inhabiting their characters’ experiences and serving as commentators on them. “Fluidity” is the key word here as the production’s kaleidoscopic structure sketches the experiences of a variety of individuals: a Chinese kitchen-worker (O’Reilly) suffering debilitating tooth-ache; a pair of weary flight-attendants (Beames and Tarlton) just returned from another long-haul trip; an ant (Ann Firbank) pimping out a starving cricket (Adam Best); a couple (O’Reilly and Tarlton) dramatically breaking up.

This is all intriguing and amusingly eccentric from the off, but as the evening progresses the production takes on a surprising depth and emotional power, adding up to a hugely resonant - and fairly devastating - anatomisation of globalisation and economic migration, and the exploitations resulting from each. But Schimmelpfennig doesn’t preach; he presents. And a beautiful sense of structure and design underpins the apparently scattershot approach as we gradually come to perceive the intricate web of interconnections that link these seemingly disparate lives.

Some of Schimmelpfennig’s devices are questionable - the repetition of “short pause” to punctuate various speeches quickly becomes tedious, for example - but the humanity of his writing rings as clear as a bell. Indeed, this is a piece of work that speaks for theatre itself as a site of empathy and imaginative transformation - a space in which people can, continually, become someone/thing else.

And for all their status as archetypes, Schimmelpfennig’s characters aren’t the flaccid, underwritten creations of a Jon Fosse but vivid protagonists whose experiences are rooted in the real world. (The playwright has another advantage over Fosse, too: a sense of humour.) Of the gallery of people that are presented to us Tarlton's and Beames's air-stewardesses and Firbank’s deadly, Beckettian exploiter are among the most memorable. (The sublime Firbank also achieves the feat of making the lists of ingredients that she has to declaim sound interesting and alluring; never have “fried egg noodles” sounded like a sexier proposition.) The Golden Dragon is, perhaps, an acquired taste, but those who get on to its wavelength will find this to be a delicious production of a poetic, bizarre and unavoidably political play; one of the year’s best.

The production runs for 1 hour 15 minutes and is booking until 24th September. Further information at the Arcola website.

Mini-Review: Making the Sound of Loneliness

“The spotted dog moaning at the back door, wanting to get in; making the sound of loneliness…” To complement their production of The Golden Dragon, Actors Touring Company are also presenting a series of “Side Orders”: curtain-raisers involving TGD company members that precede the main show. One that I had the pleasure of catching was Making the Sound of Loneliness, devised by Jack Tarlton, director Simon Usher and musician Benjamin Kritikos of the band Herons! who have combined their talents to fashion an evocative slice of Americana from the weird and wonderful writings of Sam Shepard. Drawing upon a range of stories from various Shepard collections including Hawk Moon, Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise and Great Dream of Heaven, the show is unfussily staged by Usher to keep the focus firmly on the expressive potential, the humour and the haunting strangeness, of Shepard’s language as it conjures lost highways and desert landscapes, brief encounters in border towns and dusty bar-rooms, the spirits of drifters and dreamers. The writer’s words are by turns delicately and dynamically delivered by Tarlton as he slips expertly between roles and personas, with a truly supreme “rock ‘n’ roll” moment the highlight. Kritikos’s music complements the writing well, adding texture and atmosphere, and making Making the Sound of Loneliness a piece that not only serves as an appealing appetiser to The Golden Dragon, but that’s also an intriguing, amusing and highly entertaining experience in its own right.

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