Review: White Pearl, Royal Court

Despite a cracking design, White Pearl doesn’t convince as an effective play at the Royal Court

“It’s just a fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy”

On the one hand, there’s lots to appreciate about White Pearl, a play about Asian women, written and directed by women of Asian descent and starring them too. Its foregrounding of non-native English voices, subject matter so atypical for the UK, its very programming on a major London stage – this is important stuff.

On the other, it’s not a fantastic piece of writing and as significant as its presence here is – something which should not be left unremarked – nothing is gained by not being frank. Anchuli Felicia King’s play straddles the world of satire and comedy but ultimately satisfies as neither and there’s a reliance on some troubling dramatic tropes. Continue reading “Review: White Pearl, Royal Court”

Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan

“Why do you silence me?”

A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.

Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world. Continue reading “Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan”

Review: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Hampstead

“The best thing I ever did was the worst thing I ever did. And it all came to nothing. It makes no sense to anyone, what we did, it’s written in a language no one reads anymore, it’s… incredible”

Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures has been given the moniker #iHo for short, though quite why that impulse has kicked in now is not clear, for the play is a hard-going three and a half hours full of wordily complex pontifications. The mechanics of social media aside, to suggest that it can be encapsulated in a three letter hashtag feels crudely reductive.

The play centres on the Marcantonio family, a brood of Italian-Americans summoned back to their Brooklyn brownstone by patriarch Gus who has decided to commit suicide. He says it is because of encroaching Alzheimer’s but it is his ideals that this former Communist has lost rather than his marbles, and it is this crisis that sparks off lengthy debate after lengthy debate about faith and politics, socialism and America with his three adult children and their motley collection of partners. Continue reading “Review: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Hampstead”

Review: You For Me For You, Royal Court

“Perhaps a flock of cranes will appear soon, winging their way from Pyongyang”

One can imagine co-stars Kwong Loke and Andrew Leung at a Christmas party or somesuch, making conversation with someone else who asks them who they are playing in the Royal Court show they’re both in. Loke would say ‘Doctor/Well/Rice Musician/Farm Hand/Disembodied Voice/Delivery Person/Neighbour/Teacher’ and Leung would say well I’m only a ‘Smuggler/Frog/Man In Bear Suit/Soldier/Clerk/Youngsup’ and the other person would nod politely and then say ‘but have you seen Hangmen‘.

This gives you something of a sense of the mystical scope of Mia Chung’s You For Me For You and the journeys that her protagonists, two North Korean sisters, take in her delicious confection of a play. Minhee and Junhee want nothing more than for the other to be strong and healthy but under the unblinking eye of Great Leader Kim Jong-Il, food and medicine and hope are scarce and so they decide to flee. But as they make the arduous journey to the border and are asked to make a huge sacrifice, the sisters are torn apart. Continue reading “Review: You For Me For You, Royal Court”

Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed

“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”

Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production – Golden Child – has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).

Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door. Continue reading “Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed”