Presented by Bakehouse Theatre Company
Reviewed 8th July, 2017
Question: What do Asian takeaway shop workers, two air hostesses, a 69-year-old grandfather and his grand-daughter, an ant, a cricket, an alcoholic convenience store owner and a Chinese boy with agonising toothache have in common? Answer: Roland Schimmelpfennig’s lustrous imagination. Although not a household name in Australia, this prolific contemporary German playwright and theatre director has written an allegory bathed in magic realism and tricked out with quirky cinematic idiosyncracies. Characters sometimes speak directions (“laugh”, “pause”, “short pause”, “they all smile”). Action jump-cuts from plot to plot (there are no sub-plots, but as many plots as dishes in a Thai restaurant). The five actors play a range of roles, crossing gender, nationality and species. Yes, there’s a smug, hard-working ant and an artistic but exploited cricket.
A translator is as much a part of a play’s creative process as the original author. Perhaps it was David Tushingham? I failed to spot any information about this in the otherwise helpful programme.
Central to the action is a tiny Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant serving its apartment-block neighbourhood in an unspecified city. Five busy immigrants work at top speed in this little kitchen, with dialogue and movement as frenetic as the last five minutes of a Masterchef bake-off. Complex orders are shouted; the bell at the pass rings constantly. But as the play unfolds, the five actors all leave the kitchen set at different times and reappear, with minimal costuming and prop changes, as customers, neighbours, and insects. Brendan Cooney, Robbie Greenwell, Mark Healy, Clare Mansfield and Jo Pugh (in alphabetical order) all work hard to sustain pace, tension and believable moments within a play which asks them to break the fourth wall, embody characters with no visible connection to their physicality, and maintain our emotional focus. They work wonderfully well together, and their vocal clarity is uniformly good.
Schimmelpfennig uses Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper as framework for a recurring meditation on alienation, exploitation and xenophobia. Oh dear, next we’ll be talking about Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. Director Joh Hartog is clearly at ease within this intellectually-sustained multi-plot argument for tolerance, humanity and acceptance. However, the way he deploys his five fine actors fails to make good sense of this multi-faceted allegory. Is it tragedy or farce? How should it be played? Hartog’s choice is an interesting one, and the very best thing going for the show is the fact that we get to see a recent German play speaking about Europe’s current set of angsts. However, despite the actors’ best efforts, none of the many plots carries sufficient emotional weight to make us care about the outcomes. Much like the Nouvelle Cuisine of the ‘seventies – one fart and you’re hungry again.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Venue: Bakehouse Theatre
Season: 6th – 22nd July, 2017
Duration: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Tickets: Full Price: $30:00 Concession: $25:00