Wednesday 28 December 2011

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The Golden Dragon, North Wall, Oxford, & touring, review

The Golden Dragon at the North Wall in Oxford succeeds in making abstract notions about globalisation - and immigration - grippingly tangible.

4 out of 5 stars

We’re all interconnected now, so the current cliché goes - but how do you show that on stage and in ways that force us to confront what’s at stake? In The Golden Dragon, leading German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig succeeds in making abstract notions about globalisation - and immigration - grippingly tangible by showing how different worlds can exist in close proximity without it being openly remarked upon.

At the disconcerting heart of this East-meets-West tale, almost like a bad joke, is the discovery of a decayed tooth in a bowl of soup. It’s nearly swallowed by an air hostess dining with a colleague at a generic Oriental restaurant (“Thai/ Chinese/ Vietnamese” as the script, ably translated by David Tushingham, has it). It belongs - not that the stewardess finds this out - to a kitchen “boy” who, lacking the right paperwork, couldn’t go to a dentist, so the extraction has been fatally botched by his co-workers. It turns out that his missing sister is living in the same building too but she has been forced into a very different kind of service.

This focus on an underbelly class of powerless migrants might sound like a recipe for Teutonic earnestness but it’s served up with copious helpings of inventive wit and a fantastically chewy conceit: in a modern-day take on Brecht, five performers are required to flesh out more than 16 inter-related characters in a carousel of cross-casting.

Stepping across four massive rolls of blank paper - the principle design ingredient for Ramin Gray’s superb touring production for ATC - the actors must be as nimble as waiters at a restaurant running at full tilt. And you’ve got to keep up, too. Not only are these Caucasian performers assuming Asian roles but also men are playing women and the older actors take on younger parts - and vice versa. Allegory puts in an appearance, as does hallucinogenic surrealism.

Even as you’re savouring the humour and invention, you’re choking on the barbed subtext: the point the play makes is obvious enough - that we choose as a society not to see what’s under our noses - but it does so with remarkable theatrical flair. At a time when all illegal immigrants risk being caricatured, sight unseen, as parasitic, here’s a valuable reminder that if you’re at bottom of the food chain in a country even as apparently affluent and civilised as ours, things can get very nasty indeed.

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