Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King is just 25 but her career is rocketing, and though it is still early days she already has a vigorous, distinctive, exciting theatrical voice.
In May, the Royal Court Theatre in London premiered her play White Pearl, which marked her first professional production. Since then Melbourne Theatre has staged a successful season of her drama Golden Shield, which emerged from its Next Stage program, and Feedrange Co is currently presenting a terrific production of her ruthlessly sharp play Slaughterhouse, structured around a series of interlocking monologues, as part of Belvoir’s independent program 25A.
Now, the National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Theatre Company are co-producing White Pearl in a dazzling production that has you riding the roller-coaster plot with your jaw on the floor at the brazen, daring brilliance of the writing. It’s a play that feels fresh, fearless and very funny.
Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Shirong Wu, Catherine Van-Davies and Merlynn Tong. Photograph © Philip Erbacher
It is set in a cosmetic start-up company called Clearday in Singapore, entirely staffed by women, which produces a skin whitening product. The day has not begun well. The company’s uber-confident founder Priya Singh (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash), who was born in India but has a British education, arrives to discover that a mysterious French social media account has leaked their forthcoming television ad on YouTube. Designed to make a splash, the ad is appallingly racist, and the clip is going viral.
Their South Korean chemical consultant Soo Jin Park (Deborah An) tells them not to panic. The Chinese market will find it funny, she says, who cares what the West thinks? But the video just keeps spreading and social media has gone into overdrive.
Priya knows that someone’s head has to roll and she and her off-sider Sunny Lee (Merlynn Tong), a Chinese-Singaporean who speaks in a Singlish ‘dude-bro’ accent, ponder who to make the scapegoat – Xiao Chen (Shirong Wu), the nervous young Chinese woman who signed off on the ad, and who spends much of her time crying on the toilet floor, or perhaps the quiet Ruki Minami (Mayu Iwasaki) a recent Japanese recruit?
Into the fray comes Built Suttikul (Catherine Van-Davies), a sassy, take-no-prisoners Thai-American heiress who is trying to extricate herself from a troublesome French boyfriend (Matthew Pearce).
King keeps the twists and turning coming at such a pace that it feels akin to one dramatic wave crashing to the shore after another. You’ve just managed to pick yourself up when another descends. It’s thrilling.
Merlynn Tong, Deborah An, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Catherine Van-Davies, Shirong Wu and Mayu Iwakaki. Photograph © Philip Erbacher
As the narrative chaos builds, King references umpteen ideas – toxic corporate culture, racism, the complexity of relationships not just between Asia and the West but between different Asian cultures, beauty and the cosmetics industry, the impact of social media, and more. The dialogue is sparky and full of bracingly funny barbs, yet there are still some very touching moments that suddenly surprise you.
Priscilla Jackman has assembled a spot-on cast – all of whom do a fabulous job of nailing their character – and directs the play with a zinging assurance and an appropriately light touch.
With set and costumes by Jeremy Allen, lighting by Damien Cooper, music and sound by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay, and projections by King herself – all of which perfectly tuned in to the same creative vibe – this is a stunning production, and announces the voice of a wonderfully talented young playwright who seems set to give Australian theatre a jolly good shake.
White Pearl runs at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta until November 9