Wednesday, 14 September 2011

the golden dragon (w roland schimmelpfennig, d ramin gray)

I had a spare hour to kill in Debden in early Summer and found myself picking up a copy of Schimmelpfennig's The Woman Before. It was sunny and I sat on the front porch as people out of an Andrea Arnold movie walked past talking loudly. In theory I was working but in practice I was just reading again. The play was a lazy read, but it didn't do much for me. It felt like there was something that wasn't coming across off the page. It felt a little shallow. It felt like maybe I was missing something, or maybe there was nothing to miss and I was just being tricked into thinking I was maybe missing something.

That's the context for going to see The Golden Dragon. After which I suspect that it was me who was missing something. Because The Golden Dragon is a beautifully written play about globalisation, teeth, society, asian food, and a whole host of other things. Its narrative somehow distils seemingly random stories about ants and crickets; a boy's toothache and a girl's sexual abuse; a couple's distress at having a baby and two air stewardesses getting over an 18 hour flight; blending these stories into an arcane, unlikely, culinary triumph.

The play is punctuated by the naming of oriental dishes and the listing of their parts. Perhaps this is what appeals to Schimmelpfennig about this cuisine: the way in which it takes seemingly un-cooperative ingredients and uses them to create dishes which everyone, all over the known world, wants to eat.

However, without going into the subtler and indeed more tragic themes which the writer addresses in The Golden Dragon, I'm going to offer an excuse for my slightly dismissive reading of his earlier play in Debden on a sunny day in what felt like an Andrea Arnold film. (Except that the film being made was actually about a woman falling in love with a serial killer on death row.) Which is that Schimmelpfennig's work requires something which is not that common in British theatre. It requires an understanding that a theatre is not a television, or even a cinema. And it also requires direction. All too often our attitude towards a difficult text is to attempt to make it simpler, more digestible. Rather than embracing the complexity and seeing it as a challenge. It's a director's job to take something which seems hard or even impossible to convey to the audience on the page and realise the author's intention on the stage. Gray's staging of The Golden Dragon, jumping from room to room, scenario to scenario, on what is essentially an empty stage, might be termed Brechtian or Brookian. Whatever the label, Schimmelpfennig's text demands more than slavish re-presentation, it demands direction, something which has clearly been supplied. The actors and designers have responded with imagination, vigour and wit. The show embraces the writer's seemingly arcane conceits and brings them to life. In the process the audience at the Arcola is reminded of what theatre is/ can be - a process which engages with our imaginations, which wakes the dormant child within us, which takes us by surprise.

Of course, in order to do this, you also need writers who are capable of creating texts which allow directors room to really do their job. Something which, (as noted by Simon Stephens in his German lecture earlier this year), British theatre isn't all that comfortable with. The Golden Dragon offers a glimpse of another theatre which flourishes on other shores but withers here. Schimmelpfennig's play is a playful (profound) delight, but the production as a whole is a vivid reminder of what theatre can achieve when it puts its mind to cooking up a feast.

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