Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Porcelain" by Chay Yew

Director: Beng Oh. Lighting Designer: Nick Merrylees. Cast: Keith Brockett (John Lee); Colin MacPherson (Voice One/Dr Worthing); Nicholas Barker-Pendree (Voice Two/Mr Lee); Paul David-Goddard (Voice Three/Alan White); Leon Durr (Voice Four/William Hope).

At The Street Theatre Studio, Canberra, 3-7 November 2009 (original production at La Mama, Melbourne, 2008)

This production of Porcelain, about a gay relationship which turns sour and results in a tragic death, was presented at The Street in its most spare form. Just five plain chairs, John Lee in the centre surrounded by red paper cranes, more of which he continues to make throughout the play.

This was Chay Yew's first play, from 1993. His imagery is strongly reminiscent of Kathryn Schultz Miller's A Thousand Cranes, a play for children which tells the true and poignant story of Sadako Saki's battle against radiation sickness after the Hiroshima bomb and the tradition of folding origami miniatures according to which if a sick person folds a thousand cranes, the gods will grant her a wish and make her healthy. Is John Lee sick? Can, or should, the prison psychiatrist find him unfit to plead on a murder charge?

But it is the dialogue which still brings the horror to life. All five actors are seated with little movement except on one occasion when John Lee is caressed by his lover. Now I am reminded of that other play for voices, Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. Though famous as a BBC radio play, its first performance was recorded by five actors standing on stage at the 92nd Street Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association, Manhattan, in 1953. As the Reverend Eli Jenkins, Thomas made the only movement, stepping forward to declaim his morning prayer.

Porcelain and Under Milk Wood are entirely different plays, yet the quality of the interplay between the voices is the strength in both cases, and it is to Beng Ho's credit that he maintains that focus, avoiding the temptation to represent too much action physically. As is often the case in good theatre, less is more.

Especially well done in the performance I saw was the exposure of the conflicts and compromises made in the dialogue betweenthe television interviewer and the prison psychiatrist, all happening on the sidelines of the real story of what John Lee did and why. Not only is the play worth seeing for its only too human story, but this production successfully worked our feelings and our intellects in coming to terms with the complexities of destructive relationships.

Frank McKone

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