Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The Golden Dragon
ATC & Drum Theatre Plymouth
Behind the scenes of your local Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant are cramped cooks who have migrated from Asia, without papers, without status. Above the restaurant lives the customers, whose lives play out alongside the bowls and takeaway cartons of twice fried beef with straw mushrooms and No. 17, Thai Green Curry, hot.
The Golden Dragon is a fine piece of ensemble storytelling. The cast of five inhabit the white-papered stage at all times, creating characters out of simple props, playing multiple roles, and cross-casting frequently between men and women. The scene is The Golden Dragon Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant and the flats above it. With no staging and few props and costumes the company manage to effectively create the world of the play- helped by the strange but effective storytelling device employed throughout, where the cast narrate their own actions, before and during the scenes.
This device adopted by playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is quite Brechtian in style – allowing us to see every costume change, bottle of fake blood and trick. It also clearly explains to the audience who each character is, which is very useful, as no character is played for more than a few minutes and each performer switches between at least three roles during the course of the play (although it feels like more). All the actors are highly proficient at their craft, and there is a refreshing mix of ages amongst the cast, something which the script dictates, requesting a man and woman over sixty as well as three younger actors. No one actor stood out as being better than the others, important in ensemble work, and a testament to their generosity as performers and good direction. There were some good comic performances – mostly by the men when they were in drag, but even these characters weren’t reductive and were played with truth.
As well as being an interesting snapshot of the intertwining lives of those who work and eat at what could be any local Asian restaurant, the play also had a more serious subtext. Exploring issues of immigration and sex trafficking, there was a dark thoughtfulness to the play which served it well. From the Chinese boy with toothache who couldn’t go to the dentist as he had no papers or legal standing, to the poor sex slave, abused by the many men who pay to do to her what they couldn’t do to their wives or girlfriends. The audience are taken behind the scenes of the gold-brocade and obsequious waitresses out front to the dark reality faced by many migrant workers and hungry, vulnerable young women. Clever use of metaphor is used to further distance the audience from the realties of the sex-trafficking story, until the horror is revealed with some simple props at the very end.
This was an energetic piece of work which was entertaining and thoughtful. The narrated nature of it meant that certain elements, such as the atmosphere in the cramped, hot kitchen were not dramatised as well as they might have been – with the audience being given little sense of the steamy bustle other than through words. However, on the whole I enjoyed the consistency and transparency of the play’s style and it suited the space of Traverse two very well. The play will make you think, and certainly when I happened to eat in an Asian restaurant the night I’d seen the play, I couldn’t help wondering about the lives of the people who served and cooked my food.