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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Matthew Xia, Set Design by Hyemi Shin, Lighting by Bethany Gupwell with Sound Design and Composer Lex Kosanke, Movement Asha Jennings-Grant, Voice and Dialect Coach Catherine Weate, Associate Director Ameera Conrad, Fight Director Keith Wallis. Casting Consultant Sophie Parrott CDG, Casting Coordinator Sarah Murray.

Production Manager Lisa Hood Technical Manager Stuart Burgess, Technical Assistant Amy Mellor, CSM Jenny Skrivens, Costumer Supervisor Isabella van Braeckel, DSM Caroline Sheard, ASM Zoe Doy, Production LX Chris McDonnell.

Cover image The Other Richard, Production and Rehearsal Photography Helen Murray. Programme Design and Editor Ben Clare with Florence Bell.

Till November 13th.


Michele Lee’s 2016 play Rice does something remarkable. Her two-hander has as its core two Asian Australians bonding in a workplace stacked against them. One’s a Chinese first-generation immigrant cleaner, the other a younger Indian-Australian executive.

They contain multitudes though. Lee wanted to shift not only from Australian first-settler narratives, but by having two actors inhabit such a range of Australian as well as Indian and Chinese voices, she pushes each out of stereotypical norms, shifting every character to a perspective radically altered.

In the course of the play too these characters start questioning their own constructed identities. That’s just two facets of this absorbing play, calling on virtuosity of the two actors.  Both jump in and out of accents in mid-scene: it’s both thrilling and occasionally dizzying to keep up.

Zaniab Hasan’s Nisha is an ambitious young executive officer with designs on being the first Indian Australian CEO of a multi-national. As Lee states, Nisha’s not sympathetic, but crises reveal more than panic. Her company Golden Fields produces rice. Selling it in a secret deal to a flooded and rice-deprived India, as she bypasses her own superiors and members of the Indian government, seems like selling football teams to Newcastle. Apart from a seasonal lack of rice in India though its USP, though this isn’t underscored, is rice being genetically modified to avoid pests. Nisha works late into the night.

That’s how she meets Sarah Lam’s cleaner Yvette, whose politically-charged, personally resentful daughter Sheree (played in interchanges by Hasan, as they swap roles) is a law student arrested for throwing rotten salmon on an eco-hostile executive. Sheree’s anger, even cruelty deserves even more room to work out its dynamic with Yvette. Yvette in turn cuts off from ‘stupid Chinese people’, lives in a non-Chinese area; yet her slump of total exhaustion is eloquent of enforced roles and identity.

Lam’s particularly good on gesture, stillness, and exuding stoicism and – like Hasan – voices. Hasan owns a quicksilver way of switching her physicality too.

Nisha invokes her Bengali grandmother, her Didima, her commitment-heavy boyfriend Adi, colleague Tom and family members. We get her CEO (Lam again) and with Yvette Hasan’s depicting not only Sheree but Yvette’s brother-in-law Johnny, where Yvette’s barely tolerated as her business starts failing.

Whilst an offbeat bond forms between the two women, after an initial stand-off, they co-counsel each other, with decided results. Yvette must broach the exec, and Nisha must bypass the obstructive Indian official Gretal Gupta to talk to the minister direct and secure a meeting in Delhi.

Lee’s particularly fine not just at this deft fluidity between characters, but in fleshing out Nisha’s highly competitive world of geo-politics and global agriculture. It starts with her nearly being outvoted on a board she’s no longer going to be allowed near, her desperate stratagems and blindness to embedded prejudice and circling knives. And there’s stinging rebukes for her too. Tom refers to Gupta as ‘an Indian you’. ‘I am Indian’ counters Nisha. ‘Indian Indian you then’ responds Tom blandly. It’s smoothly access-denying Gupta herself who far later on has the last word, abandoning Nisha in a paddy field with no shoes, to talk in Bengali which she barely knows, to workers. Nisha at least realises what they’re saying. They want none of it.

Yvette, older, more experienced in striking at chances but with scant notiona of how the elite think, broaches her big moment with that exec only to be confronted with his son instead, who’s wearing noise-cancelling headphones. More, she’s hidden things from Sheree, who for all her adjustment to that world, both resists it with informed passion, yet is vulnerable. The way Hasan’s and Lam’s mother and daughter circle each other’s incomprehension does indeed feel like a culture clash: they’re literally from two worlds, yet joined in pain, betrayal, love.  The most touching scene is their sharing Yvette’s chicken and rice, late into the night.

Directed by Matthew Xia (Associate Director Ameera Conrad), there’s a strong throughline for all the actors’ voices aided by movement director Asha Jennings-Grant. The high-white gloss set by Hyemi Shin makes use of the recessed floor and use of water (an Orange Tree standby, well-used here as flooded basements and fields, a b), but is otherwise a compacting of white L-shaped desk and reveals. There’s a five-stepped white light panel too, emblematic of skyscrapers, lifts, interior fountains and ambition, the slipperiness of fame. It’s clear but not insistent.

Lighting by Bethany Gupwell suggests neon and hotel rooms, with a few fades. Lex Kosanke’s sound is striking. There’s an almost deafening inundation at one moment, and natural sounds override the bare evocative composition elsewhere. Catherine Weate’s dazzling voice and dialect work runs a gamut of Australian, Asian and Chinese voices the actors so fluently change with. There’s call for fight director Keith Wallis at one intergenerational moment.

The denouement for both characters leaves them fundamentally altered. Can they forge a friendship, the simple offer of a lift home? Even here Lee plays with our expectations. Some things sped so fast that ideally you’d like to catch them again – though the jokes and incongruities shone through. We’ve not seen Lee’s work here before – it extends to films and other artforms.

We need to see more. Rice won the 2016 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award and Lee’s an emerging force. Do see this work of understated virtuosity, rich in character, substance, a shape-shifting singularity.