One isn’t sure what the audience laughed the most at – the comedy in the script, the energetic physical theatre, the quirks of the characters or just the speed at which it is all thrown at them.
The show is an adaptation of the 1895 novel of the same name, subtitled A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia. The author is Kenneth McKay, a Major General who was also a Member of Legislative Assembly of NSW and who wrote other well-known novels like Out Back and Stirrup Jingles. The issues raised in the novel are ones which the writer of this production, Jane Miller, notes are timely: “cultural identity, stereotypes and border security are just a few of the issues touched on in McKay’s narrative that are covered by contemporary media on a daily basis.”
A part of the 2017 VCE Drama and Theatre Studies playlist, the production has had two successful seasons, the first as part of the inaugural Poppy Seed Independent Theatre Festival, the second at the Butterfly Club. It was also a recipient of a 2015 Green Room Award nomination for outstanding ensemble.
With interesting and relevant subject material, strong reviews, and gushing promotion material, one goes in with high expectations, and also a sense of tackling the unknown.
We are greeted by a sparse set with a yellow bench in the middle that has an attractive image of what one assumes is the book cover. There may be some depth and metaphors hidden on this poster, but before one has time to take it in, the show begins with an excited narrator (Andrea McCannon) starting us off on the romantic journey. Two performers (Keith Brockett and John Marc Desengano) pop up from behind the bench making sound effects and embodying different characters at what seems like the speed of light. And so begins the entertaining telling of this epic saga by two actors who morph in to about 20 characters between them!
The plot, spread over about ten years moves swiftly from a love triangle to murder to migration, horse racing in Queensland to Russians attacking India and a perceived threat of Mongols invading Australia. The narration keeps the story comprehensible and performances of snippets make the plot believable and fascinating. The writing is tight and moves the story along at the right pace, squeezing the 400 page novel into 75 minutes.
One can see the fruits of the collaborative process in the comfort the actors have with each other and the characters they effortlessly switch between. Brockett shines in his portrayal of the love interest Ms Cameron, the Russian Count Zenski and General Wang with his yellow silk coat that we never see. Desengano entertains with his sound effects and energetic shifts from place to place and character to character. The flawless timing and energy in their act is commendable. McCannon plays the perfect narrator, reining the exuberant characters in and giving the story a push when needed. It is clear why the production received a Green Room nomination.
The director Beng Oh has made a lot of strong choices. Comedy as a way of expressing the xenophobic themes makes the concepts palatable and allows for discussion later. Having no props or costume changes enables the actors to not just be swift in movement, but also skilled in their embodiment and keeps the focus on storytelling.
The show has been described as subversive. Having two actors of a particular ethnicity play a vast array of characters from around the world with different accents is a rarity in contemporary Australian theatre. In a previous production Coloured Aliens Beng Oh also cast an Anglo Australian as an Asian Australian and vice versa. One hopes it encourages other directors to experiment with casting in similar ways that could make theatre a more risky and exciting experience for all involved.