Our resident theatre critic Ben Rackstraw heads for the intimate theatre tucked away above the Drayton Arms pub to review a staging of Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.
What is happening behind the windows that we walk past every day? What is hidden behind the blank faces of the people we walk by? Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon challenges us with some uncomfortable answers to these questions – so what better setting could there by for a new production than self-satisfied South Kensington?
The Golden Dragon of the title is a takeaway that serves as the springboard for a variety of stories, populated by the customers whose lives play out in and around the building that houses the restaurant. The most striking thing as the play opens, each of the five cast members chopping furiously in the kitchen, is that there are no Asian actors. This initially appears problematic – in a play ostensibly about the oppression of Asian immigrants, there are no Asian voices (Schimmelpfennig is German).
Image Roland Schimmelpfennig. Wikipedia Creative Commons
However, as the play continues, two older actors play a young couple, men play women, women play men, and one male cast member plays a female grasshopper (more on that later). This playing with gender, age and race asks the audience to confront their expectations, and goes some way to excuse the all-white cast. This element of the play is attacked with enthusiasm, with Madlen Meyer’s controlled male aggression and Linus Karp’s uncomfortable female sexuality being played particularly well.
It is around half way through the play that the kaleidoscope of vignettes comes into focus, and it becomes clear that Asian economic migration is merely a device to explore general ideas about the effect of hegemony and power relationships. This is when this production really finds its feet. The first half drags a little, with some characterisation verging on caricature, but as the stories begin to interweave the actors discover a new energy, and this production really finds its feet.
The failings of the first half are perhaps due to downplaying the play’s more shocking aspects. This work is a confrontational black comedy, but too often the comedy was played up and the drama played down – particularly in a poorly judged tin-foil tooth prop that renders a hilariously dark slapstick sequence just the wrong side of ridiculous. Towards the end the shocks came thick and fast, but they might have been better spaced.
One of the most effective threads is a disturbing twist on the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which seems to ask how far we use stories to desensitise ourselves to the brutal reality of the world. The strange, long limbed physicality of Karp’s grasshopper communicates a terrible melancholy and shame that grows to fill the whole play. Even the restaurant scenes, played mostly for laughs, take on a sinister hue. Is the play of server and customer also a story? A lie that allows us to ignore cruelty and deprivation? This production poses that question subtly, showing how power imbalance can corrupt both the powerful and the powerless – although there is a hint of saccharine in the ending that feels slightly out of place.
Image The Wolf via Flickr
Walking back out into South Kensington, on to a street of takeaways and minicab firms, the power of The Golden Dragon is such that you can’t avoid thinking about what might be behind those curtained windows, but you worry that if you looked you might just see yourself reflected in the glass.
London Theatre Reviewer
You can see what other productions are playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road at www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk