Golden Shield

Golden Shield
By Anchuli Felicia King. Melbourne Theatre Company. Southbank Theatre, The Sumner. 12 August – 14 September 2019

The play begins with a request from the Translator (Yuchen Wang): ‘Concentrate.’  Good advice since Golden Shield is a complex and demanding but also a very rewarding play.  Its ending is not ‘feel good’, but it is clear: something morally complex has been dramatised for us and it may be grim, but it is satisfying. 

The Golden Shield of the title is a ‘firewall’ around China to keep out – supposedly – pornography and other disruptive influences.  An American company is contracted to erect this firewall, but what if it could function internally as well to identify ‘terrorists’?  And then what if an altruistic Chinese-American pro bono lawyer, Julie Chen (Fiona Choi) represented some of these ‘terrorists’ – that is, democracy activists – in suing the American company for knowingly aiding the Chinese government in its surveillance, suppressions, arrests, torture and murder? 

In other words, this is a most ‘relevant’ drama, given current debate.  The characters per se are not real – as the playwright Anchuli Felicia King tells us – but the situation certainly is; it happened.   

Multi-stranded, multi-layered with a non-linear time scheme skilfully deployed as a series of reveals, the play shows us intimate relationships but ventures beyond domestic and personal concerns and into international politics, justified paranoia, corporate greed, amoral egomania and betrayal.  It is doubly appropriate that the Translator, alone on stage, introduces the play because it is indeed about translation, not just of words but of mores and values, between countries – the USA and China – but also between sisters, lovers and friends.  A brilliant touch, as the play proceeds, is that the Translator himself transforms from a relaxed, beanie-and-backpack guy, making funny and ironic translations of conversational subtext, into someone more ‘respectable’ but also tense and anxious, with less and less to say as his task becomes impossible.  Mr Wang’s Translator has no consequential part in the story, but his elegance and charm draw the audience to him and his reactions – always clear – are a sort of moral barometer.

But the cast overall is excellent, working in a mix of Mandarin, English and ‘American English’.  Gabrielle Chan plays three roles, but most strikingly as the steely, expressionless Chinese Deputy Minister with whom the Americans must deal.  Yi Jin is Li Dao, one of those unfortunate ‘terrorists’, and he is horribly moving as we see Li’s dignity and courage crumble away.  How sincere, anyway, is lawyer Julie Chen?  Is this case a career and prestige building number?  Ms Choi keeps that ambiguity nicely on show.  Her Julie has pretty much severed her Chinese roots and so hires her sister Eva (Jing-Xuan Chan) as translator.  Ms Chan makes Eva a hard-headed and rather chilling ‘realist’ in a very controlled but just right performance.  Sophie Ross is the bubbly, somewhat naïve liaison contact in China.  Nicholas Bel is Julie’s cynical boss, Richard Warren, and, in yet another totally convincing transformation, Larry Murdoch, the ‘business’ side of the computer company, who maintains some shreds of conscience that are easily, in the end, blown away.  Every character here (excluding the CCP – they’re happy) ends up to some degree disappointed and hurt – except for the American computer genius Marshall McLaren (Josh McConville) who keeps his moral blinkers on at all times and is very proud of his amazing download speeds and damn the consequences.  A brilliantly sustained performance of a repulsive character.

Esther Marie Hayes and Rebecca Hayes (The Sisters Hayes) set design is cold marble brutalism with a table, a bench, a lectern and a few chairs but this vast space, aided by Damien Cooper’s lighting can quickly become a home kitchen, a hotel room, a cheap restaurant as well as a courtroom or a multinational company’s boardroom.  (We always know where we are.  Those committed to naturalism might take note.)  Director Sarah Goodes adds another achievement to her work at the MTC.  She uses that big empty space in a dynamic and pictorial way with the positioning of her cast - and the cast itself is clearly inside not just their characters, but also exactly what this play is about.

If more personal plot strands are perhaps just slightly overshadowed by the moral horror of the A-plot ‘brilliant’ computer deal that entrenches state power, they are convincing and integrated within the play’s themes.  This is a play of real substance that is the more impressive for showing rather than telling.  It is astonishing to think that Anchuli Felicia King is only twenty-five – not just for her story structure skills but also her grasp of moral ambiguities and ambivalences.  Golden Shield is an MTC NEXTSTAGE Original and this production is its world premiere.  I’ll be most surprised if we don’t hear more of it and of Ms King, and her already much awarded and diverse work.

Michael Brindley    

Photographer: Jeff Busby

To keep up with the latest news and reviews at Stage Whispers, click here to like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.