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Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre present, RICE, by Michele Lee, in the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 26th July – 26th August.

RICE is a new Australian play, by Asian-Australian writer, Michele Lee. It received the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2016-2017, and this production was first presented by Queensland Theatre in the Billie Brown Studio, in June, Directed by Lee Lewis.

Michele Lee has been working around the edges of the mainstream theatres for many years, and this is the first major mounting of one of her works. Nisha (Kristy Best), the Australian-born grand-daughter of a West Bengali migrant family, is a high-flying executive at Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice. As an Executive-Officer she has been preparing a deal with the Indian Government – by ‘hook or by crook’, it seems – which will place her company at the centre of India’s rice distribution. She is also dealing with the sad disintegration of her Didima, grandmother. Working late every night, she encounters Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang), a single Asian mother, who, while working under contract to clean offices, is also an enthusiastic entrepreneur with a trail of failed, dodgy businesses behind her. Yvette is, also, having to deal with a troubled activist daughter, Sheree. They both discover that they have a lot in common.

Says Ms Lee in her Playwright’s Notes in the program:

Initially I said RICE was about a plethora of ‘big’ contemporary issues. As if I was some Mike Moore of theatre. Mass agriculture. Super economies. Mercenary corporations. Women in business. RICE is about these things. But it’s probably, primarily, about two women searching out for new friendships and new intimacies, new versions of family, however fleeting.

Certainly, then, in the present political environment of our Performing Arts industry this play ticks many of the boxes that will take it to serious consideration for actual production from Main Stream companies. A writer of the female sex (tick) from a minority Australian culture (tick), with two roles for women (tick) that will demand a cultural diversity in casting (tick), dealing with contemporary issues (tick). Plus, the offer by the writer that the two actors, who play Nisha and Yvette will, also, play an extra four characters each, of various sex and ages, thus ensuring that the Producing company, or companies, need only employ two actors – a budgetary consideration of often irresistible attraction (tick) to get one’s work produced by the Professional Company in Australia. (A strategic gesture by Ms Lee?) In this case the Producing companies, the Arts Funded Queensland Company and the Griffin Company (of NSW origin) need only pay one actor each for this three month rehearsal/performance season (tick,tick).

Now this suggestion by the writer to have the two actors to play five roles each, (although in the program it is indicated that the actors are to only ‘also speak’ the lines for the characters – “Speak”, that’s all? Is that an ignorance of the writer of the actor’s field of creative effort?) across multiple sex and age dimensions, is no hindrance to successfully deliver the play to an audience. It, simply, demands that the Director, in this case Lee Lewis, find two very versatile (necessarily, experienced) actors – who have not only highly developed technical acting skills to switch swiftly from one character to another, but, have an instinctive ease and appetite to be able to do so. If achieved, it will be part of the magic of the production, and give the actors the thrill of a fierce artistic challenge. The opportunity that Ms Lee is offering could be a gift for the right actor – there are, I believe, not many actors that could meet, comfortably, the demands. The alternatives then, are 1. that the time to work with the Director to sort out with the two actors the necessary cues of change demarcations for the different characters for ultimate communication and ‘thrill’ will be time that will be both abundant (budget cost?) and intense (emotional cost?), or, 2. you employ more actors – even, in this case, you might get away with just two others – if you were really lucky. A cast of four, at least, two for the principal roles: Nisha and Yvette, and two for the other four roles – did the two Companies ever consider that choice? Did Budget concerns close down that option?

In the case of the present production neither of the actors are easefully skillful in demarcating either , physically or vocally – except with half-hearted dialectical adaptations (Dialect coaches, Jennifer White and Gabrielle Rogers) – the cues for the audience to ‘read’ with alacrity which character is speaking so as to keep attention on the content of the story. Ms Best, as Nisha, is best in her upfront pleasant presentational mode, wide eyed and smiling, which is utilised for all her characters. Her energy investment on the night I saw the show needed to be tempered to allow the audience in, to be able to identify and empathise – sometimes it was almost assaulting in its overpowering offers – and the gear changes from character to character were not very easily communicated. While Ms Tang, as Yvette, was more grounded in her energy on the night and therefore more successful in her responsibilities of demarcated difference.

The construction and content of Ms Lee’s play is particularly interesting for its cultural insights, if not unique either thematically or observationally, and is hindered, mostly lost, in the pell mell and ‘flat’, shallow, differential characterisations drawn by the actors under Ms Lewis’ Direction. The Set and Costume Design, by Renee Mulder, is serviceable in its impeccable neatness, adjusted from the Queensland production in a differently configured acting space with Lighting, similarly useful, from Jason Glenwright.

There are, then, many political tick box reasons to see RICE, but if you go, for clarity of content, don’t go tired. To get the most out of this prize winning text in this production, you will have to be extremely alert. Or, wait to see a production that can afford more actors to overcome what is a versatility problem with this company.