Russell Bolam directs a new production of David Mamet’s rarely performed two-hander first produced in 1977 and not seen in London for twenty-five years.
The set (Anthony Lamble) is a beautifully carpentered wooden façade of a lakeside summer house, complete with decking out front, upon which most of the action takes place. If anything, the house looks too good for its supposed age as it has been Nick’s summer place all his lifetime. His rowing boat, presumably of similar vintage, is discovered by Ruth to have half rotted away.
Our first view of the couple shows Ruth (Francesca Carpanini) to be madly in love with Nick (Sam Frenchum), prattling away to him about not very much of consequence; conversation which is received with monosyllabic and noncommittal answers. Nick stares with unblinking eyes and a featureless expression. We ascertain from the outset that this man is not quite all right, and Frenchum acts the part to a tee. Over three parts of the day – dusk/night/morning – the couple tell each other part-stories, never quite ending their tales. Ruth talks of her grandmother, Nick of his father. The stories involve bears, birds, fish, and even Martians; stories that are started, and left unfinished.
Subtle subdued lighting (Bethany Gupwell) changes over the course of the night and into the next morning including a well-designed lightning storm. Some superfluous flickering of a porch lamp between the scenes alongside ominous eerie sounds (Ali Taie) hint at the supernatural or, perhaps, a representation of Nick’s bad dreams.
Just as seen in Shakespeare, life in The Woods is different from that of The City but there is little evidence that Nick is liberated by the country idyll. It appears the more Ruth professes her love for him, the more clammed up Nick becomes until things turn ugly. Special mention here for Fight/Intimacy Co-ordinator Haruka Kuroda whose work with the two actors ensures the close scenes between the couple are totally credible and produces a most convincing on-stage scuffle that is indeed uncomfortable viewing.
The morning after the night before produces the finest moments of the play as Ruth finds some stoicism in her dealings with Nick and this audience finds some humour here that resonated. Whilst we can say that Mamet does not go far enough in exploring the possibilities between the couple – perhaps what we see and hear today was shocking enough forty-five years ago – this is a beautifully presented production of a play that gives little for the actors to work with. But Sam Frenchum and Francesca Carpanini work well together with what they have and the performance of Carpanini, in particular, is captivating.
“Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story”
Rice is Michele Lee’s enterprising two hander about women of colour trapped in the heirarchical (and blinkered) world of male dominated business in Australia. It has just opened at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s a co-production between the Orange Tree and the Actors Touring Company, directed by Matthew Xia. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, Rice is a play with a brilliant premise that doesn’t quite meet its promise.
Lee, who is Hmong-Australian, wanted to create a play that gave two actresses of colour a chance to play multiple roles—roles of “versatility and virtuosity and range.” In creating Nisha, (played by Zainab Hasan) an ambitious young executive hoping to rise in the Golden Fields rice company of Melbourne, and pitting her against the older Yvette (Sarah Lam), a cleaner of Chinese ancestry at the same company, Lee creates a situation fraught with cross cultural tensions both within and without these women’s lives. Hasan does not only play Nisha, an Australian of West Bengali ancestry, but shifts into a variety of roles, including Sheree, Yvette’s troubled daughter, and the white (and very privileged) son of David Egan—a man who is threatening her daughter with a prison sentence. Lam takes on an equally dazzling range of roles, including Tom Budd, an executive at Nisha’s company with whom Nisha has a brief and ill-judged affair; Graeme Hartley, a management “guru”, and Gretel Patel—who brings Nisha’s dreams of advancement to a crashing fall during a disastrous business trip to India.
The story of Rice is quite simple: Nisha and Yvette meet in Nisha’s office where she has been working long hours. Nisha is unhappy with Yvette’s refusal to clean her workspace to her liking. Yvette has very definite ideas about what she should be cleaning. But this clash between powerful personalities is about to become irrelevant in company politics—the Golden Fields company has just hired a management “guru” who is slashing and burning every budget he can find. Thrown together in mutual misery in a series of after business hours encounters, the women become friends. They bond over food, naturally—both Yvette’s home cooked Chinese dishes, and Nisha’s concern over her happy go lucky boyfriend’s food truck and his “khaki rolls.”
Two actresses, no matter how experienced or talented—as Lam and Hasan are—cannot quite pull off the range of roles in Rice, although dialect coach Catherine Weate has done sterling work with all the accents. It’s hard for the audience to keep track of all the characters that cross this bright, white stage in ninety five minutes of playing time. It’s to Lee’s credit that she has created such interesting and varied roles—it would be great to see a cast playing each role with a single actor. Similarly, the change of scenes in Rice would benefit from changes of scenery. Changing the lighting (again, even in the talented hands of Bethany Gupwell, the lighting designer) doesn’t quite do it.
A play with such a varied cast and complex settings (the scenes shift from Melbourne, Australia to Delhi, India) is a lot to pull off successfully in a small theatre in the round. The intimacy of the Orange Tree stage should work well in a two hander, but in this case, the set design is unnecessarily cluttered with a desk. This makes playing in the round quite tricky—every time someone sits down at that desk, the space is transformed from four into three sides, and the audience seated on the fourth side behind the desk have to grapple with the backs (or, at best, the profiles) of the performers. This happens too often not to be an unwelcome distraction. But the overwhelming feeling that remains after the conclusion of this production of Rice—is that this might not be a piece for the theatre. Perhaps the story would show to best advantage as an Australian indie film—the kind that has made Australian film making famous.
In Rice, Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story. But it needs the right environment to show to best advantage. Put together a bigger cast in the right medium—and this could be a classic.