The Poison of Polygamy (La Boite and Sydney Theatre Company) – theatre review

La Boite Theatre’s first mainstage presentation of 2023, the world premiere co-production of The Poison of Polygamy comes with an array of content advisories. The work, which is recommended for audiences aged 15+ contains descriptions of murder, violence, drug use, sexual activities and references to suicide. The production also contains loud noises and the use of theatrical haze and smoke effects. We see the latter from its very outset when strobe lighting and smoke fills the Roundhouse Theatre stage space to foreshadow its story… from beyond the grave.

In its opening scene, our narrator, The Preacher (Shan-Ree Tan) looks, unimpressed, upon his congregation of modern Australians, in deliver of a sermon warning of the ancient social scourge of his mother country… the poisonous plague of polygamy. What follows in his provocation for us to consider its worth through his presentation of a case as illustration, and so we are quickly taken to the China of his birth and Part 1 Verse 1 of the show. Sour and selfish Sleep-Sick (Sha-Ree Tan) reluctantly makes his way home to his long-suffering, childless wife Ma (Merlynn Tong) who is caring for his gravely ill mother. Penniless and unable to obtain gainful employment, the unlikeable, opium-addicted Sleep-Sick soon sets sail for Australia (where there is wealth to be made on the goldfields), swearing to never take a concubine, lest the gods strike him down.

The epic play by Anchuli Felica King, based on the novel by Wong Shee Ping, translated by Ely Finch, thus unfolds in a lengthy journey. Under Courtney Stewart’s deft and detailed direction, there is a lot going on visually. James Lew’s set and costume design sees its story worlds created upon a bare stage with only a few key set pieces. Large moveable red columns border and corridor some action, yet are also used to great effect to reflect the at-sea movement of travel from China to arrival in a foreign land. And their swift move in and out of the space ensures that scene transitions are seamless.

Another of the work’s unique staging elements sees its characters trekking overland from South Australia to Melbourne through the heights of the theatre space, around the aisles at the top of the stalls, accompanied by a wilderness soundscape courtesy of Guy Webster’s evocative sound design. Similarly, the staircase between seating banks is used, for example, to play out the hard labour mining that has characters reflecting on their loss of idealism through continual toil without reward.

Nigel Poulton’s fight and intimacy direction delivers many striking scenes of sex and violence, while Deborah Brown’s choreographic detail allows for some unexpected humour through almost pantomime like movement and physical comedy, enhanced by the heightened reactions of performers. Until, that is, the dramatic and dramatically different in tone, Act Two in which full extent of its title’s meaning is revealed. Having built up his wealth, Sleep-Sick returns to the faithful Ma and their adoptive son in Guangdong, bringing with him his second, beautiful wife, Tsiu Hei (Kimie Tsukakoshi), with tragic consequences and some shocking moments that we don’t necessarily see coming.

Reflective of its epic scope, the story was originally published in 53 instalments in ‘The Chinese Times’, a Chinese-language newspaper in Melbourne, from 1909-1910. And it is certainly a well-written one, full of the descriptive imagery of similes and alike to evoke audience engagement, especially from Tsukakoshi’s Tsiu Hei, in suggestive allusion of chastity and similar sexually-toned topics. And messaging around legacy is embedded throughout as part of its ongoing moral. But, at 180 minutes’ duration (including a 20-minute interval), it is a very long show, and just as La Boite theatre seating is not designed for three hour shows, such lengthy audience investments are perhaps not designed for 7.30pm start times.

This does not, however, take away from the performances from each member of its excellent cast. Shan-Ree Tan transitions easily between demeanours of The Preacher and the eccentric Sleep-Sick throughout, with slip on and off of hat to assist the audience in their comprehension. And Gareth Yuen is solid is support as the politically-minded Pan, delivering a particularly persuasive monologue of his dream to create a place of unified congregation, motivated by the idea of solidarity arising from their collective displacement.

From the moment she announces her interruption of the holy man’s Chapter 2 Verse 1 sermon at the start of Act Two, Tsukakoshi impresses as Sleep-Sick’s salacious bond maiden … and ultimate undoing, especially in her dissatisfaction at the modest means of her good-hearted initially intended husband Chan (Silvan Rus). Indeed, she takes us from the antic behaviour of a young and not-yet-of-the-world woman through to the determination to secure the attention of a wealthy trading merchant such as Sleep-Sick due to the freedom that this will bring her. Rhetoric roles off her tongue and the resulting perfectly frank declarations against treatment by a society in which men and money are pillars, are decisive and convincing, encouraging our sympathies for a moment, before turning our expectations are significantly subverted. And Anna Yen, provides many memorable moments as the matchmaker / chaperone who sees to all arrangements in support of Tsiu Hei’s secure of Sleep-Sick’s favour, through her nuanced facial expressions to punctuate the dialogue with real meaning, adding some levity to the density of the grand story’s Act Two unfolding.

The Poison of Polygamy covers some big themes of emotion, morality and the consequences of choice, yet their weave amongst what is essentially a family saga makes their examination engaging. It also offers insight into the behind-the-scenes of the Victorian goldfields and the early days of Melbourne’s Chinatown, making it a work of many layers to challenge our consideration of its colliding worlds.

The Poison of Polygamy is at the Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove, Brisbane until 27 May;
Then at STC, The Wharf, Sydney from 12 June to 15 July 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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