This play at the Royal Court Theatre, written, directed and produced by women and featuring a virtually all-women cast, has been receiving mixed reviews, so I was not quite sure what to expect. Timeout and The Guardian thought it was a ‘bracing’ (seems to be their favourite word) satire, while blogger Victoria Sadler (whose opinions I usually trust) was angered by it. I went – let me be perfectly transparent – because the son of a good friend of mine was in it, and I was prepared to like him even if I hated the play. But actually I thought the play had its merits, even though it doesn’t quite live up to its own ambitions. I am analysing it below as a social anthropologist and intercultural facilitator who studied Japanese and worked with multinationals in China and Japan (which often included Thai, Korean, Filipino and Indonesian colleagues).
Written by Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King and directed by Thai-American director Nana Dakin, with a colourful, sparky set and lighting that perfectly encapsulates the artificial corporate world of Singapore, it was refreshing to see women talking about things other than men and relationships (definitely passing the Bechdel test). Yes, there is one manipulative stalker ex-boyfriend on the scene (played with cringingly-suitable aplomb by Arty Froushan, whom I’d come to see), but as a Frenchman with a Thai girlfriend, he also represents a former colonial power. I liked the fact that he never became the main focus of the show, and that in the end he is shown as a pathetic figure who gets his come-uppance, rather than the suave artist he would like to be. The Empire strikes back, in a sense.
The premise of the show is quite an interesting one, although some of the motivations are thin or implausible. Clear Day is a Singapore-based cosmetics start-up selling whitening creams to the Asian market. One of their ads – not yet authorised – is leaked online and slammed for being outrageously racist. As social media goes into a baying frenzy, heads must roll and the women turn on each other in an effort to preserve their own careers.
One of the criticisms of the show is that it becomes a bitch fight, but I think this is a little too simplistic. It certainly replicates the competitiveness and ‘blame the other at all costs’ mentality of the corporate world, regardless of whether the characters were men or women. Perhaps in a longer play more male characters could have been introduced and more made of the interplay between them and the power dominance in organisations. But what I thought it also depicted really well was the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality of multinationals when they expand into new markets (Asia or Eastern Europe): pit the locals against each other, while setting up the Western model as the one to aspire to. The speech of the Mumbai-born but UCL-educated director about lateral thinking shows her disdain for the other Asians. The reticence of the Chinese and Japanese workers to engage with each other because of their countries’ historical hostility was another example. The fact that the Japanese woman is ironically the most junior and bullied member of staff (to set this in the European context: imagine Czechs, Poles and Dutch bossing a German around). And of course the shockingly casual racism of some of these women towards black women, whom they don’t even bother to think about because they have never encountered any – an uncomfortable but accurate reminder that it’s not just white people who are racist.
Another criticism of the show is that it is a little too hyper or shrieky – and at some point I had to agree that the shrill voices arguing over each other made it difficult to catch what they were all saying. But from personal experience, I can see two sides of the coin to this shrillness: a) the idea of calm, low, measured tones is more of a Western construct and we need to become more comfortable with a non Euro-centric view of the world and what is acceptable; b) it is very common in all women groups in East Asian countries, where high-pitched tones are perceived as feminine and desirable, so it reinforces the idea that these women are caught up in the cycle of ‘selling unrealistic beauty ideals’.
In conclusion, I thought that the play does a good job in terms of beginning to show Western audiences the differences between ‘Asians’, whom we tend to lump altogether in one big pot, as well as revealing to Asian theatre-goers some of the tensions and contradictions in their own cultures between aspiring to be Occidental but accusing those who do so of losing their authenticity. While it could have done with more well-rounded characters and subtler motivations, I found it thought-provoking. I think this is just the beginning and I hope this playwright will go on to write more nuanced and longer pieces, perhaps TV scripts.