Theatre Review: White Pearl

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.

She Works Hard for the Money…

donna-summer_she-works-hard-for-the-money
Cover of Donna Summer’s single ‘She Works Hard for the Money’.

No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.

I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:

I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).

However, that rate does not take into account the following:

  • 1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
  • While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
  • For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
  • Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, 'cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone... (lyrics from Beautiful South)
This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, ‘cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone… (lyrics from Beautiful South)

  • I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
  • I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
  • This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
  • This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).

This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.
This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.

By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.

So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.

Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.

After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?

I am not a political poet, but…

Fair is Fair

I cannot stomach another appraisal in the garb of friendly chat
upstairs at Starbucks
dissecting goals and stretching targets
just beyond the realm of fairytale achievement.

Business drivers and objectives, abstract terms and jargon
jostle for dominion
while a plague falls upon both your houses, tiled with greed.
Slurp your coffee in a bowl of soup,
enough calories to feed a family of four.

Check your privilege like a raincoat at the door.
Please isolate one or two areas for improvement –
oh, I don’t know, pay taxes maybe?
Fairtrade jazz too bland and quiet to offend
as I sip my hot beverage
and bemoan the drop in my shares.

REUTERS/Will Burgess
REUTERS/Will Burgess

Continuation

This is one of the last poems I wrote before my laptop was stolen.  Or rather, a different poem with some of these elements, as I cannot remember what I wrote, but I do know it was very different from the snippets I had in my notebook.  So here is an attempt to recreate the feel of that poem. 

Each day he wakes when dawn

is cracked, egg-like, on a sleepy fog.

Before the mist clears, he pulls on lurid togs

and sets to pound the streets

into submission.

The thud of trainers swells his head,

gives voice to remarks left unsaid at meetings,

those witty exchanges he rehearses right up to the door

of his boss.

Only at dawn can he come up with answers

only dawn gives him good honest sweat

which he sluices off in the shower.

On go tie, shirt, cufflinks, the uniform of corporate man,

socks the only choice in his day.

The next few hours, many hours, his will be silent,

his voice be muffled,

his prayers unanswered.

The killer is not change

but perpetual continuation

to stupid lengths and beyond.