There’s something terribly fragile about The Golden Dragon; it’s almost as delicate as the five fountains of paper that make up the backdrop in Ramin Gray’s stripped down production and German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s strange parable of a play is all the more commanding when it allows itself to remain oblique.
Five actors enter the space; they are smiling and matter of fact in their preparation as they walk on to the stage. They pull down rolls of white A3 with a flourish and take these to their opening positions, snatching neck cloths and chef’s trousers en route, morphing into characters sometimes for seconds, or maybe even minutes at a time, but never losing themselves completely. This is Brechtian theatre at its most potent, inhabiting the world of the piece but always commenting on itself as everything is performed with the objectivity of an observer.
This leads to some desperately uncomfortable moments: a child’s story is revealed as a grotesquely sexualised tale of abuse; four kitchen staff try to save a victim of toothache with grim consequences. The Golden Dragon is a tale of the people who fall through the net, of individuals who have tried their hardest and lost. Gray’s production is never explicit but the piece’s silence is in itself a comment on a society that allows these tragedies to happen.
Even so, this is no sob story. The production is often bizarrely cold. The stories have the potential to the incredibly emotive, but the way they are imparted leaves the audience chilled. The piece requires its audience to approach this myriad of voices as a surgeon would, picking amongst them, scrutinising everything. There is a point half way through where it becomes harder to care any more. As these stories become more concrete, a sad sense of acceptance begins to take hold and the sense of shock at what we are seeing becomes dulled.
The tidier Gray’s production gets the less power it has; it’s so much more effective when it’s messy and harder to make sense of. Gray ties up all of his characters’ problems into a neat bow and the stories lose their initial potency: the tale of the ant and the grasshopper morphs from dark childhood tale to a fairly pedestrian adult nightmare.
But even though the gorgeous looseness of the opening scenes is lost, Gray continues to tamper with the audience’s expectations. An old lady plays a young one, a man plays a woman: the results are delightful yet disquieting. And at the heart of this topsy-turvy piece lies the real sense that these performers are trying to impart an inherent horrific truth. We are being implored to sit up and take notice. This is a troubling and thought provoking production, that exerts a hold on its audience. We may shy away from the violence that underscores the play, but even at the end, it won’t let us go.