Theatre

One of three plays by Anchuli Felicia King to feature on Australian stages this year, Golden Shield engages intelligently with the digital world and shows great heart. It’s a triumph. By Alison Croggon.

Golden Shield

Jing-Xuan Chan, Gabrielle Chan, Yi Jin and Fiona Choi (from left) in MTC’s production of Golden Shield.
Credit: Jeff Busby

“Translation,” says the Spanish author Mariano Antolín Rato, “is one of the few human activities in which the impossible occurs by principle.” Love might be another.

Like love, translation – which derives from the Latin translatus, meaning “carried across” – is often imperfect, and sometimes is derailed by bad faith. Even at its best, it’s a kind of fuzzy approximation of the infinities of human complexity.

As Anchuli Felicia King argues in her second full-length play, Golden Shield, both translation and love – the evanescent possibility of real communication – might be the only chance we have. In this play, translation becomes a character in itself, a chorus-like commentator played by Yuchen Wang who introduces the action and translates not only the Mandarin dialogue but also subtext and gesture.

The first production of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEXT STAGE play development program, Golden Shield demonstrates why this young Thai-Australian playwright is being feted by theatre companies around the world.

At only 25, King already trails a raft of awards. She’s amassed a formidable multidisciplinary body of work across three continents, encompassing sound and video design, composition and writing. Her name is suddenly ubiquitous – MTC’s premiere of Golden Shield comes after her mainstage playwriting debut, White Pearl, at London’s Royal Court in May; a production of her experimental text Slaughterhouse is on at Belvoir in October, followed by two more productions of White Pearl, by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC.

Golden Shield is a fiction inspired by real events. It’s named after the Golden Shield Project, a massive network security venture run by the Ministry of Public Security for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A major part of Golden Shield is the Great Firewall of China, an infrastructure of surveillance and censorship that regulates the internet, blocking access to politically inconvenient foreign websites.

Much of the hardware for this was provided by the multinational United States tech company Cisco. In 2011, Cisco was sued in a US court by law firm Ward & Ward on behalf of 13 imprisoned Chinese dissidents, who claimed Cisco had played a role akin to “IBM’s behaviour in Nazi Germany”. The case was dismissed in 2014, with the judge ruling that the court didn’t have jurisdiction and that Cisco wasn’t responsible for the abuses carried out by the Chinese government.

In Golden Shield, the US multinational is called OSCIS, and it not only supplies the hardware: it invents the decentralised firewall that permits the filtering out of internet chaos and the tracking of Chinese dissidents and sells it to the CCP, generating profits of about $50 billion a year.

The lawsuit is pursued by the Chinese American lawyer Julie Chen (Fiona Choi), who employs her estranged sister, Eva (Jing-Xuan Chan), as a translator when she visits China to drum up dissidents for her class action against OSCIS.

The play is bilingual, with some scenes played out entirely in Mandarin, but it negotiates a number of other languages – legalese, the techspeak of the digital age, the brutal language of corporatism. Much of the intelligence in this play is how we are made to witness the mediations of these various vocabularies, with the complexities often – but not always – articulated through the Translator.

In many ways, Golden Shield follows conventional dramaturgies. We follow a complex plot that is delineated through conflicted familial and social relationships. There’s the US company opening markets in China, no matter what the cost; the lawyer who decides to mount a class action in the US; the moral clash of idealism versus pragmatism.

Although it was commissioned by the MTC, Golden Shield was presented in New York by Ensemble Studio Theatre earlier this year as part of First Light, a season of public workshop performances. I couldn’t help wondering how much this other context contributed to the play’s dramaturgical confidence; the sense of ease in its formal boldness is immediately striking.

The device of Yuchen Wang’s Translator, who hovers behind every scene as a kind of oblique narrator, makes the play immediately theatric. But the dialogue, and the play’s flashback structure, could as easily have been written for television or film, a sense that’s reinforced by the close-up video projections of the characters.

It’s a hugely impressive achievement, rendered with a supple intelligence that’s reflected in Sarah Goodes’ equally impressive production. The characters are so deftly drawn that even when – as with Josh McConville’s sociopathic corporate executive Marshall McLaren – they are little more than symbolic representations, they come across as compelling and real.

This is partly down to the casting, which is impeccable, with every actor seamlessly part of an ensemble. Sophie Ross and Nicholas Bell play doubled roles, secondary characters that are inverse reflections of each other – Bell is McLaren’s doubtful henchman and Julie’s boss at the law firm, while Ross is both an icily corporate lawyer and a passionate human rights activist.

When there’s depth to the characters, as with the complex and often silent relationship between the dissident professor Li Dao (Yi Jin) and his wife, Huang Mei (Gabrielle Chan), the delicacy of interaction can be deeply moving. King is good at identifying the moments when language fails, when the complexity of feeling makes translation impossible.

The central relationship is between the sisters Julie and Eva, who are deeply damaged in different ways by their fraught relationship with their dead mother. Julie can barely speak Mandarin, having abandoned Eva in China to study in the US, and identifies as wholly American. Eva’s revenge is self-destruction: she sleeps with all of Julie’s professional associates. She earns her living as a sex worker, which she uses both to taunt her sister and to keep her at a distance.

Their relationship is a trauma that neither sister is able to overcome, in part symbolising the trauma of diasporic China. They mark each other with betrayal: in one crucial scene, Eva deliberately mistranslates her sister in a disastrous attempt to help her persuade Li Dao to testify in court, ultimately undermining trust between Julie and her client.

In a series of false endings that feel like the only real missteps in the dramaturgy, the sisters are left only with their inability to communicate. The Translator tells us the attempt to speak is the only hope we have, but the trajectory of their relationship seems to arc towards total estrangement: in some cases, we begin to feel, the damage is too deep, and communication is impossible.

In fact, picking over the play, there’s a fair bit of pessimism. King mostly doesn’t judge her characters, leaving us to deal with the moral ambiguity she explores, but Julie’s trajectory suggests her problem isn’t so much a lack of legal smarts as her idealism, which leads her to overweening hubris.

Her boss, Richard Warren (Bell), dresses her down in one of the more excoriating speeches in the play: instead of holding out for principle, he tells her, she should have accepted the generous settlement offered by OSCIS. In this cold corporate world – where the laws are written by the powerful, and the only currency is money – there isn’t any possibility of justice.

Perhaps it’s a slight imbalance in what is generally a work in which the scales are very carefully weighted; perhaps it’s a bleak assessment of where we are in our current political time. But this alienated pragmatism ends up feeling uncomfortably like the moral centre of the play.

The cast plays across a brutalist stage designed by The Sisters Hayes (Esther Marie and Rebecca) that invokes soulless corporate spaces: polished grey stone, black windows. Like the play itself, the design moves between the intimate and the epic: modular set pieces, swiftly wheeled on and off by the cast, create the human spaces – a food stall, or a hotel room, or a witness box – where human beings interact.

The brutalism is mitigated by projections – close-ups of the actors, the moving streetscapes of Beijing – that illuminate the hard surfaces. Damien Cooper’s sensitive lighting design constantly transforms the space, sometimes lighting up the whole auditorium, sometimes focusing on a single body.

It seems to me that King couldn’t have looked for a better production, and it’s certainly the best thing I’ve seen at the MTC this year. It’s also the first play I’ve seen that deals so fluently with the digital age, moving through its vocabularies and values as part of an available native tongue. Early on, I had a sudden vivid sense of generational change. This, Golden Shield seems to be saying, is the new mainstream. Get used to it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Golden ticket". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.