This Monday was the first day of rehearsals for Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon. After a busy meet and greet and read-through of the play, Ramin (Gray), our director, introduced a special guest to the company: Zenghui Qui. Zenghui is a professional musician who specialises traditional Chinese music, and bought into the rehearsal a veritable coterie of different instruments for the company to play with. She seemed a dab-hand at everything she demonstrated: from the gorgeous clay ocarina-like ‘Xun’ to the more familiar Chinese flute.
The company’s hushed appreciation of Zenghui’s calm, masterful playing was soon broken by loud crashes and general uproar from the cast, each trying to copy what she’d shown (see some brilliant footage of them here). What was great about this, and what was perhaps purposefully intended by Ramin in this session, was how the company became affected by this demonstration. As the cast tried to imitate the sounds Zenghui produced, and were confronted by the technical difficulty, everyone instinctively switched back into techniques of playing from their own backgrounds, creating a tangible and at times amusing, cultural clash. Internalised cultural behaviours we do not notice on a daily basis were suddenly exposed. Kathryn (O’Reilly) picked up the flute and managed some gorgeous sounds, but sounded and looked more like she was playing the recorder. She looked so concentrated but a bit ill-at-ease as she strained to find the perfect pitch and timbre. Give them a little time I think they’ll all sound superb!
But it was this feeling of slight cultural embarrassment which made the afternoon a perfect way of starting rehearsals. Ideas of cultural inclusivity and identity strike at the heart of The Golden Dragon. The five actors do not just play a single role in the production, but a series of different characters with different genders, ethnicities and widely different ages. Ann (Firbank), royalty of ATC having appeared in a wide range of productions before this one, has the unimaginable task of playing “The Granddaughter, Asian Woman, The Ant and The Shopkeeper”! The play constantly confronts expectations of identity and sense of self: how far are cultural or differences of age insurmountable? Are there areas of experience which will inevitably create understanding between even the most unlikely of people? How far is personal identity fixed in the first place?
The eponymous restaurant itself is continually called a ‘Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food’ joint in the script, like the characters in the play is never pinned to one coherent identity. I am really looking forward to seeing how things progress (and whether the Chinese instruments will become a feature of the performance – I certainly hope so). Whatever, I wish the cast good luck on the venture and look forward to following them!