The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is a review of a performance at Birmingham Rep on Tuesday 3 October 2017, originally published in the Birmingham Post on 5 October.
The Golden Dragon is a “Thai – Chinese – Vietnamese” restaurant. Four chefs stand at their stations, dicing and frying. A fifth – The Little One – sits on the floor chopping peppers and pak choi, a martyr to toothache. And behind them sits the orchestra of Music Theatre Wales, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson: unlikely kitchen staff in aprons and headbands. Peter Eötvös’s 2014 chamber opera has a striking premise, and director Michael McCarthy’s production establishes it with brilliant economy.
Then it’s down to the cast and Eötvös’s glistening, juddering score. Metallic percussion and guiro become the clang of knives, synthesiser chords billow into the air like fragrant steam, and squirming clarinets evoke The Little One’s nagging pain. His rotten tooth is the centre of a nest of interlocked tales of exile, exploitation and economic migration. And amidst the restlessness of Eötvös’s music, he’s the one who finds a macabre sort of transcendence, and the opera’s final, darkly beautiful flight of lyricism.
It’s all performed with needlepoint precision and exuberant physical verve by a multi-tasking cast: Lucy Schaufer’s Woman Over Sixty had a rough-cut compassion, while Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford never overcooked the comedic potential of tattooed, bearded men doubling as hair-flicking air stewardesses. Llio Evans’s Little One was unquestionably the heart of the drama, tender-voiced and poignantly resigned to his / her fate.
But for all its inventiveness The Golden Dragon left a sour aftertaste, even beyond its stereotyped representation of Chinese restaurants as unhygienic sweatshops, or the fact that only the western characters are permitted names. Librettist Roland Schimmelpfennig’s mixture of narration and direct speech means that the characters never acquire more depth than a cartoon: a serious problem in a story that uses sexual violence as a rhetorical device. Still, a programme note in unreadable academic prose justifies it all by reference to (who else?) Bertolt Brecht. So that’s alright then.