24 June 2014

Review: The King and I

The King and I
Opera Australia and John Frost
12 June 2014
Princess Theatre
to August 2014

Photo by Oliver Toth
This production of The King and I was first seen in 1991 in Adelaide. It toured Australia and found its way to New York in 1996, where it won some Tonys, and to London in 2000. It was a lavish, extravagant re-working of the Rogers and Hammerstein's 1950s Broadway hit – and still is.

There's not much that hasn't been said about the Brian Thomson's set and Roger Kirk's costumes, which won a couple of those Tonys. The Thai-influenced, outrageously sparklie, elephants-on-the-stage, hoop-skirted, bare-chested, gold, gold and gold stage is magnificent. It's an impression of 1860s Bangkok that could only exist on a music theatre stage.

As this story might only be able to exist on a music theatre stage. Based on a book that's based on a semblance of truth, the "I" is a colonial English woman (Anna) brought to Bangkok by the King of Siam (Thailand)) to teach English to his many wives and children. She's very fish-out-of-water in her massively-hooped frocks and educated ways, but loves the bare-footed women and children she teaches and somehow earns the respect of the King, who is determined to bring his country into the Western world without sacrificing his absolute power.

Jason Scott Lee joyfully embraces the clown and the confused heart of the King, if not the fear connected to his power, and Lisa McCune ensures that Mrs Anna is his match and equal. McCune brings a subtlety and contemporary understanding that creates depth to the more thinly-written moments and her scenes with Shu-Cheen Yu (first wife, Lady Thiang), especially, acknowledge and challenge the perception of the world that created this work.

No matter how exquisite the design, talented the cast or adorable the children, it's impossible not to look at this The King and I from a 2014 Australian perspective and ask the unavoidable: "Why here, why now?".

The work still presents the Thai people with a 1950s mix of exoticism and barbarism; the dialogue's still generic Asian, can't-pronounce-R, broken English; and the laughs come from the Thai people mis-understanding the British/American culture. Despite its intent, The King and I still has some awkward moments that feel a bit like politely listening to Grandpa tell an off joke because he doesn't know better.

If the book and story were presented without the song and dance, would it be applauded or even accepted? And could this production tour to South East Asia and open in Bangkok? I think no and no. So, of all the works that could have been produced, why this one?

This was on AussieTheatre.com.