Yuchen Wang, Sophie Ross, Josh McConville, Yi Jin, Nicholas Bell and Fiona Choi in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Golden Shield. Image: Jeff Busby.
Anchuli Felicia King’s bilingual courtroom drama follows two Chinese American sisters, lawyer Julie Chen (Fiona Choi) and her sister, Eva (Jing-Xuan Chan), whom Julie recruits to assist as a translator in a landmark class action exposing an American tech firm’s collusion in internet censorship and surveillance in China. The troubled relationship between the two becomes a major plotline alongside the legal case.
Between and beyond these narrative arcs, there is The Translator, who translates not only the English and Mandarin dialogue but also legal jargon, subtext, and context. It’s an ingenious device that goes beyond an ‘unreliable narrator’ trope to draw attention to the asymmetry of language and the fraught politics embedded in any kind of communication. This aspect of the play offers the strongest writing, with abundant wit and intellectual intrigue, and Yuchen Wang is delightful in this fourth wall-breaking role with an impish yet controlled performance. His impeccable comic timing and physical poise are a joy to watch.
The set design by The Sisters Hayes (Esther Marie Hayes and Rebecca Hayes) is stunning: Brutalist grey concrete slabs form both the backdrop and the modular set pieces, while an array of cameras feed live video footage to a triptych of screens over the stage. These are used judiciously to offer glimpses of what we would otherwise miss – actors facing away from the audience, and close-up frontal shots of what we can only see in distant profile – as well as to mimic the themes of cyber surveillance. However, at times the set threatens to overwhelm the story as numerous loud, lengthy transitions make the story feel quite fragmented. It doesn’t help that many scenes are short, with little physicality: it feels like the rolling set pieces move more than the cast do.
The most notable flaw in this production, however, is that the main roles do not feel fully realised. Julie and Eva both have a lot of backstory – both individually and together – but somehow, the characters lack depth. It’s difficult to feel invested in the conflict between the two sisters when there is so little that endears us to them.
Voice work was also a bit patchy in both English and Mandarin, with some of the actors’ American accents coming loose now and then, and the Chinese bureaucrat having an implausible accent for her office.
Despite a suspense-driven score from Luke Smiles, there are few surprises in the plot. Nonetheless, Yi Jin gives a powerful performance in the show’s climax as Li Dao, a Chinese dissident who has been broken down and betrayed. Josh McConville, too, is convincing as systems engineer Marshall McLaren, an odious tech bro who pitches the Chinese ministry of public security an inspired plan for making their networks faster and more powerful.
Like Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, this play considers how the language of efficiency enables individuals to deny their complicity in human rights abuses. Golden Shield also asks those who signal solidarity to question their goals and motivations. It’s a timely reminder as technology and globalisation entangle ever more of us in ‘the banality of evil’, especially in a year where we have seen links revealed between Australian companies and universities and the cultural genocide in Xinjiang.
It’s fantastic to see MTC support an audacious new work that grapples with issues that will increasingly affect all of us. Despite some flaws in its execution, Golden Shield is a contemporary tragedy that leaves you with plenty to ponder.
3 stars out of 5 ★★★
By Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Sarah Goodes
Set & Costume Design: The Sisters Hayes
Composer & Sound Designer: Luke Smiles
Voice & Dialect Coach: Geraldine Cook-Dafner
Language & Translation Consultant: Jing Wei Lee
Cast: Fiona Choi, Jing-Xuan Chan, Yuchen Wang, Josh McConville, Nicholas Bell, Gabrielle Chan, Yi Jin, and Sophie Ross.
12 August-14 September 2019
The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne VIC