At the centre of Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon is the story of a Chinese cook with a terrible toothache, but it is a centre that is constantly being displaced and submerged in a jostle of globe-spanning causes and coincidences, ultimately making for a clamorous, if somewhat earnest, lament for the human rights of illegal immigrants around the world.
As with all of his work – and indeed with much of the best contemporary German theatre, from writers like Falk Richter, Botho Strauss and Marius von Mayenburg – this is less a narrative drama than a drama of interpenetrating parts, where the world's most vulnerable are left disastrously exposed by apparently innocuous decisions many thousands of miles away.
Schimmelpfennig's characteristic moralising tone is underlined here by a retelling of Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper, scenes of which he splices with the story of the tooth. The grasshopper is re-cast as an oriental beauty driven into sex slavery by a disciplinarian first-world ant. Think, maybe, of Jules-Joseph Lefebvre's painted version of the fable – which you may have seen on the wall at the NGV – but with a Chinese instead of a gypsy as exotic suppliant, and then throw in a sex dungeon.
Schimmelpfennig binds together his various fragments – poetic, political, dramatic and eventually epic – through a peculiarly engrossing descriptive style: a warm kind of expository manner in which the actors tell as much as they show.
The five performers make immediate the dramatic collisions of the story by jumping through a succession of genders, ages and backgrounds. For instances, the script calls for "A Young Man", in this case Ash Flanders, to play a grandfather, an Asian man, a waitress and a cricket, while "A Woman Over Sixty", Jan Friedl, plays a granddaughter, an Asian woman, an ant and a shopkeeper.
Although thoroughly engaging as both humanitarian critique and dramatic entertainment, this production is not always successful in balancing the comic and tragic elements of the story, and director Daniel Clarke frequently falls back into melodrama as cover. Perhaps he is too wary of the radical stylisation demanded by such a peculiar script? The set, for instance, by Andrew Bailey, though craftily packaged, is in its details quite homely. Where are we? Germany? Australia? A greyish airport city of no fixed location? It is neither specific enough for the first two, nor stark enough for the later. Similarly, the cast does not always appear comfortable with scepticism demanded by their expository role, hovering above the characters, as it were, either flirting with a more conventional naturalism, or flattening their delivery into a mere recitation.
Finally, one interesting thing that this production highlights, given its pan-cultural ambition, is the – almost complete – lack of racial or ethnic diversity on the MTC stage so far this year, including here, a fact thrown into relief by the presence of a very fine and culturally diverse production at Red Stitch, just down the road.
Not that this should detract from what is a fascinating if sometimes flawed production; indeed, it is all to its credit that it invites us to look beyond the Lawler Theatre and examine the cultural context in which it is performed.