Rice

Michele Lee
Orange Tree Theatre and Actors Touring Company
Orange Tree Theatre

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Zainab Hasan as Nisha and Sarah Lam as Yvettte Credit: Helen Murray
Zainab Hasan as Nisha Credit: Helen Murray
Sarah Lam as Yvettte Credit: Helen Murray
Sarah Lam as Yvettte and Zainab Hasan as Nisha Credit: Helen Murray

Nisha (Zainab Hasan) sees herself as a big-shouldered executive climbing the corporate ladder. She has planned a project in which Golden Fields, the Australian company she works for, will take over rice distribution in India and make millions. But are her boss and her colleagues really with her and what about the government minister she travels to India to meet with?

That appears to be the core story of this play by Hmong-Australian writer Michele Lee, here getting its UK première, but it is as much about Nisha’s relationship with office cleaner Yvette (Sarah Lam) whom we see at the start berating Nisha for littering the place with her takeaways. Nisha is from a West Bengali family, Yvette Chinese, so it is also asking questions about identity when your ethnic background is different from the culture you live among and looking at the clash this can cause with the next generation.

Rice packs a lot into a fast-moving, single-act ninety-odd minutes but doesn’t seem to dig very deeply but perhaps that is because it is an effort to keep up with things. That isn’t helped by the plethora of accents from the multiple characters that the performers are called on to represent which are made less intelligible when directed away from you by the removal of the theatre’s upholstered seating in its COVID configuration.

With no change of costume, Zainab Hasan and Sarah Lam have to suddenly switch voice and body language from their main character to be Yvette’s daughter Sheree and other relations or Nisha’s colleague Tom, their CEO or an Indian bureaucrat. Some short scenes are almost over before you have worked out who they are.

Location too keeps on shifting from a twentieth floor office of a Melbourne skyscraper down to its lobby, to Yvette’s home, to a hotel room or to a government department in Delhi. Designer Hyemi Shi sets a tower of translucent panels in a corner of the playing space and angled desks, with one sliding over the other to indicate relocations, even a flap opening up to turn it into a toilet but with so little difference you wonder why bother, though it does give a moment to take breath in Matthew Xia’s fast-paced production.

It is difficult to like Zainab Hasan’s Nisha—only as her façade is stripped away do you understand her aggressiveness; it is easier to identify with Sarah Lam’s Yvette, a first generation migrant whose frustrations are more obvious but Michele Lee’s Asian-Australian picture of their situation seems equally relevant here too. I wish both play and production took time to delve deeper but we must thank ATC and the Orange Tree for bringing us a new voice from down under.

Rice will also be live streamed on 4 & 5 November and available on demand on line 16–19 November

Reviewer: Howard Loxton