Photos - Jodie Hutchinson
Though by no means the first nor the only musical to do so, The King And I explores a romantic Western fascination with the exotic. Unfortunately, it does so by employing an unreflective condescension masquerading as cultural sensitivity.
Of course it is unfair to judge a product of America in the 1950s by today's moral standards, but nonetheless we are presented with the puzzlement of how to engage with such material today. The Production Company appears to have dodged this question by opting to play it straight. As a result, the performance is dazzling, colourful and expertly staged, but naggingly uncomfortable.
Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 hit revolves around the story of Anna Leonowens, who has been brought to the court of Siam by King Mongkut to be governess to his 67 children. It is based on Margaret Langdon's 1944 novel 'Anna and the King of Siam', which is in turn rather dubiously based on real events as reconstructed from Anna's memoirs and research conducted with her descendants.
It is the 1860s and Western culture is making inroads into Siam, now Thailand. King Mongkut sits in a difficult position, eager to embrace new world ideas but wary of losing his identity or authority in the process. Our change agent is Anna, who, by remaining resolute in being a 'difficult, difficult woman', influences the child-like King and educates him in Western sensibilities. There are a few nods towards colonial irony, such as the comedy of manners that opens the second Act, which contains the lines:
Western people funny, Western people funny,
Western people funny, too funny to be true!
They think they civilise us, whenever they advise us
To learn to make the same mistake that they are making too!
But by and large this only serves to underline the breathtaking arrogance of the story's conclusion. Anna's influence culminates in the famous Shall We Dance scene, when the two cultures are finally bridged (by doing everything Anna's way), only to be rudely interrupted by a dramatic confrontation with the story's main theme - slavery. The King is tested, fails to meet Anna's standard - our standard - and the next time we see him he dies, 'destroyed' by Anna. It is left to the young new King to complete the assimilation of Western morality. Close curtain and huzzah!
Having said that, The Production Company has done a great job bringing the show to life. Astounding costume design by Kim Bishop and minimal but strikingly effective set design by Kathryn Sproul set the scene for the vivid pageantry appropriate for a Rodgers and Hammerstein production. Orchestra Victoria does a marvellous job scoring the show and the songs are carried off with vocal strength and intensity by all the performers, especially Silvie Paladino as Lady Thiang.
Chelsea Gibb's Anna came across as a little stilted and as a result the all-important chemistry between her and Juan Jackson as the King was a bit lacking. It is actually a very funny script and Jackson does a great job finding the humour in his delivery, carefully negotiating the right balance of gruff authority, childlike innocence and royal stature. Despite Jackson's efforts to transcend the role however, eventually his performance succumbs to the demands of the script and his puissance on stage feels decidedly muted for the final scene when it ought be strongest.
Jeanne Pratt as head of The Production Company describes The King And I as being about 'a strong and independent gutsy woman surviving in a man's world.' This appears at first glance to be a fresh and modern take on an old classic as well as an answer to the earlier question of how to deal with the morality of material from another time, until one considers the show's treatment of Tuptim (Emily Xiao Wang). Sent as a 'gift' to the King, she attempts to escape with her secret lover Lun Tha (Adrian Li Donni), who is killed in the attempt. In the end, she is granted neither love nor freedom and after completing her service to the story - to make a fairly unsubtle point about the evil of slavery - she is forgotten.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. The chief duty of entertainment is to entertain, and The Production Company's staging of The King And I does so on a lavish scale. This is especially impressive given the company's not-for-profit status and practice of doing only two weeks rehearsal. The show is a delightful spectacle and easily worth the ticket price. However, while there are obviously no easy answers to the inconvenient questions of morality, culture, dignity et cetera et cetera, an attempt would have been welcome.
The Production Company
The King and I
Rodgers and Hammerstein
Director Terence O’Connell
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: 14 - 25 July, 2010
Performances: Evenings: July 14 - 17, 21 - 24 at 7.30pm
Matinees: July 21 at 1pm, 17 & 24 at 2pm, 18 at 3pm & July 25 at 11am & 4pm
Tickets: $42 - $90
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | www.theartscentre.com.au