Left – Ursula Mills. Cover – Ursula Mills and Tim Walter. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
Kryptonite is an enthralling piece of theatre. An ambitious piece which follows the personal and political dimensions of the relationship between a white Australian man and a Chinese woman over twenty five years, it is occasionally problematic, but overall, a riveting, affecting, fascinating play. I could not look away.
Dylan (Tim Walter) and Lian (Ursula Mills) meet at university in Sydney in 1989. He is a hyper-intelligent, monied student with a HD average whose personal philosophy is distinctly apathetic. He stages a naked protest for democracy in China without really understanding the issues – he pursues “freedom” without, it seems, really knowing what that means. Lian is a Chinese student who must live with ten other students in a virtually uninhabitable flat and relies on leftovers from the restaurant she works at to live. She works hard, surviving on only three hours of sleep, so that she can one day return to China and get a good job. They are fascinated by each other, and one night, when Dylan picks Lian up from her job in Chinatown at one in the morning and convinces her to try Australian beer, they have an epic night where they learn about each other. It is a night where Lian changes Dylan’s life forever when she accuses him of not having ideals. And a few weeks later come the atrocities of Tiananmen Square…
If there is one flaw in the play, it is this: in many ways, it is Dylan’s story, not Lian’s. She is a character in his life – she is his kryptonite – but not the other way around. As we follow their intertwining paths over the next twenty five years, we consistently see her intrude on his life: a few years later, when he is giving a passionate environmental speech, he sees her in the distance. More years after that, she comes to visit him when he is elected to the Senate. The play interrogates Dylan’s white male privilege in a way that is vital and necessary – the contrast of his vague, privileged quest for freedom in contrast to her compelled hardworking dutifulness and belief in a better future for her country is extremely poignant – but it also positions her as an ongoing teachable moment in his (and arguably by extension, the audience’s) life in a way that is not necessarily comfortable.
This said, I was absorbed by Kryptonite, and it is certainly not just a series of teachable moments. It rejects an Orientalist discourse that presents the West as superior to the East, but at the same time does not romanticise China or its politics. Dylan and Lian’s relationship is as complicated as the relationships between their countries, both when they are students drinking together on one stolen evening and later, when he is a Greens senator and she is an executive for a Chinese mining company. It is a very cleverly written and structured piece of theatre, jumping back and forth across the three decades of their relationships, and Walter and Mills handle the script with aplomb. It is also beautifully designed by Victoria Lamb – the ephemerality and impermanence of the paper set, which both characters regularly draw on with water, is perfect for this piece which is comprised largely of stolen, fleeting moments.
I especially enjoyed the way the romantic relationship was constructed between Dylan and Lian: it was difficult and messy, with no easy answers to their problems ever presented. Their romance was also not really the most important part of their relationship; but nevertheless, it was incredibly beautiful in moments. When Lian gives Dylan the stuffed frog she has designed just for him (a reference to a more than a decade old conversation in which he said he wanted to save the Southern bell frog), it is such a lovely moment.
I suspect I’m going to be thinking about Kryptonite for a while to come. There were definitely some aspects I found jarring, but it is deeply affecting: the last scene left me with tears in my eyes. The personal and political repeatedly collide and rub against each other in a fascinating way. Kryptonite is not a perfect play, but I was absolutely engrossed by it.
Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia present
by Sue Smith
Director Geordie Brookman
Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, The Wharf, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 11 September to 18 October, 2014
Tickets: $50 – $99
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au