RICE is an ambitious play on so many levels. Penned by Asian-Australian writer Michele Lee, it follows the work and life fortunes of two extraordinary ethnic minority women who clash like titans at first, but are slowly drawn to one another like magnets. It’s an engaging journey, although sometimes not an easy one to follow.
The play’s two main characters are Nisha (Zainab Hasan) and Yvette (Sarah Lam). They meet at Nisha’s workplace in Australia where Chinese migrant Yvette works for proverbial peanuts as a lowly cleaner.
Nisha, an Indian, is incredibly ambitious. She’s an executive for Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice, and she’s on the verge of securing a deal with the Indian Government which will enable her company to take control of India’s national rice distribution system.
Nisha, it seems, is heading for corporate greatness and she’s not particularly bothered who she treads on along the way – especially poor little Yvette who has the unenviable task of cleaning her untidy desk every day at breakneck speed (for fear of getting sacked) while receiving the wrong end of Nisha’s vicious tongue.
Yvette may be a menial worker, but she’s someone not to be underestimated. She might be old (Yvette has an issue about her age) and she might unintentionally dye her hair purple, but she’s shrewd and has a wise head on her shoulders.
Yvette, we learn, has enjoyed success – and endured failure – as a business person, so she’s smarter than many may think. She’s also distracted by her daughter who has got into trouble after participating in a protest against the unethical behaviour of a national supermarket chain.
The play follows the building of Nisha and Yvette’s relationship and the trials and tribulations of their respective lives. Nisha comes up against corporate and political hurdles – and has a work dalliance along the way – while Yvette seeks justice for her daughter in between cleaning desk tops and emptying bins.
The play’s ambitiousness lies in the fact that Lam and Hasan are required to play all the incidental characters – and there are quite a few.
So Lam plays Nisha’s controlling boss one moment, then reverts to Yvette, before becoming Tom who has just had sex with Nisha (Nisha’s response to the sex is a matter of fact ‘done’). And as if that isn’t enough, she (marvellously) plays an officious Indian Government adviser who stubbornly refuses to let Nisha anywhere near the minister she has travelled by plane to see in the hope of securing the contract she is desperate to nail.
Hasan’s multi-character roles are equally varied: Yvette’s chirpy Eastern European cleaning boss (happy to fiddle timesheets), Yvette’s challenging daughter and the arrogant boss of the company that is taking Yvette to court.
How Lam and Hasan carry this off is a near miracle as they are constantly required to change character – accents and gender. Exhausting for them (and they do brilliantly) and at times tough on the viewer as the play frequently jumps locations and characters (go prepared to absorb yourself fully in the play).
But it works. Rice embraces a whole host of issues – including race, gender inequality, misogyny, globalisation, corporate bullying, ageism and environmentalism. Maybe, it’s just too broad in its scope, but Lee’s writing is admirable (and of the moment) and the play is skilfully directed by Matthew Xia.
Compelling? Yes. Challenging? Yes. But Rice makes for appetising theatre.
Rice is one of a series of internationally focused plays at the Orange Tree Theatre, produced in conjunction with Actors Touring Company. It runs until November 13.
Title image by Helen Murray