Elbow Room’s joyous production of Enlightenment shows the strengths of Melbourne’s indie theatre scene, says Robert Reid
Elbow Room are a magnificent independent theatre company. Driven by fierce intelligence and a rigorous development process, their work is deeply political and aesthetically arresting, and makes the most of scant resources. Works such as Prehistoric, We Get It and The Motion of Light in Water have been highlights of the past decade’s theatre. Enlightenment is a fine addition to their canon.
Written by Joe Paradise Lui, Enlightenment weaves together contemporary racism, systematic inequity, the modern dating scene and the Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en. Australians my age will probably be more familiar with this story from its 1978 television adaptation, known simply as Monkey (or sometimes Monkey Magic, from its opening credits theme song).
Elbow Room’s version takes the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and the young prince Siddhartha before their enlightenment, and reimagines them as young women in contemporary Australia.
A simple set of levels and curtains (Cherish Marrington) is used to incredible effect to create temples and palaces, blended with projected illustrations by Chinese artist and activist 巴丢草 (Badiucao), depicting neon signs that conjure the atmosphere of Little Lonsdale Street after dark. They’re humorous and symbolic; a neon eggplant draws laughter when it appears over a failed seduction scene and becomes more menacing when it appears, broken between two chopsticks, above a scene of sexual assault and murder.
Moving meditatively through this space, the young Buddhist acolyte Tripitaka (Emily Tomlins) tells us the story of how she came to find the Monkey King (Merlynn Tong), trapped under a mountain after 500 years. It is Tripitaka’s destiny to bring the Monkey King to enlightenment as they journey together, in the stories familiar from Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West.
This story, however, is a prequel set in a modern city, with racist police, excellent simple doughnuts and neon-strip lighting. Here the Monkey King is an internet-famous young woman caught on camera raging against the local police’s abuse of power in a video that has gone viral around the world.
Siddhartha (Alice Qin), the not-yet Buddha, is the daughter of a rich family with great power in the city. She meets the Monkey King via a dating app. Siddhartha, called by her servants the Young Miss, is usually casual with her romantic conquests, tossing them aside after a few hours of passion. We first see this in the aftermath of her dalliance with Handsome Brad (John Marc Desengano), a sensitive man who wants to stay and see if they have something special. Siddhartha is unkeen but, after some passive aggressive back and forth, eventually relents and lets him stay the night.
Not so with the Monkey King. When she comes to Siddhartha’s bedroom, the to-be-Buddha is bewitched. Enthralled by the charm and excitement of the Monkey King, Siddhartha offers her family’s money to help the Monkey King support her community. Monkey is sceptical and cynical but is eventually won over and even becomes Siddhartha’s reluctant girlfriend.
Things go badly, however, when the Monkey King is pulled over by Steve (Connor Gallacher), a sexist, racist cop. A pathetic man, puffed up with his own insecurities and fragility, Steve is Handsome Brad’s partner. They’re both on the beat together and Brad has seen Steve regularly use his institutional power to harass and intimidate women. Steve has been reprimanded by the Station Captain (Tomlins again, playing multiple roles), for his thoughtless harassment and his growing bad reputation. When Steve pulls over the Monkey King, he’s already behaving like a sleaze, but when he recognises Monkey from her viral video, he turns off his body cam – always a terrible and alarming sign – and forces her out of the car. It’s clear that he intends to rape her, but the Monkey King is a warrior. In a fantastic scene, the Monkey King reveals herself in her god like form, wearing an astonishing and elaborate costume, and with her own gun blows a hole right through Steve’s head.
Shocked and terrified, the Monkey King runs to Siddhartha. t=The future Buddha assures Monkey that, with the power and money of her family to protect her, the Monkey King has nothing to fear. They go to the police and Siddhartha, in the lotus position familiar from the Meditating Buddha statues, at the top of a tower of eight steps (echoing stages of the eight-fold path to enlightenment), is confident that she will prevail. Unfortunately for her, the police captain brings Brad in to reveal the depth of the Monkey King’s deception. Bank records, intercepted text messages on a usb and other evidence prove that Monkey has been pulling this same scam on other rich people, taking their money and using it for herself, not her community. The Monkey king is a trickster god after all.
The heartbroken Buddha, who has put the Monkey in her the palm of her hand to keep her safe in the police station, turns that hand into fist that becomes a giant mountain of rock with Monkey trapped in its heart. Here she will remain for 500 years until Tripitaka arrives to set her free and take her on the journey to the west. Of course, the young priest is forewarned of the Monkey King’s tricks by all the research she has done into and has with her a gold collar that will tighten around the Monkey’s head whenever her violent and deceitful ways reassert themselves.
The way the script blends the story of the Monkey King with monkey as a racist slur is emblematic of the clever politics we’ve come to expect from Elbow Room, as is the dominance of women in the lead roles and the gender fluidity of the characters. There are lovely callbacks to the design of the TV adaptation too: the Monkey King’s staff, Ruyi Jingu Bang, is a black pole with golden ends, and the punishing headband jingo quan is a thin band of gold that end in two short spirals. Both recall the design of the 70’s TV show.
Tong as the Monkey King steals the show. Her physicality and voice are so filled with the frustration and rage and confidence of the Monkey King that I believe it when she screams and the mountains shake. There’s elements of the iconic and frenetic performance Masaaki Sakai gave in the TV show, but Tong’s performance is all her own. I have absolutely no trouble accepting her as the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. Emily Tomlins makes a calming foil for the barely contained energy of Tong’s performance and Qin as Siddhartha is pleasingly shallow and bored as the spoiled daughter.
Elbow Room’s Enlightenment is a triumph. It’s clever, its dark, it’s fun: and it’s exactly the kind of theatre that the best Melbourne indie theatremakers are renowned for.
Enlightenment, by Joe Lui Paradise, directed by Marcel Dorney, sound and lighting design by Joe Lui Paradise, illustrations by巴丢草 (Badiucao), production design by Cherish Marrington. Performed by Merlynn Tong, Alice Qin, John Marc Desengano, Conor Gallacher and Emily Tomlins. Elbow Room at Darebin Arts until March 20. Bookings