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Heritage, international trade, office politics, gender inequalities and upward mobility explored in Oxford comic drama

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Rice, at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, from February 19 -20. Review by Jon Lewis

Aussie Rules

Matthew Xia’s production of Australian playwright Michele Lee’s two-hander Rice, co-produced between the Actors Touring Company and Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre, is a comic drama that explores issues of heritage, international trade, office politics, gender inequalities and upward mobility.

Anya Jaya-Murphy as Nisha & Angela Yeoh as Yvette 04 Ⓒ Steve Tanner
Anya Jaya-Murphy as Nisha & Angela Yeoh as Yvette 04 Ⓒ Steve Tanner

The two central characters, who like the author live in Melbourne, come from minority ethnic groups. Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy) is a high-achieving young executive working for Golden Fields, a rice-exporting company with a boyfriend who sells Indian food from his motorised kitchen. Her West Bengali-born grandmother has Alzheimer’s and Nisha and her sisters still live at home with the grandmother in the far suburbs. Yvette (Angela Yeoh) is a middle-aged Chinese immigrant whose businesses have consistently failed so she works as a cleaner at Golden Fields. Her feisty daughter Cherie has just been arrested for violent behaviour at an ecological demo. Yvette’s mission is to get Cherie off the hook but she also has to fight a complaint lodged by Nisha about her failure to clean effectively.

Over the course of the play this rocky relationship that reflects opposite case studies in immigrant successes becomes one of interdependence. Lee’s technique of third person narrative enables a distance to emerge between the behaviours of these characters and the audience’s interpretation of their beliefs and attitudes. Lee also offers the actresses a challenge in playing multiple roles from the new American CEO to an officious and wily Indian civil servant, Nisha’s co-workers and Yvette’s family members. Part of the fun in the play is enjoying the constant switching in and out of these characters, sharply delineated in Xia’s pacy production.

Designer Hyemi Shin’s set with its stepped back wall conjures up the lifts inside downtown Melbourne’s skyscraper offices, and the internal waterfall inside the CEO’s spacious office that Nisha often mocks. Lee raises important questions about the loyalties of immigrant populations and their adoption of exploitative ideologies that harm the developing world. As single women, both Nisha and Yvette show entrepreneurial and innovative skills that prove mutually advantageous. The play ends playfully, if wistfully, the city of Neighbours a more welcoming and positive environment.

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