The Golden Dragon is by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig and is a fast paced collection of short episodic scenes that make up a play about a group of immigrants working in a Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant and the local residents who dine there. Jan Friedl plays four characters in the production.
The stories intertwine throughout this exciting, funny and multifaceted piece of contemporary theatre. Each actor plays multiple characters, men play women, young actors play old characters, older actors play young characters and Asian characters are played by Caucasians. The actors also speak stage directions during the scenes so it often challenges conventions of how theatre is performed. "It’s a quite different approach to play-making with the same fundamentals underneath… ideas and a story that is relevant and worth telling," explains Friedl. "Schimmelpfennig is quite courageous in his approach. He is following on from Brecht in the sense of wanting to enlighten whilst entertaining. He is both profound and wacky. The great hope for me is that we can encourage more people to come to the theatre because of this. Young people seem to love it I must say."
The particular requirements of this play's story coupled with this sort of 'courageous' approach towards theatre making does offer up its own set of personal challenges for the actors as Friedl explains. "Cueing, remembering which character comes next [we all play a number of roles]and remembering speeches that have a very strange way of repeating phrases, with changes that are ever so slight. I also have to remember menu items of Asian food that are quite long and very specific. All of it is very speedy. About 50 scenes in 70 minutes. It was scary at first. Actors are naturally adept at playing characters. The problem for me is making my brain work quickly enough to remember what scene and which character comes next! They are very quick changes, aided by Emma Valente’s superb lighting."
Friedl, over the years, has worked extensively in all areas of the performing arts. It all began when she became a student at Melbourne University and joined the drama club and worked with Director Elijah Moshinski who, she says, had a very strong directorial approach, almost auteur. "Quite text-based, but also highlighting the importance of the elements of design, lighting and sound. In other words a total art-form. I worked on productions like Genet’s the Maids as well as Checkhov and Skakespeare, non-stop for the 5 years I was at Melbourne Uni. Having spent a number of years working with the APG [at the Pram Factory] and other periods on self-generated productions, I have come to appreciate the value of the actor’s creative input as important as that of the director, although I still prefer to work under the guidance of a skilled director such as Daniel (Clarke) in this production."
It was, in fact, Clarke who asked Friedl to do the play after MTC casting department introduced them. [He had worked mostly in Adelaide] Friedl's definition of a good director include a strong vision as well as good organizational skills " Paradoxically perhaps, one who has a firm conception of how to approach the piece, but is also willing to listen to and explore others’ input," she says. "I must say I do like a director who is a bit organized, even if his or her parameters are a bit open-ended at first. Rehearsal time, especially these days, is always limited."
Friedl is also an accomplished singer having studied classical singing just because it was it was the "easiest instrument for me to pick up so to speak." Freidl says that in some ways making music is even more fun than theatre, "at least I envy chamber musicians for that reason." Career highlights inlcude opera with the Victoria State Opera as well as a number of roles with Seduction Opera, the Chamber Opera Company – which she and her husband were involved in during the 1990s. "Then I sang mostly Martin Friedel’s works as well as presenting some cabaret on the festival circuit, based on the songs of Brecht, Eisler and Weill."
Schimmelpfennig 's play may not be for every one yet it does tell the tale of every-man and, according to Friedl, it contains a sense of fun and an ability to empathise with ‘the other’ It’s a story about the lives of Asian refugees working in an urban soup kitchen told in a very funny and unusual way. Audiences should expect, from this interpretation of Schimmelpfennig's play, "a very singular and quite Australian version of a play that has been a hit all over the world since its first appearance in Berlin, I think, in 2010."
The Golden Dragon plays until July 6 at MTC