Golden Shield – the latest from Melbourne Theatre Company, as part of their NEXT STAGE initiative – asks a lot of questions: Can two combative sisters work together on a legal case? Could one word have an effect across the world? What would happen if an American corporation and the Chinese government collaborated to make the internet in China more surveilled, censored and oppressive?
That last one really did happen.
Inspired by true events, playwright Anchuli Felicia King fictionalises key players in an attempt to anchor this complicated, multinational case to the personal. There’s lawyer Julie Chen (Fiona Choi) and her sister Eva (Jing-Xuan Chan), trying to set aside their fractured relationship and lead a class action against the sinister Onus Systems; Marshall McLaren (Josh McConville), an unliked American high-up at Onus; the long-married Chinese couple Li Dao (Yi Jin) and Huang Mei (Gabrielle Chan), caught in the mess; and guiding us through everything is the slippery, fourth wall-breaking Translator (Yuchen Wang).
Directed by Sarah Goodes, the play is a flurry of multimedia. Sometimes cameras film the actors, the footage screened on the stage in real-time to present different visual and thematic angles. The set, as designed by the Sisters Hayes, is a towering, brutalist piece of architecture, all angles and straight lines. Its uninviting nature makes it perfect for the initial settings of courtrooms, hotels and office spaces, with wall panels akin to jail cells.
But the swamp of corporate and legal information hinders Golden Shield’s first half. As the play notes, it’s difficult to be emotionally moved when you don’t understand something, an idea the legal system abuses for its benefit. However, King increasingly tries to clarify the information bombarded at us, like signposting dates and locations, via the Translator.
The Translator themselves is one of the play’s biggest surprises. A lighthearted, funny and insightful character, they translate jargon, language, context and subtext directly to the audience. Wang’s young age initially makes him an unusual choice for a vaguely omniscient being, but he absolutely proves himself. At first, the Translator is articulate with their words and body, confidently sliding in and out of scenes. They’re more naive than first seems, though, and the play’s second half leaves them in a sadder, drastically different place.
By honing in on the emotional relationships, Golden Shield’s second half is the more engrossing and powerful one. The case – with all its jargon and convolution – is more tangible when its effects are more deeply felt. Even the harsh set manages to become warm, like in scenes at home with Li Dao and Huang Mei – one of the play’s most interesting, empathetic aspects. But characters also become suffocated, the roof (literally) closing in on them. The divide between Julie and Eva, fuelled by trauma, diaspora and more, spans across countries and languages, just as the play does.
The use of linguistics is fascinating here. Alternating between Mandarin and English, Golden Shield highlights how different the world’s languages are, and how their different contexts and histories make communication so complicated. How a single word translated from one language into another can change things on a global scale. Those stakes are felt here. By the time the Translator is the only character left on stage (just as they’re the first to appear), we feel the gut punch of miscommunication’s effects.
MTC’s Golden Shield is running until Saturday September 14 at the Southbank Theatre.