HAPPY ENDING BY MELISSA REEVES
LAWLER STUDIO, MELBOURNE THEATRE COMPANY (September 2012)
Review by Moni Lai Storz
Happy Ending by Melissa Reeves is an intercultural play rarely found in Australia. It explores the relationship between an Anglo Australian woman in her forties and a young Chinese masseur. But this alone does make it intercultural. It is so because a number of key cultural issues, for example, the dining etiquette at a Chinese banquet, were satirized in the lines and in the scenes. An intercultural play must have certain issues from both cultures being acted out. In Happy Ending, some of these were in the intercultural psycho dynamics found in the relationships between the main protagonists in the many scenes which involve Chinese masseurs and Anglo Australian clients. Finally for a small portion of the play, both English and Mandarin were used.
In actuality, the play crosses borders on age, gender and ethnicity. Just on those variables, Happy Ending already won me over. In short, the play, wonderfully crafted in the hands of an experienced and established playwright such as Melissa Reeves is a total delight to watch from an intercultural viewpoint. Many of the scenes that move the action along are culturally plausible, and in fact, are derived from the sound and fury of “doing business with the Chinese” in the late eighties and nineties in Australia. Happy Ending replays some of the Australian experiences when dealing with China at the beginning of the globalization that swept the world, taking Australia in its wake.
The main character, Louise, is played by Nell Feeney. She is a character easily recognizable by many fortyish year old married women who are in the audience. Recognition always evokes laughter, nervous or otherwise in an audience. Feeney gave us a Louise that we can identified with: a woman caught in an intercultural situation with nothing to help her but her own ignorance. Ignorance can be a useful tool and in the end, it was a “happy ending,” a euphemism for sexual intercourse at the end of one’s massage session, so I was told. Her desperation led her to seek out a “China expert”. The role of the China expert was played very well by Christopher Connelly. The Chinese masseur, the object of Louise’s obsession was played by Gareth Yuen, an Australian born Chinese (an ABC). I love the way Yuen move his body to show his emotions ranging from fear, mild distaste, confusion, resignation and exploratory acceptance towards the “happy ending.” This is a vast range of challenging emotions to portray in a Chinese. (Chinese are taught not to show their feelings. Confucian ethic embedded in our unconscious culture). Yuen acted well. The role of Jie played by Fanny Hanusin was accomplished not without challenges. One of these was the fact that Hanusin is not a mandarin speaker, yet she had memorized her lines like a true professional. Unfortunately her “memorization” filtered through to the audience. I could clearly tell that she had memorized her lines. Keith Brockett who is half Chinese played the dual role of Wen and Jun. Always challenging playing two parts in one play. Keith was able to execute both his roles with smooth competence. He was a delight indeed! Roz Hammond who played Lilana was undoubtedly that of an artist. I think I like her performance the best in the play. She lived in her role. At no stage was I reminded that she was acting.
The set design is evocative of Zen or Chan Buddhism, and the changes in scenes are reminiscent of a moving meditative dance. Stilllness in motion. Together with the Chinese music flooding the theatre and the creative use of lighting the whole performance managed to retain its ‘chineseness’. All this ‘chineseness’ would have come to naught had it not been for the intercultural literacy of the direction. Director Susie Dee did an interculturally “good” job. A number of the intercultural and bilingual scenes could have gone wrong easily. (As it was, only the subtitles were placed too high and moved too quickly for middle age eyesight. But this was a technical issue, not one of direction). I sat through the whole 90 minutes performance without glancing at my watch. Happy Ending was aesthetically and competently accomplished in the hands of a cohesive cast and crew. I hope to see more intercultural plays such as Happy Ending
in Australia in the near future.