A Bright Beacon Of Excellence

By John Smythe (Theatreview)

When I reviewed the premiere in August 2002 (for the National Business Review), I wrote: “… with The Pickle King the Indian Ink Theatre Company has served up another pungent, taste-mingling sensation that is well worth bottling.” The same applies to this revival with a fresh new cast. I also enjoy afresh the enriching wordplay in the tripping yet potent text, written by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis (who also directs).

John Verryt’s set for The Empire Hotel, “Your taste of the Orient in Oriental Bay,” replete with a grand piano that doubles as a reception desk, is similarly rich in hidden treasures. Was there more of a sense of faded grandeur 15 years ago, and was the lighting more moody and atmospheric, especially in the stormy rooftop scenes, than Jo Kilgour’s bright wash offers? Or is it that my memory is steeped in an enhancing brine?

The plot premise: Indian hotelier and widow Ammachy (Vanessa Kumar) is trying to marry off her niece, Sasha (Kalyani Nagarajan), who is going blind as the result of a multinational chemical factory accident involving her school, some 21 years ago. But Shasha believes she is cursed because everything she loves dies. This does not bode well for the lovelorn night porter Jeena (Kumar), who is living in a broom cupboard and studying to sit the necessary exams to gain recognition in New Zealand as a cardio-thoracic surgeon.

Matters of the heart are both emblematic and literal, romantic and life-threatening – not least when a mysterious world-weary traveller checks in as ‘G Reaper’ (Andrew Ford). As the titular ‘Pickle King’, it is George who poses the play’s central question: what is worth preserving?

The key difference in this iteration is that the Jojo-Sasha romance is now a same-sex one, between Jeena and Sasha, and despite being steeped in the ‘old ways’ concerning marriage, Ammachy accepts it with surprising equanimity. Fair enough; it’s one more surprise among many.

It’s hard to credit that Vanessa Kumar inhabits the wholly diverse personae of Jeena and Ammachy. Of course the nose-mask, sleek black hair and porter costume of Jeena is hugely contrasted with the craggy half-mask, sari-wrapped grey hair and bouncy bulk of Ammachy. But everything about the differences in physicality, voice and energy – all dedicated to conveying emotional truth – points to a highly skilled actor at work.

Likewise Kalyani Nagarajan, also with just a nose mask, honours commedia and clowning conventions with alacrity as she draws us into Sascha’s inner conflict. Not only does she have to reject the one she loves for fear of causing her death; she also has to betray her with another, for the same reason. Nagarajan’s wholehearted commitment, moment by moment, to a full range of emotions, keeps us on our toes as much as it does Jeena, George and Ammachy. And her proficiency in Bharatha Natyam (Indian classical dance) leaves little wonder that George is entranced by it.

Andrew Ford confronts the interesting challenge of playing a fundamentally dishonest character with truth and he carries it off splendidly. His oscillations between practised charm and gut-level feelings, airy confidence and vulnerability, add to the dramatic impact of all the well-wrought action.

All three actors also share the unutterable magic of silent mask work by bringing Basel masks* to life, to personify Raoul the chef, Father Matthews (both Andrew Ford) and three hotel guests: Henry (Vanessa Kumar), Henrietta (Kalyani Nagarajan) and Quince (Ford). Large and white with vestigial facial features only (they are also known as larval masks), they capture, through ‘less-is-more’ understatement, the essence of isolation, bemusement and yearning.

Speaking of bemusement, the play is bookended with one guest’s fascination with a globe of the world – and I’m still trying to interpret what happens with it. Some combination of ‘global village’, ‘universal truths’ and ‘the truth will set you free’ perhaps? (Other suggestion welcome.)

Throughout the play a dapper Ayrton Foote, in the role of Graham, plays the piano – and sings a couple of times. Unfortunately strong key-strokes mask his soft (though mic’d) voice so the import of the words are lost. Nevertheless the gentle musical interludes are a pleasing addition to the mix.

With The Pickle King‘s revival and tour, Indian Ink, a bright beacon of excellence in our local theatre landscape, is celebrating its 20th year and judging by the What’s Next? list in their programme, they won’t be fading anytime soon. Every generation needs to experience their work.