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Social Issues Rise Above the Aromatic Spices

By: Jackie Davis, Theatreview

No matter whether you are completing the original set of three, or this is your first foray into Indian Ink’s world of masks, magical realism and absurdist theatre, you are sure to leave The Pickle King the richer for having seen it. Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan have created a simple tale of love and longing, of desire and disappointment, but like a well-seasoned pickle, this production is multi-layered and leaves you with a tingle on the tongue long after the experience is over. The Pickle King‘s nationwide tour, taking in both main centres and smaller towns, hit Gisborne’s War Memorial Theatre on Wednesday, May 10.

Following on from Krishnan’s Dairy and The Candlestickmaker, plays that have since become classics, The Pickle King was first performed in 2003 and is the third in this loose trilogy. This revival celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the partnership of Lewis and Rajan.

The characters who inhabit The Empire, a tired and faded hotel in Wellington are an eclectic bunch. There is Ammachy, who runs the hotel, but whose main concern is her desire to marry off her nearly blind niece, Sasha. Sasha knows she must not marry, however, because everything she has loved, has died. Jeena was a cardiac surgeon in India, but here in New Zealand the only job she can get is as the night porter in the hotel. Then there’s Mr Reaper, a bombastic and creepy guest, who has an obsession with death and who hasn’t slept for 21 years. And finally, the hotel’s pianist, Graham, is ever-present, setting the mood and supporting the action.

Kalyani Nagarajan is a wilful yet tormented Sasha and there is a real vulnerability to her performance. Vanessa Kumar is touching and believable as an eager, but purposeful Jeena. Andrew Ford delights as the unpleasant George Reaper, and all the while, Ayrton Foote at the piano plays on, expressionless yet conveying so much.

The clever use of props and multi-purpose staging enhances the action and provides real interest. Who would have thought that a globe could convey such pathos, or the placement of two pillows, side by side, could communicate so much. The masks, so central to the Indian Ink brand, are a triumph of construction and symbolism, both for the characters of the main story, and also for those of the side story, when Basel masks are employed to great effect.

When The Pickle King was first performed, the love story was that of a conventional heterosexual couple. In this iteration, Lewis and Rajan have altered it to be a same-sex relationship. Although this is not so shocking to a 2017 audience, ethnic and cultural boundaries have been further stretched. This, along with the other issues behind the main plot – that is, the working conditions of the disenfranchised, immigration and lack of opportunity for immigrants – are what audiences will discuss and debate after the curtain goes down.

“Some things worth preserving you can’t fit in a jar”. Open the lid of this intriguing production, let its contents spill out and inhale all the spices and aromas of The Pickle King. You’ll be glad you did.

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