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The Pickle King

By: Aimee Smith, Art Murmurs. 27 August 2017

What is it about hotels that make them the perfect backdrop for magic and mystery? Perhaps it is all the strange people who come and go, perhaps it’s the fact that they tend to reflect a space which is transitional or an escape from the ordinary. Indian Ink’s The Pickle King, set in the fictional Empire Hotel in the very real Oriental Bay, Wellington, is a tale of love, death, mysterious guests, and of course a little bit of magic.
The story centers around the eccentric and colourful characters inhabiting the Empire. Ammachy (Vanessa Kumar) runs the hotel but her main objective is to see her stubborn niece married. Sasha (Kalyani Nagarajan), the stubborn niece, is nearly blind thanks to a tragic accident that resulted in the death of her parents, refuses because of a tragic curse – everyone she loves will die. Jeena (again, Kumar), the Porter, works in the hotel by day and secretly studies for her medical exams by night, because despite her career as a heart surgeon in India, she is forced to navigate the obstacle course of immigration. Then there is the mysterious Mr. G. Reaper (Andrew Ford), who blows in on an ominous wind and smells, as Sasha tells us, of death. Not to be forgotten is Graeme – the pianist who provides live accompaniment and acts as the silent observer to the action.

This is not the first time we have seen The Pickle King. First performed fifteen years ago, this current production has been revived and toured to celebrate the illustrious company hitting its twentieth birthday. Along with the shiny new production has come some shiny new script updates. Aside from the old casual reference to instagram, the biggest update comes in the form of its characters and casting, turning the role of the Porter (originally played by writer and founder Jacob Rajan) from male to female, resulting in the major love story becoming a queer one. Interestingly, the queerness is readily accepted by the other characters. Writer and director Justin Lewis notes that “if we had staged a love story between two women 15 years ago that would have been the story”, and it’s encouraging to see that the main focus of the story is about the trials of love regardless of gender. It’s a change that speaks to the demands of representation in 2017, and proves both that Indian Ink can create stories that resonate beyond the space they were created in, and their dedication to not letting works already touted as being brilliant stagnate.

The biggest success of the script lies in its ability to be both hilarious and tragic, often within the same beats. Upon discovering that Sasha’s deceased husband is a dog, we manage to feel both sad at the plight she feels so strongly yet still laugh at the overall ridiculousness of the scenario. Poignant words of wisdom are slipped in when we least expect it and keep us surprised, particularly from Ammachy who gives us wee nuggets such as the secret of love is “to make it fresh every day”.

The design elements of the show are deceptively simple, a characteristic that extends to the script. The set (John Verryt) is a brightly painted scenic backdrop, wonderfully detailed, but initially doesn’t seem to do much more than give us some working doors and a sense of the scenery but throughout the show the set became surprisingly transformative. A simple twist of the doorframe turned the hotel lobby into a bedroom, secret panels hidden within the piano pop open and flip to turn the surface of the piano itself into a secret cupboard. Props soar up into the rafters and drop down from the ceiling at odd intervals. Seeing a bright pink umbrella blown into the top of the Hannah Playhouse in  a vicious Wellington gust is as amusing as it is satisfying to see the verticality of the space explored.

The aforementioned piano, dominating a solid third of the space, feels like a character on it’s own. Helmed by Ayrton Foote, with musical direction by Ben Wilcock, the score switches from jaunty tunes to slow, sad melodies, accurately reflecting the quick tonal shifts that characterise the show as a whole. The most poignant moments of the show come from the combination of the music and the Basel mask work. The calm simplicity and silence that the full face masks demand, coupled with Foote’s slow, haunting melodies, create a series of beautiful physical theatre scenes that border on dance sequences. In a scene which opens the show depicting a love triangle between three guests, conveys through simple but overblown gesture the feelings of deep yearning coupled with deep disappointment. The slow clarity cuts perfectly against the fast-paced comedy of the scenes involving half-masked characters.

The performers all play their parts with energy and total commitment, and combined with a script that is both biting in wit and strong in heart, creates a work that reminds you why live performance is so powerful. Ford’s Reaper is slimy and despicable, but played with enough charm that you can’t help but love to hate him. Nagarajan’s Sasha is played with punch, her whole performance capturing a biting energy that makes her softer moments of vulnerability all the more powerful. Kumar’s Jeena possesses a more quiet strength, contrasting with her bold and domineering performance as Ammachy. These characters are written to be larger than life, and the actors give us bigger performances to match. Gestures are exaggerated and executed with crispness, allowing the physical comedy to layer upon the more wordy wit provided in the text. Whilst there are only three actors (and, of course, Graeme), it feels like there must be more as the actors switch effortlessly between characters. Whilst costume and mask certainly play a part in this, it is testament to the skill of the actors that it took me some time to realise they were doubling up on roles.

​Like many Indian Ink shows, beneath all the comedy there lies a lot of heart. The programme outlines the Indian Ink idea of the “Serious Laugh’ – opening mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in”. No matter how silly it may get, no matter how much it may feel like a fairytale, evils from our world still slip in and remind us of what is at stake. Tackling very real issues surrounding immigration, working conditions in developing countries, and the universal woes of the heart, we are left both entertained and with enough food for thought to chew upon later. The Pickle King remains both politically cutting edge and theatrically spectacular.

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