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Rice review (Griffin Theatre, Sydney)

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Michele Lee’s new play Rice is a complex narrative concoction, combining broad political questions about race, power, socioeconomic classes in Australia, international food politics, and labour.

But its focus is on two women who find an unlikely connection: the young Indian-Australian work-obsessed Executive Officer Nisha (Kristy Best) and the older Chinese-Australian Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang), who cleans Nisha’s office but has her own business and family problems to deal with.

Nisha has never quite found the professional respect she’s been searching for while working at Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice, but is hoping she can turn that around by securing a lucrative deal with the Indian government. There’s recently been a flood in India, wiping out several important rice fields, which has opened up an opportunity for Golden Fields to enter the market and compete against Indian farmers, many of whom are just struggling to get by and rebuild.

Yvette is a would-be entrepreneur, who keeps on coming up against roadblocks. Her latest business involves importing fake designer bags and shoes, but her daughter Sheree (also played by Best) has found herself in legal trouble after participating in a protest against the head of Coles for unethical food practices.

Lee takes quite a while to set up all of her narrative threads, and while the play is very neat in construct and never too dull, it doesn’t become as compelling as you might hope until the second half, when these two women find themselves under enormous stress.

And while both actors are superb at stepping into a variety of different roles to enable to story to unfold with its full complexity, the multiple characters played by each actor do detract somewhat from a piece that has two women and their relationship at the core. It makes those emotional connections more difficult to form for the audience, despite the strength of the characters and the actors’ best efforts.

Director Lee Lewis brings great clarity to the play and an approach that puts these two characters’ emotional lives ahead of all the corporate speak. Lewis’s production skips lithely and comfortably through the world imagined by Lee — from the heights of an inner Sydney skyscraper, down to its basement, out to the suburbs, then all the way to India — thanks to a clever design team (Renee Mulder, with lighting designer Jason Glenwright and composer/AV designer Wil Hughes).

Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang drive the action of the play forth with extraordinary energy, slipping in and out of characters faultlessly while still tracing the arcs of Nisha and Yvette with great integrity.

Best delivers a performance full of frenetic energy as a young woman trying to make it in an environment that has little regard for her, but makes enormous demands. At the same time, she’s trying to reconcile her corporate life with her cultural and family background, and the struggle eventually breaks her.

Tang provides the steady centre of the play, keeping her cool under immense emotional pressure. Her scenes with Best as Yvette’s daughter Sheree are particularly affecting.

The most surprising part of Lee’s play is the support and guidance that these two women manage to provide to one another, without even really trying nor seeking it. That compassion — and the strength that comes from being seen, heard, and understood — is essential to all of us when conflict and difficulty arises in life.

Rice is at Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until August 26. Featured image by Brett Boardman

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