The Pickle King

5 May 2017, Napier Municipal Theatre

“If variety is the spice of life, then call me the Pickle King!”

Indian Ink certainly cast their net wide in the scope of this ambitious production. Their novel use of space and properties, as well as their method of addressing love and duty, sexuality and sensuality, culture and globalisation feel strikingly relevant – no mean feat for a production that was penned around the turn of the century.

In the same breath, the very structure of the performance harkens back to the origins of theatre as we know it. Here, two and a half thousand years since its inception, the Greek ‘rule of three’ is employed. All of the characters are portrayed by just three actors who flit between personas with the aid of masks that range from absurdly oversized papier-mâché constructions for background characters, through grotesquely exaggerated half-faced masquerade masks for the antagonists, to bizarre prosthetic proboscises for the protagonists.

The role of the chorus is taken by the near omnipresent pianist who sets the pathos of the scenes to music and, tellingly, wears no mask. The reason for this could be practical – it would be cumbersome to read sheet music with ocular obstruction. But, buoyed up by the pervading theme of immigration and a culture in flux, I am tempted to view the masks as a means of highlighting the otherness of the main players, contrasted by the bare-faced white man at the piano, who acts as a foil for the audience.

The play explores the experience of Indian immigrants forging a new life for themselves as Wellington hotel owners. Featured are star-crossed lovers, a gypsy curse, an overbearing maternal figure, a Faustian pact with Death, all blended together with a pinch of Rushdie-esque magical realism.

There is belly laugh inducing comedy to be had in the quirky plot that ricochets from pillar to post, in the exaggerated use of gesture, and in the razor sharp, eminently quotable dialogue. But this is not mere slapstick. The laughter has teeth, highlighting real issues in a way that provokes as well as entertains. Overqualified immigrants forced into menial labour, corporate irresponsibility in the developing world, and cultural acceptance of challenging sexual norms are all tackled deftly. And for all their humour, real depth of feeling is expressed. In their despair, remorse, longing, tenderness and joy, the actors’ skill is allowed to shine. Despite the masks, these are fully fleshed-out characters displaying the spectrum of human emotion, guaranteed to resonate with the humanity in all of us.

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