Reviewed by Amy Mansfield
When Indian Ink came out with Krishnan’s Dairy way back in 1997 and as a youngish thing I saw it I felt excited about New Zealand theatre for probably the first time in my life. I saw the production multiple times and felt compelled to share it in a way that used to involve more than tapping on a screen.
Twenty years later, there’s been a lot of theatrical water under the bridge.
And Indian Ink still brings it. The Pickle King, the company’s third play, has travelled, through time and around the globe. Metaphorically too – the script has been updated since the play’s premiere in 2002 and one can see it continuing to have relevance as long as humans love, people move and their stories need to be told.
The essence remains: out-of-sight timing, seamless use of mask, eyes and bodies working that much harder to tell the story.
The story of The Pickle King is set in a hotel of the Orient on Wellington’s gale-swept Oriental Parade. It’s run by ‘Sasha’ (Kalyani Nagarajan) and her aunt, and the hilarious antics which take place there in the lobby are reminiscent of the crazy British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, with a quite a bit more poignancy and a healthy dose of social awareness.
The play has us think about the unenviable state of immigrants who’ve downgraded professional careers in their own country to a life of servitude in New Zealand. Here the migrant is doctor-cum-porter/love interest ‘Geena’ (Vanessa Kumar) while the privileged are the nameless, wordless white-masked hotel visitors and the plummy and plump Mr G. Reaper, aka the ‘Pickle King’ (Andrew Ford), who ominously checks in and sets about putting people in a pickle.
Loneliness and companionship are themes – one character makes a dance partner from a globe clad in a tablecloth and dances round the lobby with it. The chef is devoted to, then mourns the loss of, a mouse. Alongside these, the biggies: love, regret, freedom, change. Quite a bit in-between.
With the characters, we explore different ways of knowing. Science versus story. Reading the future and diagnosing the past. The East-West divide. History. Dance. Healing.
It is all done with humour and grace. I found myself twice in tears.
Musically, the on-stage pianist, Ayrton Foote aka ‘Graham’, sets the old-world hotel tone beautifully, drives the tempo changes throughout and as a character manages a po-face which breaks with just the right degree of awkwardness at just the right times.
John Verryt’s resourceful set design includes stages within stages in the form of the lift, the rooftop, and even atop the piano.
Could the play have been condensed a little? Perhaps. It might be the cross-form influence of the 42-minute episode and of festival programming in which theatre shows rarely go beyond 70 minutes, but a two-hour play with an intermission seems increasingly to me like a thing of the past. Even when it is (I can’t resist, sorry) as jam-packed with goodness as this one.
By the looks of it, Indian Ink have a loyal following. Looking round the audience, the crowd was a mix but more on the vintage side: not pickled but looking towards preservation. Concocting a new generation of fans must be on their agenda.
It sounds like the company’s founders Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis have great plans for the future, amongst other things putting both Vanessa Kumar and Kalyani Nagarajan to work in solo shows.
I relish the thought.