Review: ★★★ Going Down (Sydney Theatre Company)

5 April 2018 | 3:47 pm | Debbie Zhou

"It's difficult to grasp whether Lee wishes for us to side with her protagonist or not."

Writing migrant stories that don't belong to you is tricky. Which is the reason Going Down's protagonist — Natalie Yang, an intersectional-feminist with her first novel in the literary scene — refuses to do so. There may be blaring expectations, but she defies them: her sex-positive, erotic memoir Banana Girl wants nothing to do with her cultural heritage. In fact, Natalie would rather shine a light on her enjoyment of sex. So much so that in the opening scene, set in Nagambie, rural Victoria, she reads her book out loud to three old community members, too prudish to hear the explicit details.

The antagonism of writer Michele Lee's first full-length play Going Down is being boxed into telling a cultural identity story, and it's an incisive script that delves into the complex conversations of artistic racial fetishisation. On a rampaging night out in the inner-suburbs of Melbourne, Natalie (Catherine Davies) and her best friends Tilda (Naomi) and Paul (Paul Blenheim) appear to be in solidarity about Natalie's brash decision for a new novel — 100 Cocks in 100 Nights — that rebels against pigeon-holing expectations of race. The title and concept is a retaliation against just that, namely her goodie-goodie arch-nemesis, Indonesian refugee Lu Lu Jayadi (Jenny Wu), an ideal model of the 'right' migrant narrative white audiences love to consume. If it's tragic, if there's perseverance, and even better, if there's a death, the more popular the book sales.

It's a point that is compellingly provoking, particularly when it comes from Natalie's self-righteous rants about the intricacies of navigating the associations of her Asian-Australian identity. And she doesn't hold back, from either those opinions or the liberating power of sex. But Natalie's characterisation as a brazen individual turns boorish. When she accuses Tilda (of African descent) of not being black enough, because of her upbringing in the upper-class Melbourne suburbs, Lee's writing skims over such complications; there's more to dig at here than Natalie's sweeping presumptions. In another scene played for laughs, Natalie drunkenly rocks up on stage at Jayadi's book talk, mocking her perfectly-crafted story. But it is more mean-spirited than funny. The discourse is messy and Natalie's tenacity to exclude certain stories from being told in her own pursuit to remove herself from them makes it difficult to grasp whether Lee wishes for us to side with her protagonist or not.

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And what becomes baffling is that Going Down later spins 360º on its stance about the collision between race and identity. In a screwy sugar high (from several "lemonades" from a pop-up stall) Natalie is ensnared in the exact traps she spends most of the play critiquing. This time she construes her own "ethnic" migrant story, inclusive of the tropes frequented by her writer contemporaries. It also serves as an unusual link for Natalie to finally reconnect with her Hmong family back in Canberra - an epiphany of her severed relationship with her family's past. But the notion of the necessity to recognise personal cultural history, and how it is forgotten within the second-generation immigrant, arrives too late to make an impact, and the play never properly picks up these fragmentary, contradictory ideas.

Catherine Davies delivers a stimulating, energetic performance as Natalie, with all of her flaws - she's loud and transgressive, unafraid to voice her opinions. She vivaciously plays up the quips of humour, which are a bit of a hit or miss, and there are many Melbourne references that don't fully resonate with a Sydney audience. Jenny Wu chameleons as the naive, rather likeable Lu Lu, all the more convincingly when she embodies the too-fleeting character of Natalie's mother. 

No doubt Michele Lee is a promising talent and Going Down is a deserving showcase of this; her play is full of rich, fascinating ideas and topical issues. And there are many questions here that have not been asked before in theatre, like what exactly is the burden diverse writers are forced to bear, and whether it is possible for them to write a story separate from their cultural identities? Going Down's audacious stance is at times, convincing, if not also convoluted, but it's perhaps a query that is too thorny to be answered just yet.

Sydney Theatre Company present Going Down until 5 May at Wharf 2 Theatre.