The Orange Tree theatre is creating a series of internationally focused plays with Actors Touring Company (ATC). Rice, their new co-production, fits the bill nicely. Written by the Asian-Australian playwright Michele Lee, it’s set in a large Australian farming company and is about Indian executive Nisha – “made in Melbourne” but still close to her West Bengali grandma – and Chinese cleaner and failed entrepreneur Yvette. Nisha and Yvette’s lives overlap under the harsh glow of the office lights as they put in endless night shifts and struggle to make themselves heard above the constant chatter of powerful men.
Dressed in a power suit but with eyes lit up with anxiety, Nisha (Zainab Hasan) prowls around the gleaming-white office, uncomfortable in the space she is so frantic to make her own. Yvette (Sarah Lam) is a much more still presence. She mostly hovers around the edges of the stage but seems sure and solid in the series of small spaces she occupies.
As the nights unfold, we learn more about Yvette’s unruly daughter (recently arrested after an environmental protest) and Nisha’s wilfully unhelpful colleagues, who seem determined to stymie her success. The two actors bring to life a bristling host of characters, ranging from a coolly controlling boss to stroppy teenagers, frisky co-workers and a wonderfully haughty government adviser. Lam plays the more powerful figures – almost all men – and it’s fascinating to watch her body language change as she grows more fluid and expansive in these positions of power (even her voice seems to spread out), unapologetically filling every room she enters.
Hasan is particularly good as Yvette’s eastern European boss, a woman who laughs in the face of authority and scoffs at timesheets. It’s in these sharp comic cutaways that Lee’s writing works best. She has a clipped and energetic style perfectly suited to comic quips (every time Nisha has sex, she barks out “Done!”) but can lend a brittle tone to the later, more dramatic, encounters. Matthew Xia directs with sensitivity and Bethany Gupwell’s lighting design is particularly evocative, working hard to ground this slightly skittering but thoughtful play.
At the Orange Tree until 13 November, live-streamed 4-5 November. Then touring, February–April.