Let’s start at the end. It would be easy to fall into the trap of mistaking Peter Eötvös‘ music theatre piece The Golden Dragon, currently touring the UK in a production by Music Theatre Wales, as a serious, even moving piece. Or, rather, not mistaking it for that (few people, one hopes, are so easily duped), but feeling compelled to regard in that way, as by the end of its 90-minute duration the piece makes very clear that that is what was always intended. In some respects, the subject matter isn’t funny: an illegal immigrant worker – referred to as ‘The Little One’ (played by Llio Evans) – in the titular Asian restaurant develops an excruciating toothache, the tooth is forcefully extracted by the chefs (Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, Daniel Norman and Johnny Herford), The Little One bleeds profusely and dies, and his body is then chucked into a river. But don’t misunderstand me: when i say the subject matter isn’t funny – and it really isn’t – that’s not because, by contrast, it’s serious either. Everything about the narrative – which is derived from an original play by Roland Schimmelpfennig – is ludicrous to the point of absurdity. Apropos: the work’s primary thread is embellished with various secondary ones of varying frivolity, concerning a pair of stewardesses having a meal, a granddaughter becoming pregnant to the enraged indignation of her boyfriend, and – i’m really not making this up – an ant acting as a pimp, sexually exploiting a cricket.
For the first two-thirds of the piece, Eötvös positively revels in the utter silliness, creating not so much an opera buffa as a farsa grossolana. The singers mug for the audience as though their lives depend on it, so over-the-top that it brings to mind the world of earlier 20th century comedy, particularly Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges. This comedic stance is emphatically reinforced by the relationship between words and music. Throughout the first two parts, there’s no sense at all of an underlying musical plan or scheme or direction that gives rise to the material emanating from the voices of the protagonists. Instead, the singers are undeniably running the show: just like a cartoon, the music slavishly follows the surface-level mayhem taking place, providing an ephemeral underscore that serves only an immediate purpose. It crashes, it bangs, it wallops; there are growls and hoots and even something akin to a cup-muted ‘wa-wa-waaaah’ moment. Nothing about it is remotely memorable. Throw in a recurring spoken refrain from the instrumentalists – either “long pause” or “short pause”, indicating a temporary hiatus in the action – that becomes increasingly irritating, and you’ve got something that seeks to be funny and, here and there, just about manages to achieve something close to it.
None of this would matter in the slightest if, in its third part, The Golden Dragon didn’t seek to reach beyond all this and cast a more sombre light on its narrative. The trouble is, it does, yet while there is a putative underlying theme (but not a message) about exploitation, in the context of such demonstratively cartoonish slapstick, its violence rings as true and is as concomitantly moving as the violence in a Tom and Jerry skit. Its characters are not so much archetypes as caricatures, and the hypothetical horror of their situations has been trivialised, and rendered implausible and inert. There are, admittedly, some sequences in the third and final part where Eötvös’ music becomes very beautiful, tapping into a strain of lyricism that, although contextually alien, feels fittingly affecting. If it works, it works in the way that US sitcoms inject moments of pathos into their storylines; we’re not exactly convinced of the pain felt by the characters because that’s not the point, but we’re prepared to go along with it on the assumption that there’ll be another laugh any minute now. But in The Golden Dragon, there are no more laughs to be had, it really does now want to be taken seriously. Yet to do so wouldn’t merely be a concession too far, it would involve retconning everything that went before as not, in fact, brash, jolly japes but the surface filigree of something more sinister and meaningful that was supposedly lurking there all along. This is simply not plausible, asking way too much both of the music and, indeed, of us. Perhaps it’s not just the characters on stage who are being exploitative.