Much to the credit of playwright Jovanni Sy, Nine Dragons is a rewarding thriller.
Riffing on film noir, Sy sets the action in the Kowloon neighbourhood of Hong Kong in the 1920s. A character that the press calls the Kowloon Ripper is murdering women, then chopping off their hands and cutting out their tongues. The Ripper’s crimes haven’t been getting a lot of attention—but then he murders a white woman.
Because it’s set in colonial Kowloon, Nine Dragons is saturated with issues of race and identity. Tommy Lam is the best detective on the police force but, because he’s Chinese, he has never made it past the rank of sergeant. Tommy has reasons of his own for wanting to get his hands on the Kowloon Ripper but his white his bosses hesitate to let him loose, partly because Tommy’s prime suspect is Victor Fung, scion of one of the area’s most powerful Chinese families.
The relationship between Tommy and Victor is rich. The resentment both men feel towards racism becomes a bond between them but, while Tommy lashes out against the limitations, Victor’s strategy has been to become more British than Noël Coward: he croons pop songs in Nine Dragons, the nightclub he owns—in English.
The play’s identity politics are too deliberate—characters explicitly address them on a regular basis, which diminishes the insidious power of the way these things operate in real life—but they’re still intriguing.
And, except for a slackening near the end of Act 1, Sy’s plot keeps you on your toes, which is no small feat: thrillers require levels of tension and complexity that are difficult to achieve.
Director Craig Hall’s mounting of this script is generally successful, but a bit of a mixed bag.
John Ng plays Tommy with consistent focus and credibility. His characterization is the most contained and satisfying of the evening. And Daniel Chen is suavely effective as Victor.
Under Hall’s direction, Scott Bellis, Duval Lang, and, to a lesser extent, Toby Hughes all push the material too hard at times, especially when their white-cop characters are playing variations on the theme of racism. Bellis and Hughes also find sustained passages of greater subtlety.
Playing Dr. Mary Weir, the British-born coroner who is also Tommy’s lover, Natashca Girgis is mannered: her gestures and arch pauses never let us forget that Girgis is an actress
Speaking of noise—which I was doing a moment ago—Andrew Blizzard’s sound design is ridiculously loud. I understand that there’s a level of melodrama in film noir, but too many cues made me wince.
Visually, this production is more successful, thanks largely to Jamie Nesbitt’s projection design. Many times throughout the evening, Nesbitt envelops Scott Reid’s set in black-and-white video imagery. In my favourite cue, Tommy is taking a ferry to the main part of Hong Kong. Lighting designer Anton de Groot isolates Tommy in a tight spotlight, Nesbitt floods the stage floor with the illusion of dark, shimmering water and, as Tommy speaks in Cantonese and leaves his familiar neighbourhood behind, English surtitles appear and then recede into the distance.
Nine Dragons may not be perfect, but it is a significant achievement in storytelling. And it’s resonant. You don’t have to think too hard to associate the Ripper’s forgotten Chinese victims with Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women and girls or to recognize the relationship between our current opioid crisis and the trade in opium and heroin, which plays a part in Nine Dragons. Besides, it’s great to see a racially complex story on-stage in the racially complex Lower Mainland.
NINE DRAGONS By Jovanni Sy. Directed by Craig Hall. Co-produced by Gateway Theatre, Vertigo Theatre, and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. At the Gateway Theatre on Friday, April 13. Continues until April 21.
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