By Shirley Van Sanden
I admire any performance that can keep a screaming crowd of primary kids quiet for almost an hour, so that’s an added tick for this production of a little play about cultural identity that had two hundred kids laughing and having fun, yet stilled into enchantment at the appropriate time.
Hidden Dragons is about an Chinese-Australian boy aggressively denying his Chinese identity, who is visited every night in his dreams not only by beautiful but threatening dragons, but by the ghost of his Chinese grandmother Popo, who always addresses him by his Chinese name, and is insistent that he remain true to the other part of his heritage. How he comes to this acceptance is the theme of this gentle but very funny play, and if the young audience didn’t immediately get the message, I suspect that subliminally they probably absorbed it, and the ideas behind the text could profitably be built upon by the parents and teachers who accompanied them to the theatre.
Even on a superficial level the kids loved it, because its dreamy opening, with Paul Goddard and Shirley Van Sanden waving gorgeous silk banners about Brendan’s (Joseph Lau) bed, soon leads to a nightmare sequence which the kids could identify with but not be frightened by, as Brendan indulges in some astonishing acrobatics trying to get away from the dragons.
The dragons retreat when his friend Scotty comes in to wake him up, because it’s Brendan’s 12th birthday, the dragon birthday, and the very Ocker Scotty has great things planned as does his spirit grandmother Popo (pronounced something like Pawpaw). The fact that she hates being called by the English title Nanna because it sounds like banana leads to some very funny wordplay about talking fruit, simple enough for the kids to relate to it, but clever enough to make them appreciate the possibilities of language.
Because it’s such a special birthday, Brendan has to learn to face his dragons, and Popo and Scotty help him in his reluctant quest, along the way revealing that there’s no such thing as a real Australian, not even Scotty, whose real name is Baldred Mungo McLeod, of which he is just as ashamed as Brendan is of his Chinese name. < BR>
This is theatre as low-tech as you can get, relying on simple props and the physical skills of the three actors, but its enthusiastic reception by the five- and six-year-olds proves yet again that theatre doesn’t need too many bells and whistles to make an impression. Even the late-primary school Scottish visitors I took along enjoyed it, although nine-year-old Felix was very indignant about the way the Scots were mocked, and has been insisting ever since that Baldred Mungo McLeod is a perfectly respectable name.
I only wish that it could have had a longer run, or that at least it will revived during the next school holidays, because it’s a show that should be accessible to all kids, not just the lucky ones whose schools have taken them along to see it.
This very successful early-childhood entertainment deserves top marks for pressing all the right buttons as well as keeping a theatre full of little kids pretty well under control for an hour.
Directed by Grahame Gavin
Running time: 55 minutes, no interval