What the hell happened here??!
My god. White Pearl is bad; it’s really bad.
It’s not just that the acting isn’t great or that the dialogue is too on the nose. Or that this satire set in a racist beauty company in Singapore lacks the pace and believable twists and turns to make it work. Or that the direction is lacklustre. (Though all of this is clearly a problem). The main issue with White Pearl is that it is problematic. HUGELY problematic.
It’s clear pretty quickly that this production isn’t great but, about twenty minutes in, I came within a hair’s breadth of walking out because it became appallingly offensive – and I regretted the decision not to for the rest of this 85-minute show.
But let’s start at the top: what is this play about? We’re in present-day Singapore where the six women who run Clearday, a dynamic cosmetic company, are in a panic as an unauthorised racist advert promoting their new skin whitening product has been leaked on to the internet and it has created a whopping social media backlash that could see the wipe-out of the whole company.
It’s an interesting set up and one the held a lot of promise – diversity representation, tackling social issues, relevance… But it struggles to get past challenges of thin characters, lack of nuance, all tell rather than show… and that breaking point.
Let me be completely clear on this: I have zero tolerance for abusive partners being played for laughs. It’s not clever, it’s not progressive and it is categorically not a laughing matter. (Though this message seems to be lost on part of the Royal Court audience the night I went.)
It transpires that one of the women from Clearday has an ex-boyfriend, who is a dangerous stalker who follows her around the world to demand she gets back together to him. Evidence of physical abuse and coercive control are spun as punchlines and as this man blackmails his former girlfriend, forcing her to give him oral sex so that he gets what he wants, some in the stalls were laughing in their seats. I had my head in my hands.
I am still so angry (can you tell?). This on the very same stage where, only a year or so ago, women and men working in theatre disclosed the abuse and harassment they were experiencing in their careers. The Court provided itself as a safe space to have this #MeToo moment. And now we get this. This isn’t so much a disgrace as a betrayal.
But, if you can get through this part of the play unscathed, there’s more to worry you as the plot progresses…
The frenzy that comes with satire expectedly builds as the six women try to unravel what the hell has happened but also to manoeuvre themselves well enough to ensure they aren’t the ones scapegoated for this mess. This manifests itself, to put it bluntly, in a bitch fight.
Does anyone else’s heart beak a little bit more when women are portrayed as screaming, shrieking harpies? Watching six actors withy potential being reduced to hurling racist insults at each other (by the way, this play really should come with racist warnings as I found the constant racism towards black women hard to stomach) broke me.
It’s about this time that you’re probably expecting me to declare, ‘what kind of man would write this?’ Only this show was not written by a man but by a young woman, Anchuli Felicia King. This is her debut production, in fact.
And suddenly I am faced with a huge internal conflict. I want to support women writers – hell, we know I’ve burnt a lot of bridges repeatedly making that point – but how on earth can I support this? And why would any women writer think these portrayals are acceptable?
I expect Anchuli thinks there is a form of empowerment in seeing women “own” characterisations and behaviours that are more commonly associated with men. This is not an original idea; in fact, it is an old and discarded one.
It’s a very 1990s form of ‘power feminism’ that is all, ‘women can be bitches too, women can be racists too, women can be mercenary capitalists too’ etc etc etc. It is not a form of reclamation that works. Rejecting both the social and economic power structures that demand this kind of behaviour to succeed is where we have moved to. And this has also been reflected in theatre where new writers are rejecting how white posh men have defined taste, structure, form and style for centuries for something bold and refreshing.
Sadly, there is nothing new here. And it just pained me to endure.
Please, no more.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to 15 June, 2019.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Helen Murray.