Asian Australian Theatre

MTC’s “Laurinda” – The Coming Of Age Moment For Australian Theatre

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Yeon

I had arrived too late for a pre-show glass of sparkling at the Sumner Theatre. I felt out of practice attending a weeknight show because it had been so long – years in fact – since the last. But the real reason for my lateness was that I was anxious. I had spent a day at work second guessing myself, and, even after logging out, my mind had, on loop, words I had written in a rushed email that had sparked a storm in a teacup at the office. 

As I was frantically telling my woes to a friend who had come with me to see Laurinda, the lights fell and I hushed myself in mid sentence to focus on the much anticipated opening scene. 

Prior to the show, I had interviewed the writer and cast courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and, as the show began, I recalled their words: 

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Ngoc Phan, the lead actress who plays Lucy Lam, is so talented and she holds the piece; but no one knows who she is. – Diana Nguyen

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[The production of Laurinda] it’s very joyful. To be my age and play a 15 year old. It’s keeping me young. – Fiona Choi

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They refer to me as the hot one in the play [as Mr V] – spoiler alert! It’s about my character’s passion for history and passion for teaching and it was an inspiration for Lucy to become a teacher. – Roy Phung

But as a fan of Alice Pung’s writing, I had held onto some healthy scepticism about the production as an adaptation due to the difficulty of bringing fullness of text to theatre (in 1 hour and 45 minutes with no interval!). 

After the first scene change, however, three things clearly stood out that made me experience Laurinda on stage as an inspired yet entirely original creative force to the beloved Young Adult novel. 

First, the stage production and the use of audio visuals on stage. MTC’s Laurinda has an Asian Australian leading the Set Design and AV Concept & Design by Eugyeene Teh. This element takes on a character of its own in the show that richly expresses the social and the political context of Australia in the 1990s. It also fortifies the psychological undercurrents for each of the characters on stage. The folding in of an iconic 90s pop song with Pauline Hanson’s Asian hate speech, in particular, packed a punch, exemplifying the uniquely powerful sensory experience of theatre.

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Second, the entire cast of MTC’s Laurinda is only seven performers. This is made possible by writer Diana Nguyen’s creation of composite characters from the novel and the production’s casting of top talent who each execute multiple roles. MTC’s Laurinda has an all Asian-Australia ensemble and, as Fiona Choi (The Family Law) puts it, there was a“shorthand to the conversations [among the cast] because we can all relate. There was a freedom of expression in the room because no one needed to explain ‘why’.” One example of that result was Chi Nguyen’s (CMC Talent Management) performance whose character switches back and forth between a 15 year old private school girl and a sweatshop working Vietnamese mother.

I blinked my eyes during the show at her seamless transition, the change in her physicality, voice, humour code, emotional pitch and bilingual dialogue. With childlike wonder, I watched a master of her craft perform – it was simply magic.  Roy Phung (Golden Phung) also delivered a substantial bilingual performance playing the Vietnamese father and the only male teacher at Laurinda. Phung, who grew up in a Vietnamese family, found the role of the father harder and pushed himself to perfect the Vietnamese lines, half of which he had never spoken in real life, so he diligently learnt sounds rather than the language for the performance. 

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Lastly, humour is an irreplaceable part of this story and in MTC’s Laurinda the theatre maker and stand up comedian Diana Nguyen (Phi and me, Dirty Baby, Chasing Keanu Reeves) injected her signature flamboyant and belly-aching laughs into the show with long time colleague and friend Petra Kalive. The dialogue, the delivery and the comedic timing of 90s songs juxtaposed to tear jerking scenes with punctuating humour felt to me like a testament to the female pair’s partnership. 

After the show my friend and I headed to the bar for a glass of wine and a debrief. Two Asian women, both products of private school education (with her now a parent of the same in Melbourne’s East) we asked ourselves: are schools these days still racist? As we sipped our swirls of Pinot Noir, a momentary silence fell between us as neither of us were confident that they weren’t. Then we emptied our glasses after sharing lived experiences of Laurinda-esque dynamics in our workplaces, our boardrooms and our parent-teacher nights, as the journey of Lucy Lam helped us to open up with our own stories. 

Walking out of the Sumner theatre, I recalled Diana Nguyen’s reflection that, in the past just like I did, she considered being the only Asian in the room as ‘winning’ before the debilitating impact of tokenism took over. Now her power as a creator is in seeing others shine because “I don’t want to stand on the mountain by myself.”

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I turned to look back at the canary yellow poster of Laurinda and its tagline – A coming-of-age for every age – and felt a calmness wash over me. Because at every moment of opportunity, conflict and growth, I will have to dig deep just like Lucy Lam and, thanks to her and her creators, I will feel less alone in my own journey. 

And isn’t this what a good show on stage has to offer? The magic of theatre that quietens the triviality of our day to day, a visceral experience of embodied emotions that linger after the lights go out, and a vibrant story of inspiration that will stay with the audience for many stages of life to come. 

“Laurinda” will be playing at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) till September 10, so if you are in Melbourne or plan to visit – do not forget to check this play out! You can use this link to check out more information and buy tickets:

You can follow Anna Yeon on Instagram by clicking on Annayeonwrites

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