The King and I

Andrea Montgomery crafts effective theatre, but the Victorian imperialism is as unpalatable as ever

Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I musical is based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the 1860s. Preditably, the 1956 film version was banned in Thailand due to its historical inaccuracies and disrespect for the monarchy, but the musical has enjoyed continued success through the years.

Interestingly, Andrea Montgomery, director of this production at Theatre at the Mill, was partly raised in Thailand. So it's a pity that she doen't attempt to reconcile the story's colonial roots with modern sensibilities. After all, even Shakespeare is rewritten and reinterpreted for new times.

Instead, the story reflects its origins with cartoon interpretations of Far Eastern people and broken English. The King in particular (Ashley Alyman, though from Malaysian/Thai origins) seems to be played for laughs.

Intended as droll, the play-within-a-play, Small House of Uncle Thomas, in which the King's children burlesque the American cultural landmark may hint at how Thai people view the musical itself. It's surprisingly effective though, if seen as a genuine stylized Siamese rendering of that story.

Joanne Henry's interpretation of the matriarch Madam Thiang is subtle, though still hampered by broken English. With Anna and her King obviously unable to consummate any romantic notions, the secondary romance between Burmese hostage, Tuptim (Michelle Yim) and her secret lover, Lun Tha (Benjamin Wong), is played straight. It forms the emotional core of the play, though more of it and a more effective set-up would have been welcome.

By necessity, many of the larger set pieces (dragon boats, fireworks, Bangkok, a state banquet) are in the minds of the audience only. The set is sparse, relying very much on a stylized Buddha and golden cut-outs hinting at nature, but helped by excellent lighting. The King basks in a golden glow, but the stage reverts to a moody blue when he exits.

The choreography is at its most elaborate in the Uncle Thomas segment, but equally effective when the myriad of the King's children are introduced. Siam's spoilt crown prince (a noticeably non-Asian Aaron Kavanagh) struts like a peacock, but his later humility shows some hope for Siam's future. Anna's son, Louis (a perky Martin Sawey), meanwhile, seems rather unaffected by his two years amongst 'those half-naked barbarians'.

With seven musicians sounding like a full orchestra, the musical accompaniment is spot on, delivering a fusion of the West and the mysterious East. There's nothing wrong with the delivery of the songs either, though at opera house strength the sound may be a bit too big for this particular venue.

Those songs are, of course, instantly recognisable, and all the singers impress. Colette Lennon, who earned her spurs as Mary Poppins and Phantom's Christine at the same venue, really shows what she's capable of as Anna Leonowens in the song 'Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?', venting her anger about the King's stubborn impositions.

As the play opens, Anna is very much bound by Victorian culture; she is a blank template, defined as a mother, widow and teacher. Much later in the play she learns to be her own person, and only then the audience can empathise with her.

The King, meanwhile, also has an identity crisis: his worldview dictates that you don't learn to be a king, you are a king. As the play progresses and he invites the Western way of thinking into his culture, he sees Siam shrinking, and with it his own role. 

Of course, a glance at Wikipedia will show that the play has very little in common with real history. It has to be doubted that Anne Leonowens showed the King's son how to overcome doubt by teaching him to whistle. Even so, we found ourselves whistling a happy tune on our way home.

The King and I is at Theatre at the Mill until October 22.