The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie. It takes a second to digest that, just as a title. As a title alone, it packs quite the punch; it’s about as a catchy as a limerick, it’s flashy, pretentious, political, if anything it’s a bit too much. It’s as if the title is saying “look how good I am”, just to show off. Nothing wrong with that – we’ve all done it. But The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie doesn’t need it. I mean, it’s already got a killer team behind it, beginning with the heavy-handed, face-punching, political playwright Anders Lustgarten (Lampedusa, Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre) and directed by HighTide king Stephen Atkinson. The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie sets itself up with a lot of bravado, albeit the kind of bravado that is enticing and accurate.
If you’re thinking “woah there, stop obsessing over the title”, then it’s only fair to point out that The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is as audacious as its boastful title led me to believe. What’s more, it’s flashy, pretentious, political and a bit too much. There are no half-measures whatsoever in this production. It is a bombardment of information about China’s socio-political trajectory post-revolution (1949), to the present day. That makes for a pretty well-packed couple of hours overflowing with death, poverty, lies, prostitution and revolutionaries. As if to sugar-coat (pardon the pun) the information overload, an entire world is created – and created multi-dimensionally.
Designer Lily Arnold has well and truly outdone herself with a set that wraps round and dots itself into every nook and cranny of the Arcola’s main space. It seems to change with the eras: the landlord’s house towers over villagers, in the same way that big corporations do from the sides. It is all framed by neon lights and controlled by a higher power, that flash incessantly and bewilderingly.
There is a sound world created, and I mean s world. Giles Thomas’s sound isn’t an undercurrent presence; it is in and of itself, as integral as the set and actors. It transports the audience from world to world, generation to generation, transcending moods as it goes.
The performances are fine – some better than others, with some that jar and some that pass by. In the spirit of the unapologetically flashy production everything is at surface level. To tell a historically factual sixty-seven years in the space of two hours and five minutes whilst maintaining interest, it necessarily has to be farcical. But this is where The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie comes across as a little confused to me. Farce works with satire, like an ‘opposites attract’ kind of marriage – you go your way, I’ll go mine – but only if it is consistent. Lustgarten is handing us real, gritty characters who are impoverished, empathetic and recognisable with one hand and making them pantomime with another.
By the same token, the satire slaps us round the chops in hilarious moments of glory and understanding, before being dragged down to a narrative that is so prescriptive that it becomes a lecture. What is impressive, though, is that Lustgarten somehow manages to squeeze so much history about such a huge and over-populated country into a small, but perfectly formed lens. While the information bombards and the production elements bedazzle, there is a firmly set root in one small village (Rotten Peach) and its few but continuing occupants. Sometimes it goes a bit too far, but that’s just down to those characters showing off because their friends are there. They’re only human.
The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoise is playing at Arcola Theatre until 30 April. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website. Photo: Nobby Clark