REVIEW: Poona by Roshelle Fong & Keziah Warner

Poona Li Hung is a cyborg of Chinese and Indian descent. She is a lesbian and in 2050, she is running on a platform of compassion and empathy to become the first robot President of the country of So-Called Australia. It’s four weeks before the election and her campaign team are all in the one room, ready to brainstorm speeches, debate clothing choices and decide how to handle the onslaught of robophobic attacks from the United Human Party.

Poona, the play, is the brainchild of co-creators Roshelle Fong (also Producer) and Keziah Warner (also Assistant Director). But the inspiration for the show comes from an unlikely source – Pauline Hanson’s 1997 book called The Truth. The book, where Hanson pontificates on the problems she sees with Aboriginal people, unchecked immigration, and gun control, also predicts the rise of Poona, a figure that must have terrified Hanson – foreign, queer and non-human.

The audience are all members of Poona’s campaign team and we’re all asked how involved we want to be in the performance; it’s immersive theatre and interactive and everyone who attends can participate at their own comfort level. Some audience members are given dialogue to recite. Others are asked to speak contemporaneously on issues affecting the campaign. Two or three were happy just to sit back and soak up the atmosphere of the meeting room on the third floor of Melbourne’s Chinese Museum.

Before being escorted to the meeting room, we’re checked in, given name badges, asked for our pronouns and left to soak in the atmosphere of the museum. In all my years of living in Melbourne, eating out in Chinatown scores of times, I have never been to the Chinese Museum, so I got to look over a collection of artifacts – including a drum from the Beijing Olympics and the longest processional dragon in the world.

After ascending the steep staircase to the third floor meeting room, we are all seated at a long boardroom table, our places clearly labelled with our pre-assigned job titles, the names of the attendees all listed on a board just inside the door. There’s a few moments for us to introduce ourselves to our teammates, somewhat in character, before Poona and her closest allies arrive – her mother, her girlfriend and her personal assistant.

And if the play hadn’t really started in the museum below, this is where the fun began. The show explores all four characters; her mother is human, her girlfriend a cyborg, and her assistant is human but is considers becoming a cyborg. At least that’s what the others think might happen if she keeps drinking the Poona-brand softdrink she knocks back during late nights on the campaign trail.

While the play allows the four actors (Elsa Tuet-Rosenberg, Cecilia Low, Cheryl Ho, Emina Ashman) their moments to shine – a carefully crafted monologue for each, much of the action of the show is in the problems the campaign faces. And that’s where audience involvement is key. What should Poona wear? Something that highlights her cultural heritage? Something that makes her seem down-to-earth? Or should she wear something that doesn’t shy away from her cyborg nature?

The team votes and the SCANN machine (the So-Called Australia Neural Network) reports instant recognition from the population at large – more followers or more likes. What can I say? It’s better than current polling that skews older and to people with who still use landline phones.

There’s the leak of a paper that suggests Poona is anti-human. There’s the offer of a donation from a mining company. There’s a sex tape. All the usual dramas of modern-day politics told through a speculative-fiction lens. The discussions, decisions and votes will affect the direction of the play and, perhaps, the outcome of the election.

Roshelle and Keziah have loaded Poona with lots of great ideas and the lead character is a nexus for intersectionality, but a lot of the drama relies on the tropes of modern-day political dramas to feed the narrative of the piece. It’s good for the interactive audience to have touchstones, but the really thrilling parts of the show are allusions to futurism that are only briefly explored.

Emina Ashman gives the most compelling performance of the evening as Umami, Poona’s cyborg girlfriend, who doesn’t care for human emotion at all, until she starts really feeling things later in the piece.

Poona ran for two-hours the night I saw it, and the concept doesn’t quite stretch that far – after a while, things get a little repetitive; each of the dramas really only have two outcomes and some of the discussions wandered, while others that might have benefited from more consideration were over in a blink.

There are some beautifully theatrical moments that come from energetic performances coupled with exquisite sound, lighting and projection work. There’s a particularly delightful moment with Poona and her mother at a photo shoot late in the campaign as they try to remain all smiles, while there’s a seething tension underneath.

But when much of the thrust of the show comes from involving an audience of mostly non-actors, the play feels fun but less commanding. With so much in there about racism, misogyny and intersectionality, it feels a shame that the narrative hinges on yes/no votes. Perhaps if the show could be tightened, the whole thing would feel as vital as the subject matter demands.

Poona runs until Sunday 23rd May at the Chinese Museum, Melbourne.