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Review of The King and I at Dominion Theatre - Contrasts and conundrums captivate the stage

Rated 🍯🍯🍯

Curtain Call: The cast of The King and I bow to the audience after a performance at the Dominion Theatre in London
Curtain Call: The cast of The King and I at the Dominion Theatre

After a splendid evening at London's Dominion Theatre, the bee is buzzing with myriad thoughts and reflections on The King and I. What unfurled on stage was a vibrant testament to the cultural richness and thematic depth the bee had hoped to uncover, bridging its initial apprehensions with a rewarding reality. The King and I unfolded as a tapestry rich with the hues of cultural exchange, authority, and the perennial tussle between tradition and progress. The production, visually stunning and musically enchanting, presented a complex tableau of relationships and themes that provoke both admiration and reflection.

East meets West: Charming Cultural Clashes and Chaos in The King and I

At the heart of this musical lies the fascinating juxtaposition of Western and Eastern cultures, embodied in the interactions between Anna and the Siamese court. The light-hearted poking fun at cultural idiosyncrasies—Anna's struggle with maintaining a lower head than the king, and the king's pointed observations on Western hypocrisies—adds layers of humour and insight. The playful yet respectful jabs between Anna and the Siamese court were as enlightening as anticipated, if not more so. The bee laughed at Anna's exasperations and nodded thoughtfully as the production unveiled the rigidities and absurdities inherent in all cultural constructs.

However, the portrayal of the king stirred mixed feelings in the bee. The depiction of the king oscillates between the comical and the caricatural, sometimes overshadowing the character's potential depth. The king’s fascination with Western science, while intended to showcase a desire for modernisation, occasionally feels superficial, bordering on being nothing more than quirky fascination, which prompted the bee to question the seriousness of his commitment to modernisation. Such a portrayal risks trivialising his genuine efforts to navigate Siam through the currents of change and tradition. Moreover, the king's immediate and somewhat unexplained leniency towards Anna's boldness raises questions about consistency in character development. 

Family Ties in The King and I: A Royal Contrast

The bee found the King's interactions with his offspring particularly striking. The young ones' behaviour in the King's presence, both tender and revealing of a familial warmth seldom linked with royal austerity, stood in sharp contrast to the formalities expected of the King's rank. The children would prostrate themselves at the King's feet in one moment, only to playfully scamper between his legs the next. Initially, the bee viewed these interactions with skepticism, doubting their authenticity. However, upon reflection, the bee recognised that such dynamics mirror the intricate balance of love and respect found in Asian cultures, where deep familial bonds can coexist with, and indeed complement, a rigorous social hierarchy.

Navigating Tradition and Modernity on Stage

The themes of authority and the dichotomy between tradition and progress are woven through the narrative with varying degrees of success. The authority exerted by the king is portrayed as multifaceted—understated in his indulgence of Anna's independence, yet harshly asserted over less privileged characters like the slave Tuptim. This uneven application of authority mirrors the broader societal struggles between maintaining control and fostering freedom of thought and expression. The evolution of the crown prince and the king's gradual acceptance of new ideas showed such remarkable growth that the bee felt moved. However, the bee must acknowledge its feelings about the missed opportunities to delve deeper into the king's motivations. 

The selection of which traditional elements to continue to keep and celebrate, and which aspects of Western modernity to adopt, felt rather arbitrary, with the king seeming to display no ideas or preferences in the matter beyond a basic commitment to the ‘scientific’. With the subject matter of education left entirely to Anna’s whims and fancies, we see a rather eclectic and unstructured mix of teachings ranging from snow to geography to interpersonal greeting gestures to rules of social propriety to language to literature. The bee, being an academic, is naturally predisposed to view this approach as rather chaotic, even though simultaneously educating a class of individuals aged 3 through 30 is highly likely to be chaotic anyway.

Concluding thoughts on The King and I at Dominion Theatre

As the final notes of the performance echoed in the theatre, the bee concluded that its investment in an expensive seat had indeed been worthwhile. The anticipation, fuelled by research and preparation, had enhanced the bee's appreciation of the show's cultural and thematic layers. Despite some reservations, the bee felt enriched by the experience, its understanding deepened by the live portrayal of the complex dance between cultures, authority, and progress.

In summary, “The King and I" at the Dominion Theatre is a spectacle that dazzles with its opulence and captivates with its melodies. Yet, beneath its surface, the production grapples with themes of cultural collision, authority, and the evolution of tradition. While it offers much to admire and ponder, certain aspects of character development and thematic exploration suggest missed opportunities to delve deeper into the rich complexities of its narrative world. The criteria for what is preserved and what is discarded remain somewhat nebulous, leaving the audience yearning for a clearer exploration of these choices.

Three stars.


Watched February 2024 at the Dominion Theatre, London.

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