I loved how rich and unsettling this play was. Hilary Bell’s Fortune is sumptuous, bizarre, wonderful and frightening.
Fortune is set in 1861 at the end of the gold rush in a fictitious New South Wales’ town Bell has named Cold Bath Creek. Our first glimpse of the town’s inhabitants is of Chang, an 11-year-old Chinese boy grown to gigantic proportions. We quickly discover that Chang’s mother sold him to a photographer, who kept him like a slave and exploited him as a freak.
Salvation for Chang comes in the unlikely form of an Irish convict and con artist, Kathleen. Despite her misgivings about Chinese people (“Chinky? Dickhead? Shit for brains? Pick your nose don’t you? Rub it in the dirt and eat it for dessert?”), Kathleen realises that Chang could make her fortune and persuades him to leave the photographer and join her.
Fortune is a rollicking story, exciting, fascinating and full of surprises, but it’s also an allegory of Australia. While everyone mocks and taunts Chang, he is the only character in the play who is actually born in Australia. He begins the play despising himself, hating his ungainly shape, but ends up feeling pride in his difference. He is lifted on the shoulders of convicts and settlers but chooses to walk on his own two feet, rather than be carried.
While Chang struggles to come to terms with his own body, Kathleen fights for survival and has to face the man she once loved, who’s come back to get his hands on her new found money. Another key character in the play is Iris, a Chinese born woman who rejects her heritage and runs a boarding house, refusing entry or food to Chinese people.
CHANG: Scone looks good.
IRIS: Off you go, little beggar.
CHANG: I’m no beggar. I’ve got a farthing. How many can I get for that?
IRIS: You know I don’t sell to Chinese.
CHANG: My gut’s shrivelling up!
There are so many levels of story to enjoy in Fortune. The relationships are vivid and so are the portraits of settlers from all over the world, trying to peck their way to the top of the heap.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 3M, 2F and 1 musician (includes some doubling)