Review: Sydney Theatre Company’s The Poison of Polygamy is a journey you’ll want to go on

  • Naomi Gall
  • June 22, 2023
  • Comments Off on Review: Sydney Theatre Company’s The Poison of Polygamy is a journey you’ll want to go on

Poison of Polygamy

The Poison of Polygamy at the Sydney Theatre Company will take you on a journey. From China’s Qing dynasty to Victoria’s nineteenth-century goldfields, and the colourful landscape of Melbourne’s Chinatown, the play seamlessly shifts focus.

Based on the novel by Wong Shee Ping and adapted for the stage by Anchuli Felicia King, The Poison of Polygamy follows the tale of Sleep-sick (Shan-Ree Tan), an opium addict and neglectful husband to the long-suffering Ma (Merlynn Tong). Following the death of his mother, Sleep-sick is given the opportunity to travel to the goldfields in Australia to make his fortune. He befriends a group of men (Gareth Yuen, Silvan Rus and Ray Chong Nee) along the way and six years later returns to China a much wealthier man.

Sleep-sick was disappointed to see that his wife appeared so much older after his time away, so when the opportunity to take a much younger second wife presents itself, he jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, this would be his undoing. Tsiu Hei (Kimie Tsukakoshi) is young, beautiful and devious. As she establishes herself in Sleep-sick’s house, the fall-out from his decisions will devastate them all.

Posion of Polygamy

The Poison of Polygamy is a layered and multifaceted production, covering ideas of desire, migration, morality and the treatment of women. Tan is brilliant as both Sleep-sick and the Priest who narrates the play, managing to captivate and sustain the audience through a roller-coaster of a narrative. With moments that will spark melancholy and lines that will prompt laughter, there are many surprises to be discovered throughout this epic production.

The use of props and set design is simple but incredibly effective. In particular, the use of the red columns to visually depict the ship crossing to Australia was inspired. The cast makes use of the theatre’s ‘in-the-round’ formation, including the stairs, creating an all-encompassing and engaging experience. The lighting design by Ben Hughes is impactful and persuasively creates tension and anticipation.

It is near the end of the play that Tsiu Hei remarks that the true poison of polygamy is that a man believes he can take and take and take with no consequences. Such an evocative statement is appropriate when reflecting on what has unfolded on stage, but one can’t help but see the political undertones encapsulated in its meaning.

Could this not be a reflection on our own society, on our own failures and short-sighted choices? By highlighting a moment in Australia’s history that is often overlooked, The Poison of Polygamy is a poignant reminder that what goes around comes around.


The Poison of Polygamy runs until 8 July 2023. For more information and to buy tickets head to the Sydney Theatre Company website.

Reviewer attended on 20 June 2023.

Photo credit: Prudence Upton