The Red Lead 红铅
Roshelle Fong

“Your mensus, once collected by a physician, is delivered to the Emperor’s most trusted Minister of Rites to oversee its refinement into 红铅 Red Lead. The elixir of immortality…presented for consumption as a chewy red pill.” 

In 1542 Ming Dynasty China, being an ‘elegant woman’ in the Forbidden City was an honour, a privilege, and a daily death by a thousand cuts. The Red Lead 红铅 is an anachronistic portrait of sisterhood, survival and an attempt to rise up. 

Roshelle Fong is a Hong Kong born multidisciplinary artist, living in Naarm/Melbourne on unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. She wrote, directed and produced the Melbourne Fringe award-winning immersive show ‘nomnomnom’ in 2018, and is currently completing a Master of Theatre (Writing) at University of Melbourne’s Victoria College of the Arts.

Her works include the award-winning immersive show ‘nomnomnom’ (2018), adapted in East Iceland, Shanghai and Sydney, the online interactive theatre show ‘Thirsty!’ (2020) for Griffin Theatre’s ‘Griffin Lock-in’ and Google Creative Lab’s ‘Theatre, made for the internet’, and the Green Room Award nominated theatre show ‘Poona’(2021) co-created with Keziah Warner for Next Wave. In 2022 Roshelle worked with Melbourne Theatre Company as Assistant Director and AV collaborator on ‘Laurinda’, and wrote for the theatre’s annual playwriting showcase ‘Cybec Scenes’. She was also a participant in Australia Council for the Arts and Creative New Zealand‘s ‘Digital Fellowship Program’ and RISING Festival’s ‘Headroom Award mentorship’.

Introducing playwright Roshelle Fong

What inspired you to write this play?

A confluence of ongoing passions, research wormholes, right-link right-time moments and support from friends and family birthed this play. I stumbled upon the historical event quite by accident…an assassination attempt against a menstrual blood consuming Emperor by 15 palace women in the Ming Dynasty. It brought up a lot of a feelings, parallels with present day conflicts around the fundamental human right to bodily autonomy, and an opportunity to collaborate with family members to decipher and translate history and language.  One thing that really energised me to commit to the story was discovering it took place in November 1542, a Renyin or Water Tiger year. According to the Chinese Sexegenary (sixty year) cycle, or the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches, 1542 was the thirty-ninth year of the cycle: exactly eight cycles before 2022, also a Water Tiger year. I took that as a sign to write the play. And to do it with a Water Tiger lens of tender yet fiery rebellion to reflect on past, present and future battles for justice.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a playwright?

My background is in media arts and production, spoken word and multi-disciplinary performance. I’ve always written in some form or another, but focusing on playwriting is  still a fairly recent thing. I’ve written a couple of scenes for First Stage and Cybec Scenes play readings at Melbourne Theatre Company, and last year I did a short online course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama as part of my Personal Development at a creative job. I absolutely loved it, and went on to do a Masters in Theatre (Writing) at the Victoria College of the Arts which has been incredibly rigorous and insightful. My plan is definitely to keep writing and striving to fuse my digital and text-based practices, and work with with all kinds of creatives to tell important stories.

What or who inspires you as a writer and why do you want to write for the stage?

I used to do spoken word and performance art in character as a way to be myself. There was something about giving voice to suppressed parts of my personality and experience…and connecting to audiences with those, often exaggeratedly demure or monstrous, characters that allowed me to feel very seen and very free. These days, I’ve been searching for that same fearless spark to channel through my playwriting. I think it comes from a desire to share that sense of freedom with others…through communal experiences with collaborators and audiences…experiences that yearn for the electricity of live performance contexts.

Some of my inspirations include Jane Harrison, Nakkiah Lui, Michele Lee, Keziah Warner, Kim Ho, Anchuli Felicia King, David Finnigan, Vidya Rajan, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, Jennifer Kidwell, Young Jean Lee, Oriza Hirata, Christopher Chen, Punchdrunk, Alice Birch, Tony McNamara, Martin Crimp, Michaela Coel, The Daniels and pretty much anything by A24. And Yoko Ono.

What do you think about the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and, more specifically, the anonymity at the heart of the Prize?

I appreciate the Bruntwood Prize’s culture around giving it a go…presenting the deadline as a motivator to get to the end of a story. It’s also a great resource for playwright and artist support, sharing opportunities, toolkits, inspiration…providing avenues for development and feedback…even marketing support to entrants who reach out. Basically finding ways to make the writing process less daunting, less solitary.

Anonymity is one kind of leveller…judging becomes all about the words on the page and their potential, their energy. Doesn’t matter if you’ve written one play or hundreds, where you’re based or how old you are, your words speak for themselves. There’s something special about that.

How do you feel about being shortlisted?

I’ve been continuing to get feedback and work on the script, but the shortlist has been a lovely, unexpected sign that folks are seeing what I’m trying to do…including readers on the other side of the world, what?! I’m buzzing to meet the Bruntwood team and all the other writers. I anticipate a pretty out-of-body experience watching our extracts come to life at the Ceremony…Can’t wait.