Merlynn Tong becomes The Monkey King in ENLIGHTENMENT

What happens when you mix a queer romantic comedy, a crime saga, and a cosmic fever dream? Enlightenment.

Merlynn Tong

The brainchild of Joe Paradise Lui, Enlightenment re-imagines two characters from a story of his childhood as young women in contemporary Australia. The play, performed in English but with Mandarin subtitles, also features the artwork of renowned Chinese artist and activitst Badiucao.

Merlynn Tong is an actor and playwright. Some of her recent performance credits include White Pearl (Sydney Theatre Company & National Theatre of Parramatta), The Shot (Queensland Theatre, The Scene Project), Harrow 2 (ABC), Reef Break (ABC/M6), Top of the Lake: China Girl (BBC & Sundance Films, Jane Campion), What I’m Here For (Elbow Room & Flowstate), The Mathematics of Longing (La Boite Theatre), The Lost Lending Library (Punchdrunk & Imaginary Theatre), Hotelling (Bleached Arts), Bitch: Origin of the Female Species (Brisbane Festival), Blue Bones (Playlab), Viral (Shock Therapy Productions), Straight White Men (La Boite Theatre), Ma Ma Ma Mad (Wax Lyrical), The Theory of Everything (Brisbane Festival), The Wizards from Oz (Taiwan, Taoyuan International Children’s Festival) and Hot Brown Honey (Judith Wright Centre).

With Enlightenment opening this week as part of Darebin Speakeasy, we had a chat to Merlynn about getting back on stage in such an awesome show.

How does it feel to get back into the theatre after 2020?

It feels absolutely invigorating to be back in the theatre after 2020, to be enmeshed and tangled amongst brilliant ideas and phenomenal humans again. I am reminded of how much I love theatre; the alchemy of creating magic together. I missed the things that I once took for granted—things like the sublime mundanity of learning lines.

There are anxious moments too: I wonder if I remember how this all works—how to be in a space with others and give voice to my ideas, I wonder if I still had the emotional dexterity and resilience required in the rehearsal room. Turns out we all experienced very similar momentary pangs of doubt! We were delicate and brave with one another—it truly has been a wonderful rehearsal room led by the indomitable Marcel Dorney.

What has been the most challenging part of reimagining a childhood story for modern context?

The most challenging part is probably reframing the narrative and discovering it again through the brilliant labyrinth that is Joe Paradise Lui’s mind. Joe has written a piece that encompasses layers upon layers of meaning—my simplistic understanding of this childhood tale had to be gently placed aside to make way for richer multitudes of meaning to enter. It has been such a fascinating journey.

And the most exciting?

I am so excited to play the Monkey King—what a dream role! She is explosive, complex, wild, vulnerable, fierce and electric. She yearns for so much. It is such a privilege that I get to attempt to embody this magical creature. I am also so excited by the whole team that Elbow Room has put together. The mega talented cast of Alice Qin, John Marc Desengano, Conor Gallacher and Emily Tomlins has been beyond fantastic to work, play and discover with every day.

How is Badiucao’s artwork incorporated into the show?

The artwork by the extraordinary Badiucao offers a sense of location and heightens the atmosphere. It also creates another lens through which the audience can peer into the work.

Why should people come to see Enlightenment?

People should come and see Enlightenment because it is a radical, brilliant and surprising take of a well known story. Even if you do not know the original story, you will still be taken on a wild ride where you will experience a queer rom com, a cop saga and a cosmic fever dream. Come and see my brilliant cast mates in their element, come and see the extraordinary creative teams’ beautiful work, come and have many a belly laugh, come and deconstruct the heavens and her whims with us.
In fact, then come back again and dive deeper with us.

Darebin Arts Speakeasy presents The Enlightenment of the Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and the Encounter with the Monkey King, Great Sage Equal of Heaven
Performed in English with Mandarin subtitles
Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre
Tickets and more information are available at

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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