Saturday, 19 September 2015

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 - It Won't Be Very Long -The Cemetery (Dawn & Dusk)

Site-specific works are still relatively rare in the Singapore theatrical scene, so it was with great interest that I noted this offering of It Won’t Be Very Long – The Cemetery by Chinese theatre company Drama Box when tickets first went on sale for this year’s SIFA, because its first half (Dawn) was being staged within the grounds of the Bukit Brown cemetery. Notwithstanding the ungodly hour it was being staged at (5.30am), I thought the show might be worth catching. It did turn out that I had missed a third part to this performance titled It Won’t Be Very Long – The Lesson, but the two shows that form The Cemetery still amounted to a coherent whole.

The setting was decidedly atmospheric. We were led by Drama Box employees into the cemetery in complete darkness to allow our eyes the chance to adapt to the early morning gloaming. We walked to the performance site, which used the one section of the cemetery where the road forks into two layers – an upper road and a lower road – and it was the elevated road that, lit by nothing but Chinese funeral candles, served as our “stage” for that morning. As the performance went on, we could hear the cicadas start their chirping (I had never realized that their sound – so ubiquitous in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia – actually stopped at night), the birds beginning to wake, as well as the odd monkey in the distance rustling through the foliage. The overwhelming feeling was a sense of peacefulness – perhaps too much.

My initial feeling about Dawn was that 5.30am might have been a little early in the morning for a piece of wordless and abstract performance theatre more akin to dance than to a play. After a tense and unplanned moment when a lorry on its way to work insisted that it had to drive through the road that was being used as the performers’ “stage”, I found the silence of the cemetery so pervasive and inviting I had to get up from my seat and walk around during the performance in order to stop my eyes from closing.

The performance was (to my dance-untrained eye) characterized by much gasping and heavy breathing on the part of the 6 performers (dressed all in white) as they moved, ran, spun, and collapsed to the ground in turns. With no point of reference or hint of explanation in the program booklet, the only story my imagination could impose on the action was that of the story of an immigrant’s life: the performers “arrived” on stage pushing and pulling an unidentified burden onto the “stage” area (this is revealed by the dawning light to be a piano) and they appear to live, struggle, and play (one particular image seared into my memory of the performance was of the performers playing piggyback with one another, their laughter ringing in the slightly misty, slightly hazy dawn air) – all the while gasping, it seems, for breath (or for space) - before finally turning their eyes to death. As a requiem is played, live, on the piano by one of the performers, the other 5 circle an imaginary grave throwing dirt that they had picked off the ground (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), before a girl coming by on a bicycle and playing an old Chinese song inspires them to throw off their clothing and to run, skipping and leaping, into the distance.

Dawn, for me, raised more questions that it answered at first. Who were these 6 performers supposed to be? Did they represent the living or the dead? And what, if anything, did their actions in the growing early morning light actually mean?

Those questions were rather unexpectedly and neatly answered during the second half of the show, Dusk, which I caught the same day at 8pm in the SOTA Theatre Studio.

Dusk is ostensibly a piece of verbatim theatre. Written by Jean Tay, it is built around a selection of quotes taken directly from interviews with various stakeholders in what the play terms the “Battle for Bukit Brown” which took place in 2012. These stakeholders included heritage activists, environmentalists, representatives from NGOs such as SOS Bukit Brown, tomb keepers, descendants of those still buried in the cemetery and even the then-Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin – whom, I am afraid, does not come off in this play very well.

Bearing the sole responsibility of presenting the government’s point of view, Tan tries to use the interviews to come across as sympathetic with the activists’ points of view – reiterating again and again that he, too, personally appreciates the heritage and natural environment of Bukit Brown (and even goes running there in the mornings). The production, though, makes its skepticism of Tan’s (and the government’s) position clear. Having illustrated (through the clear narrative of events presented by the representatives from the various groups) how meetings and consultations that were promised between the government and NGOs were never held and how outraged the groups felt when the government subsequently issued statements purporting to have taken the groups’ views into account and making supposed “concessions” that were never asked for, there was a collective snort on the part of the audience when Tan claimed to have felt “betrayed” when the Heritage Society of Singapore issued their own statement indicating that they had played no part in the decision-making and were calling for a full moratorium on all future construction in Bukit Brown. The actress portraying Tan (Josephine Tan) also spends a considerable amount of the play doing shuttle runs across the stage. It is an apt metaphor (particularly with respect to Tan – our now famed “running Minister”) to illustrate his persistent shuttling between hardline and sympathetic positions, but it also had the effect of making that shuttling appear frantic, inept and erratic – to be borne out of reacting to events rather than actually taking a firm lead on them.

However, as sympathetic as Dusk is to the civic groups’ and NGOs’ positions, it also seeks to place the acquisition and loss of Bukit Brown in a broader historical context. During the play, quotes from old newspaper articles dating back to the 1910s and 20s would occasionally flash up on a screen situated between the audience, which was seated on two sides of the SOTA Theatre Studio. These quotes tell the story of how Bukit Brown came to be the municipal cemetery that it is – through the compulsory acquisition of land from the Ong clan (who were not willing to sell their clan-owned burial grounds). The clan’s wishes were ignored and the municipal government went head to acquire the land anyway. There was also talk in the equivalent of forum letters to the papers back then of how homes should be built on the high cemetery ground so that the living would not have to continue living in the surrounding marshy/swampy lower ground surrounding it. In interspersing her play with these old articles and quotes, Tay illustrates how acquisition without consultation or heeding the wishes of stakeholders, and the battle between the living and the dead for “living space” has been going on for a long time. The PAP government is certainly not the only government (in Singapore – and probably certainly not in the world) guilty of making such choices.

As a piece of verbatim theatre, Dusk is punchy, powerful and I think will stand the test of time as a piece of work that will bear repeat performances (more so, I think, than that other recent famous piece of verbatim Singapore theatre, Alfian Sa’at’s Cooling Off Day, which especially now in 2015, seems dated and almost unreal). But this particular production of it sees the verbatim theatre being placed within a broader piece of physical theatre and it was only after watching Dusk in the evening that I realized that the performance which I had seen in the morning actually did have a story behind it: the story of the Battle for Bukit Brown.

This realization gradually dawned when the 6 performers who had been in the cemetery that morning joined the 3 actors (Timothy Nga, Jospehine Tan and Karen Tan) tasked with delivering Tay’s script on stage. Dressed now in ordinary civilian clothes (instead of the all white they had been in during Dawn), one could see how they performed in reaction to and in tandem with the script: how every time the NGOs lost a stage of their battle to preserve Bukit Brown to the government, one of the actors would collapse to the ground as if he or she had been slain; how when an interviewee told the story of his/her life as a child living near Bukit Brown and how he/she used to play in the jungle, the performers began to laugh, giggle and play piggyback (a scene which stuck with me from the morning performance); and how, when an old grandmother who had buried her father in Bukit Brown spoke of how she personally had to exhume his grave (so that it could be done “properly”, accordingly to Taoist belief, at night) and had to carry his bones to Mandai to inter, one of the performers is picked up by the others and carried, on his back and above their heads, across the stage. The morning’s performance, I gradually realized, was an exact mirror of the evening’s performance – which, itself, was an enactment of the story being told by Tay’s piece of verbatim theatre. The performance brings the story told by Dusk to life; and with Dawn, director Kok Heng Leun – in one of the most meaningful theatrical gestures I have ever seen – then takes that story into the cemetery itself, returning the story of the attempts to save the cemetery (which had all taken place “outside”) back to the site, and back to Bukit Brown itself. Once I realized that this was what they were doing, I could not help but be terribly moved by it.

There were other aspects to the staging of Dawn and Dusk that I particularly enjoyed. In Dusk, the action took place on a stage floor that had been chalked with a map of the paths and roads of Bukit Brown. The device served as a metaphor on more than one level: it meant that the Battle for Bukit Brown was being fought, on one level at least, on the ground of Bukit Brown itself; but the more interesting effect came out of the fact that the map was drawn in chalk. As the actors walked over and moved across the stage, the chalk marks were gradually obliterated and erased so that by the end, much of the ground was simply a blurry mess – rather like the list of grave numbers and names that were projected on the screen at the end of the play. That list scrolled through the names slowly at first – and then more and more quickly until it blurred into what seemed like a solid wall made out of names and numbers. That same idea of creating a solid wall out of a blur of things was then rendered aural with music by The Observatory, a local experimental electronica band, who capped off the play with their trademark layers and textures of sound that gradually builds into a solid aural assault on the senses. It struck me as fitting that one of the adjectives I’ve heard being used to describe The Observatory’s sound has been “atmospheric” – and that is one word I would have used to describe the morning’s performance of Dawn as well. It was all about the atmosphere.

One final point I would make is about a song that is hummed (and at one point, gently sung) mostly during the Dawn performance but also on one occasion during Dusk as well. The song is an old Chinese song about visiting one’s grandmother (I cannot, for the life of me, remember its title) and for me at least, the song possessed that haunting edge of the half-familiar: I was certain I was familiar with the tune and the words but even when it was finally sung, I could not quite place or remember it. That haunting edge seemed a suitable feeling to have in a play that is as much about remembering and learning the importance of preserving our heritage. For as some of the civic group representatives featured in Dusk pointed out: many Singaporeans don’t even know about Bukit Brown – and some had, even in spite of the publicity accorded to it during the battle to preserve the site, only half-heard of it. But just as with an old song half-heard being hummed or played on the radio – once heard, it helps stimulate a yearning to know and a yearning to remember. And if there is one thing that It Won’t Be Very Long – The Cemetery does, it is to preserve in verbatim and theatrical form a piece of Singapore’s history and heritage that will hopefully continue to be remembered and to awaken Singaporeans’ interest in their past and their heritage for many years to come.

Creative Team:

Director: Kok Heng Leun
Movement Director: Koh Wan Ching
Playwright: Jean Tay
Dramaturge: Charlene Rajendran
Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen
Set Designer: Wong Chee Wai
Musicians: The Observatory


Movement Performers: Chang Ting Wei, Chng Xin Xuan, Benedict Hew, Leong Jian Hao, Mohamad Al-Matin Bin Mohamad Yatim, Muhammad Yazid Bin Abdul Jalil

Verbatim Actors: Timothy Nga, Josephine Tan, Karen Tan

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 - Six Characters In Search of An Author

I have to admit, before entering the theatre tonight, I knew nothing of this play apart from the fact that it was by Pirandello and that it is considered to be a classic work of post-modernist/existentialist theatre. But my word, what is a play it is – and how incredibly dense and demanding of its audience. All throughout the evening, I had a sense that there were layers upon layers of meaning, symbolism and significance in the play that I was barely registering – let alone comprehending: for instance, when one of the six characters accuses the actor portraying him as merely superficially copying him but failing to be him and you realize that this is being said by an actor who is at that moment being a character, it strikes home exactly how “meta” this whole play is. It is “meta” all the way down and if one chooses to follow the “meta”-rabbit all the way down the rabbit-hole (and beyond the first few superficial layers of the play) one has to wonder if one will emerge on the other side intact.

The plot of Six Characters is pretty simply summarized by its title. Six characters who have been dreamed up and given life by their author have been unable to convince him to write the tragedy that he has (in dreaming and conceiving of their characters) imbued in their very existence. Having given up on this unnamed author, they go in search of another who might wish to commit their tragedy to script and they light upon a rather controlling and supercilious Director and his band of no-so-merry actors instead. However, as the characters proceed to play out their tragedy - ostensibly for the purpose of allowing the Director to commit the action to paper - reality and fiction begin to blend and the tragedy becomes all too real as a real suicide takes place on stage and a little girl is really drowned in an imaginary pond. Throughout the play, too, a debate is raging between reality and fiction: who is more real, the characters or the Director and his actors – whom we know nothing about and are even more cardboard-like and archetypal to us than the six characters (whose stories we are told in great detail and thus come to know well)? And what is the nature of theatre? Is a tragedy that takes place on stage night after night any less real than one that takes place in real life - or it is a single tragic moment made immortal, that comes true night after night, each moment that it is played?

This particular production of Six Characters could be hard to follow on account of the density of Pirandello’s script, the intellectual effort required to keep up with all these heavily-weighted statements being throw out one after the other, and the fact that the entire play was in French. Not that I had any issue with it being in French per se (indeed, I have difficulty imagining it as an Italian play – the whole feel of the play is so… French); however, it was hard having to constantly switch my attention between the action on stage and the surtitles by the side without running the risk of missing things. As it was, I certainly missed some of the little theatrical tricks and quirks being played in the beginning when things like a sheaf of paper went flying through the air in an artistic arc and I only caught a quick view of its final movements because I had been busy reading the surtitles and was only alerted to switch my glance as a result of the surprised gasps of the audience around me.

This was a production, though, that was beautifully stage and acted. Standout performances included that of Hugues Quester in the role of the Father, Valérie Dashwood in the role of the Step-Daughter, and Alain Libolt as le Directeur – though mention should also be made of the cast of “Actors”, who were truly hilarious in their comedic portrayal of very, very bad over-acting. But it was the set that stuck in one’s mind as truly luscious – featuring a movable raised stage platform that shifted positions, from left to right, as we moved from Act to Act, from beginning to end. The Director’s chair and table was set on a platform that extended into the audience, rendering physical the classic Pirandellian move of breaking the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. Situated as he was, out in the audience, the Director was able to turn to us with conspiratorial asides – asking with his face and with his words things like “Ridiculous?” and “Really?”

Then, there were the visual tableaux employed in the play’s staging, which were nothing short of stunning. My particular favourite was that employed in the last scene, which was set in a rehearsal space that attempts to conjure up the setting of a garden with a pond. Upon the Director’s summons, a stage bar from which trees, leaves and branches are hanging is lowered from above-stage; he summons a blue sky and a white screen is lowered into position as a backdrop; he instructs the electrician to bring up a Martian-like blue light and the warm lighting on stage switches to blue while another series of spotlights shining almost directly into the audience is lowered until it is hidden just behind the tree line. Suddenly, the stage is transformed. Instead of looking warm, it is dramatic and portentous – a setting fit for the drama and ultimately, the tragedy that is about to be played out by the six characters on the stage. But there are other visuals that left a huge impression as well. In particular, there was the use of shadows and shadow play: first, in the scene involving Madame Pace and the Step-Daughter with the both of them playing out their interaction together behind a screen with only their shadows visible; and second (and most memorably), in the final lingering image of the play. With the tragedy having played out to its final deadly conclusion, a white curtain fell to hide the bodies on stage. The remaining four of the six characters (who were still alive) take up their positions against the light and cast their shadows on the curtain: the Father and Mother, casting shadows larger than life on the right and left of the stage respectively; the Son, casting a slightly smaller one, raising an arm to appear to touch the shadowed finger of his Mother. And finally, the life-sized shadow of the Step-Daughter, who reaches out at first to touch the Father, but then spins around and emerges from under the curtain to reveal that she is no mere shadow but real, and laughing in our faces at the tragedy that has been wrought and which she has embraced wholeheartedly as her destiny to see lived and played out. Her eerie, crazed laughter is one that will continue to ring the heads of those who watched the play for a long time to come.

A final, general, thought that struck me after watching this production of Six Characters was that this year’s SIFA theme (“POST-Empires”) is one that is not merely being addressed by the content of the plays being brought in but by the very nationalities of the production companies coming in as well. From the Hungarian Proton Theatre’s Dementia to this French Six Characters, it is notable that the plays and productions coming in as part of this year’s SIFA are decidedly not from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of theatre at all. There is a very noticeable absence of anything from our former colonial masters (the UK) or our fellow colonies this year, and I have to say that I am appreciating the diversity of productions that this is exposing us to – even if the selection is still slightly Euro-centric. It would be interesting if, in future, we could see more productions from other, lesser known theatre companies and countries as part of SIFA’s offerings. It would certainly serve to put the “International” in the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Creative Team:

Translation & Adaptation by: François Regnault
Director: Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
Assistant Director: Christophe Lemaire
Set & Lighting Designer: Yves Collet
Music: Jefferson Lembeye
Costumes: Corrine Baudelot
Make-Up: Catherine Nicolas


Hugues Quester, Valérie Dashwood, Sarah Karbasnikoff, Stéphane Krähenbühl, Walter N’guyen, Chloe Bonnassies, Céline Carrère, Alain Libolt, Charles-Roger Bour, Sandra Faure, Olivier Le Borgne, Gaëlle Guillou, Gérald Maillet, Pascal Vuillemot, Jauris Casanova

Friday, 11 September 2015

Globe to Globe Hamlet

IIt is often asserted that Shakespeare’s plays capture universal emotions and timeless truths; and this claim is probably more often made of Hamlet than of any other of the Bard’s plays. But this is probably really only the first time that the supposed universality of Hamlet is being put to the utter test, with the Globe’s decision (in celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday) to bring a single production of the Danish Prince’s tragedy (with a single cast of 12 and 4 stage managers) to 205 countries over the course of 2 years. This is probably the first time ever that a single production will have the chance of being seen by nearly everyone around the world – the first, possibly truly, universally-shared theatrical experience in all human history. The sheer scale, ambition and poignancy of such a project is, in and of itself, worthy of much applause.

However, it is also a curious feature of this production that even over the course of difference performances in the same country, it is possible for an audience one night to see a production that is slightly different from that seen by another audience on another night. This is because the 12-member cast change and switch between different roles – presumably in an effort to keep things fresh after performing the same play over and over again after a long period of 2 years. According to the Globe-to-Globe website, the role of Hamlet is alternated between the two lead actors Ladi Emeruwa and Naeem Hayat. A friend of mine catching the play on Tuesday saw Emeruwa in the role and came to his own views on the latter’s portrayal of the Prince; the Straits Times’ Corrie Tan caught Naeem Hayat in the role and saw in him the Dane as the “nerdy know-it-all - a smart but sheltered public schoolboy”. Unusually, however, on the night that I saw the show, the lead role was being played by Matthew Romain instead – an actor who according to the production website, usually alternates between the roles of Horatio/Rosencrantz and Laertes/Guildenstern. I could not be sure whether Romain was stepping in for one of the leads as an understudy or whether this was an attempt to experiment staging the play with a totally different lead to try (as mentioned above) to keep things fresh. It did mean, though, that the show that I saw was definitely very different from those seen by Corrie and my friend – even though it was, technically, the exact same production.

As Hamlet, Romain was competent and endearing to a certain extent, but he could not convincingly capture the multitude of contradictions and dispositions that make up the character. Romain’s Hamlet is at his best during his first soliloquy decrying his mother’s over-hasty marriage to his uncle, and subsequently again when portraying the Prince’s disbelief and disgust during the confrontation in Gertrude’s (Miranda Foster’s) closet during which Polonius is slain. He also does very well in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene with Ophelia (Phoebe Fildes). His first utterance of the famous phrase was clearly delivered from what came across as a desire to protect Ophelia from the evils of what he sees as Denmark/the world around him and he even makes an unsuccessful move to kiss her which is interrupted by an indiscreet cough from the hidden (and eavesdropping) Polonius (Keith Bartlett). It is only upon realizing that Ophelia has allowed herself to be used to spy on him, that he suddenly and frighteningly turns on her, spitting out the words (“To a nunnery, go, and quickly too”) in spite, anger and hurt. It is definitely one of the clearest and most believable progressions through that scene that I have ever seen portrayed on stage.

However, Romain’s relatively straightforward and sincere portrayal of the Prince also meant that we were none the wiser about why Hamlet spends an entire play prevaricating instead of taking action to avenge his father’s murder. There is also little (to no) difference between his Hamlet of the first half of the play (before the Prince is sent into England) and his Hamlet of the second half and we do not see the internal journey that the character makes in order to arrive at the immortally zen lines: “If it be now/'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be/now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the/readiness is all”. Another point of note is how Romain basically ran away from his “To be or not to be” soliloquy: he suddenly leapt from the back to the front of the stage and rushed into the lines with no ceremony, no weight and no expectations. Simply put, he got it over and done with. And while that it one way out of the problems posed by audience expectations of that speech, a solution that avoids rather than confronts the problem it poses is not generally one that I would applaud (even if I understood the choice made). One cannot be too unkind, though, about Romain’s performance – as he is not one of the regular Hamlets in this production, who knows how often he’s had a chance to step into the role?

Other cast differences between the production my friend caught on Tuesday and the one I saw on Friday evening included different Ophelias (my friend saw Jennifer Leong in the role, while I saw Fildes) and different Poloniuses and Claudiuses (on Tuesday, it was Keith Bartlett playing Claudius and John Dougall playing Polonius, but in the performance I saw, the roles had been reversed). The changes, as far as I could see, made for very different audience experiences – for while I could definitely envisage Dougall as a pretty decent Polonius, he had a strange delivery style that saw him rushing (and I mean rushing – there were times I thought he was auditioning for the role of Mouth in Beckett’s Not I) through his lines in a monotone and suddenly shouting those lines he had judged necessary for the audience to actually hear on account of the fact that they contained important plot points. This whole “Plot point here! Listen to this!” approach made him: (a) impossible to follow, and (b) very grating to listen to. As a result, he made for a terrible Claudius and was far and away the weakest link in the cast that I saw. In contrast, Bartlett‘s was the most entertaining performance of the night (a fact that held true even when he doubled up as the gravedigger). Indeed, it was almost difficult to take his Polonius seriously (and one had to wonder why Claudius retained such an old fool’s services in court), given how outrageously comically Bartlett portrayed the old man. That fact would have been problematic in any other production; but in one as high octane and fast-moving as this production it seemed to serve the necessary purpose of pulling the laughs and keeping the audience interested and paying attention (something Dougall’s delivery was threatening at all times to completely detract from).

Turning, however, to what I did like about this production: it featured what I believe is the best play-within-a-play that I have seen. All through the production, there is a sense that after 130 countries and 16 months of playing the same play over and over, the cast is possibly getting a little jaded and are starting to go through the motions instead of playing every night as if it was a new or their first performance. But in the opening dumbshow and the opening scene of The Mousetrap, one gets a sense that the cast finally get to play and their enjoyment and energy suddenly comes shining through: a prop that (accidentally?) falls apart on stage is regarded with sufficient dumbfounded pause to be comical and raise a laugh from the audience; the sleeping “Duke” is fanned in his sleep by cackling subordinates who, when the “Duke’s” brother is threatening to pour the poison into the “Duke’s” ear, “curse” the poison with their spit and farts. The show also suddenly gains a burst of energy as a result of the rapid-fire changes of costume and props required to have the same actors play both the Players and the main characters of Hamlet. A curtain drawn across the stage while Hamlet and Ophelia exchange dialogue is the only time given to the actors to get changed and switch roles and positions and the energy generated by the rapidity of action necessary is palpable. In short, the play-within-a-play was so overplayed, so over the top, so energetic and so obviously hammed up, that it was by far the best moment of the entire production and deservedly had the audience laughing themselves into stitches.

A few final words about the production as a whole: the publicity materials for this show take pains to place this production in the age-old tradition of the travelling or touring production. You could see that manifested in the set itself – just a simple wooden platform mounted on top of the Capitol Theatre stage framed by screens at the back and with a red curtain on a wire in front that could be drawn across at any given time to allow actors to rapidly change costumes or to hide behind when eavesdropping on one another. It is a set that seems to travel back in time and brings to mind the kind of productions that must have been played by touring companies in village squares and city centres. In the tradition of the Globe, too, the production unabashedly incorporates music and dance to assist in the changes between scenes. I was particularly touched by the very last dance of the play, wherein the dead Ophelia comes on stage to “wake” the dead characters on stage – fulfilling, in a way, Laertes’ (Tom Lawrence) prediction that his sister would “a ministering angel… be”. Watching this production, I found myself harkening to Polonius’ words and thinking them an apt characterization of what this particular production could be summarized as: a “pastoral-comical/historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-/comical-historical-pastoral” play for modern audiences around the world. I also rather liked the fact that they kept the house lights up in an attempt to mimic elements of the Globe Theatre in London (which would have seen the play played under the open air). In some ways, I wish this production could have been staged in the main square of the Capitol Building instead of in the Theatre. It would have been a far more fitting space for a production this pared down, basic and democratic/populist in its ambitions.

All in all, I would say that the Globe-to-Globe’s Hamlet is not merely competent. Fundamentally, it has its heart in the right place, and in a day and age where stagings of Hamlet are increasingly about star casting and expensive, complicated sets filled with bells and whistles (see Lyndsey Turner’s Barbican production starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a prime example), it proves that you can do Hamlet with just the basics: a few boxes, a curtain on a wire and a stage backed by wooden frames and screens. Even with just that, you can make a production that still manages to capture some part of the heart of the Danish Prince’s great tragedy.

Creative Team:



Keith Bartlett, John Dougall, Ladi Emeruwa, Beruce Khan, Tom Lawrence, Jennifer Leong, Phoebe Fildes, Miranda Foster, Naeem Hayat, Rawiri Paratene, Matthew Romain, Amanda Wilkin

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 - Hotel

W!ld Rice’s Hotel is the latest in a series of theatrical productions spinning tales of Singapore’s history to commemorate the country’s Golden Jubilee. Where Hotel exceeds (and indeed, surpasses) the preceding offerings is in its scope (told over 100 years of Singapore’s history as opposed to only the two decades – the 1950s and 1960s – that saw Singapore merging and then separating from Malaysia) and its sheer variety. Instead of presenting audiences with the same old tired and overplayed “From Third World to First” narrative peopled by the same predictable characters, Hotel uncovers and reveals a Singapore that is characterized by enormous (almost kaleidoscopic) diversity in its influences, languages and experiences. Featuring a bewildering array of languages (Urdu, Cantonese, Malay, Tamil, Japanese, Mandarin), the play forces us to confront the questions that truly matter to us as a nation facing our 50th year of independence: where did we come from? And who are we now?

The play’s central conceit is that all of its action is set in the same room of the same (Raffles, it is strongly implied) hotel. It opens in 1915 in the honeymoon suite of Henry and Margaret Comber (played by Ben Cutler and Julie Wee), a British plantation owner and his newly wedded Eurasian wife; and it closes in 2015, in the room of cancer-stricken Henry Yao (Lim Kay Siu) – a wealthy long-term guest of the hotel who, lacking any other home to die in, has chosen (along with his wife Margaret, played by Neo Swee Lin) to live out his last days in the comfort of and limited familiarity of the hotel suite he once spent his wedding night in many years before. In the intervening years, represented by scenes/vignettes set a decade apart, we see the room being used in a myriad other ways: to conduct a séance; as quarters for officers of the Japanese occupying forces; as a venue for lovers’ trysts; as bridal suite; but more often than not as a hotel room with guests that come, go, and sometimes return to realize how little (and how much) about Singapore has changed.

There is something in this play to please just about everyone: a spirited critique of the cruelty of British colonialists towards the “natives” of Southeast Asia (set in the context of the 1915 Indian Sepoy Mutiny); a comedic circus of English-Malay-Cantonese (mis)translation that reveals the tragic (and hitherto little-explored) exploitation of young Chinese girls sold from their villages in China to a lifetime of slavery and servitude in Southeast Asia; a séance scene that lobs an unexpected barb at the overweening confidence of the Western liberal/secular mindset and compares it to British arrogance over Singapore’s impregnability; and, most memorably, a hilarious song-and-dance routine set in 1955 involving P. Ramlee (Ghafir Akbar), his producer and mentor Mr Shaw (Lim Kay Siu) and a mysterious fan from Penang called Azizah (Siti Khalijah). The latter is somewhat upstaged in outrageousness by random angels and dancing penises on stage (a la Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys) during a Bugis transgender/transvestite’s LSD-induced hallucinations in 1975, but lacks the same warmth of feeling generated by the earlier vignette. And there are moments when we enter Cloud Atlas territory, as we note that the couples opening and closing the play share the same first names, and see a necklace presented by Julie Wee in her character as Margaret Comber to an Indian servant being “returned” to the same actress playing a different character 80 years later. This is a play that offers something of everything – comedy and tragedy, realism and surrealism, fierce, unstinting rhetoric and more nuanced meditative musings. In doing so, it turns an unstinting and masterful eye on questions of “fit”, change, loss and the immutable and mutable aspects of Singaporean identity over the years.

Change: this is the central idea confronted by the play from the get-go. In Hotel: Part 1, the hotel and stage is peopled by staff wearing the same unchanging uniforms (think French maid – black dresses, white aprons and headpieces) from 1915 to 1965. This, despite the fact that those were the years in which Singapore saw the most change as it moved from being a part of the Straits Settlement to a Crown Colony, to being Japanese, Malaysian and finally, an independent Singapore – a point made by an old doorman in the 1965 scene as he gave instructions to the young Chinese man helping to change the flag hanging outside the hotel on how to treat national flags with respect. Yet the play conveys a sense of how during those tumultuous years, very little actually changed about the soul of Singapore and Singaporeans. They continued to speak a shared language (Bahasa Melayu), continued to live and work alongside one another in harmony, and continued – in the parlance of the hotel staff – to change the sheets, change the towels, while the hotel itself remained essentially the same.

The same cannot be said of Hotel: Part 2. From the moment that Part 2 opens, it becomes obvious that something has changed – from the kinds of sheets on the bed, to the uniforms worn by the hotel staff (which resemble the buttoned-up mandarin-collared uniforms favoured by multinational hotel chains these days). This subtle and superficial change hints at something deeper: a shift in the very psyche of the Singaporean identity as the play explores not cohesion (as Part 1 did) but the idea of alienation – alienation from oneself (there can be no greater combination of “alienated” characteristics than being a Eurasian transgender who has yet to undergo surgery and who has been disowned by one’s family), from one’s flesh and blood (in 1985, a Japanese businessman born during the final year of Singapore’s occupation under the Japanese returns to Singapore in search of his Malay mother only to be told that she will never speak to him again), between the races (in 1995, a wedding between an Indian groom and his Chinese bride takes a nasty turn when her very traditionally-minded mother learns that her daughter intends to wear a saree instead of a cheongsam for her second entrance to the wedding dinner – and it is notable how the surtitles, which were operating fine until this scene, suddenly disappeared to underscore the linguistic gulf between the races), from authority (in 2005, a Malay businessman and his mother arriving to stay in the Raffles Hotel during an international security conference find themselves suspected of, humiliated and treated as terrorists), and finally in the last scene, from Singapore itself.

It is the last scene that, in particular for me, provoked and provided food for thought. As Henry Yao lies dying, a parade of hotel staff to receive his gratitude reveals not a single Singaporean working in the hotel. The longest-serving member of staff and most “Singaporean”-sounding person turns out to be Malaysian and responds to Yao’s plea that Singapore and Malaysia are “not so different” and “mostly the same” with the sobering and sad response that we’re only “a little” the same. The script mercilessly underscores our country’s and our people’s aloneness (and not the more positively-spun “uniqueness”) in the world. And in turning to the reason why Yao has chosen to die in a hotel rather than in a hospital, Yao tell us of how he lost his own home to an en bloc sale and, lacking anywhere else to go, has chosen to die in the same room that he spent his wedding night in – despite the fact that nothing about the room has remained the same. The furniture has changed many times over, the staff is not the same, but it remains the same square space and as such, to his mind, it still is more like home than anywhere else. The analogy with Singapore is clear and the question Sa’at and Vanderstraaten poses is too: is this all? Is having the same space but nothing recognizable in it enough for a place to count as “home”? If the answer is yes, then what a hollow and heartbreaking answer it would be indeed – as hollow, heartbreaking and defeatist as the attitude that Henry Yao holds at the end of his life (“I want to die surrounded by temporary things… because we are all temporary things. We are all visitors…”). It is clear that Yao has given in to feelings of alienation and despair; and if all Singaporeans were to hold that same attitude then we would truly be doomed as a nation.

The script is not entirely perfect. Some scenes are definitely better than others. Some are a little flat or too heavy-handed: the 2005 Muslim victimization scene, for example, came across as a bit strong. But these can be forgiven in the broader context of the whole play, which provides such a refreshing alternative and more honest take on Singapore’s history that it seems ungenerous to quibble with individual scenes. The direction and casting, too, was admirable. It is a wonderful ensemble and one that leaves none of its members when it comes to according them the limelight: every member of the cast is given their moment to shine (mention must be made of Jo Kukathas, who even as a supposedly minor character steals the show in the P. Ramlee scene, and of Moo Siew Keh’s amazingly fluent Japanese delivery in both the 1945 and 1985 scenes) and there is not a single weak performance from any of them. Applause should also be given for the cast’s dedication and skill: it could not have been easy for all of them to have learn to deliver their scripts in languages that many of them were probably not fluent in (Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu speaking in Japanese! It has to be seen to be believed).

It is also a rare thing for me to applaud W!ld Rice for directorial restraint, but Glenn Goei and Ivan Heng did show some in their direction of this production. There was only one really indulgent gesture on their part and this was the wheeling of Ben Cutler (dressed as Stamford Raffles) out the hotel room door (and out of Singapore) to mark Singapore’s merger with Malaysia and our independence from the British Crown in a moment of surreal transition-between-the-scenes cheek. I particularly liked the way in which the famous video of LKY crying over the separation of Singapore from Malaysia was not shown but heard on a television with its back to the audience and playing to the hotel staff. What we (the audience) ended up seeing instead was the staff’s reactions – the reactions, in short, of ordinary Singaporeans who lived through those tumultuous times and who would innocently ask “Eh, is he crying?” without the weight of “meaning” that has been imparted to that moment by the last 50 years of our history.

One point that I would make is that Hotel: Part 2 is incapable of standing alone. Some of the scenes – in particular the reunion between the Japanese businessman and his mother in 1985 – would lose most of their emotional power if one had not seen the earlier scene from 1945 and realized what pain and hurt the mother suffered in being left behind and forbidden to join her child in Japan. Opening Part 2 on the surreal note of the Bugis transgender/transvestite’s drug-induced hallucinations is also less than ideal as the note of surrealism that it introduces would work better following on from a more realistic and serious scene – much in the same way that the song and dance of the P. Ramlee 1955 scene was delightful precisely because it was an unexpected departure from the till-then unrelenting realism of the preceding scenes. Audiences who balk at the idea of spending nearly a total of 5 hours in the theatre could possibly consider seeing Hotel: Part 1 as a standalone play telling the story up to Singapore’s independence, but they would lose the opportunity to see the relatively less-told story of what Singapore has become since 1965 – an opportunity which is valuable in and of itself because the crisis of alienation and national identity has long roots (stretching far beyond 1965) and should be confronted in its entirety.

The long and short of it, therefore, is that Hotel is the state-of-the-nation play that Singapore desperately needs and deserves as we look back on 50 (and in truth far many more years) of our history and take stock of where we have come from and where we are headed. It is a play that attempts to reflect the heart, soul and mood of the nation as it imagines it was back then and sees right now; and, it observes and points out what may be unpalatable truths to some – but which speak true for many others. Having suffered this year through the tired and overplayed Social Studies textbook-friendly narratives of Singapura: The Musical and LKY: The Musical, I was beginning to suffer from Singapore Story fatigue and had despaired of ever seeing something that could truly capture the mood of the nation and reflect the time and place that we find ourselves in at this crucial point in our country’s history. Thanks to W!ld Rice and Hotel, however, that despair has proved unwarranted and I have never been so pleased to be proven wrong in my life.

W!ld Rice has indicated that they will be reviving this play next year for a full run. Go and see it. You will not regret having done so.

Creative Team

Directors: Ivan Heng & Glen Goei
Playwrights: Alfian Sa’at & Marcia Vanderstraaten
Set Designer: Wong Chee Wai
Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen
Sound Designer: The Gunnery
Multimedia Designer: Brian Gothong Tan
Costume Designer: Theresa Chan
Movement Coach: Ben Cutler
Hair Designer: Ashley Lim
Make-Up Designer: The Make Up Room
Translator & Language Coach (Cantonese0: Hung Chit Wah & Moo Siew Keh
Translator & Language Coach (Japanese): Kan Takiguchi & Hiroko Takiguchi


Ben Cutler, Brendon Fernandez, Ghafir Akbar, Sharda Harrison, Jo Kukathas, Dwayne Lau, Lim Kay Siu, Moo Siew Keh, Neo Swee Lin, Pam Oei, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Julie Wee & Yap Yi Kai

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 - Versus

If Proton Theatre’s Dementia last week seemed only tenuously linked to the SIFA theme of Post-Empires, this week’s offering by Natalie Hennedige and Cake Theatrical Productions confronted the idea right at its outset, with a liturgy of all the empires that have come and gone over the course of human history: Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, through to the French, German, British et al.

With that, Versus launches into what must be one of the most bizarre attempts to tell the epic story of human experience, history and struggle from beginning to end – from Creation (quite literally, since in the middle of the play we are brought back to “Genesis” in the Bible – albeit one in which the snake from the Garden of Eden coexists with dinosaurs and sabre toothed tigers) to (self) Destruction. There is no overarching narrative and only the semblance of a structure imposed by the bookends of beginning and end. Themes are raised, thrown away, and returned to again and again. The Director’s Note in the program booklet claims that the story contains in it:
… birth/life/mission/leadership/violent dictatorship/hypocrisy of the elite/rebellion/fear and suffering/emergence of brave new thought/acts and ways of being/incarceration/torture/death/renewal and hope.
And if that seems like a lot, it is.

These themes are explored by way of character archetypes. We are presented with a rebel/idealist, a mother/protector, a authority/Snake/Pontius Pilate figure, and even a Cleopatra/Empress Dowager figure (whose other elements I had difficulty pinning down). With such archetypes in play on stage the temptation is to see Versus as being solely about the rise and fall of empires and the never-ending struggle between freedom and power. There are some moments when it is explicitly that: for example, in one scene there is an explicit poke at the upcoming elections in Singapore featuring some not-so-subtle vote buying by the authority/Snake/Pontius Pilate figure; in another, the rebel/idealist is tortured by the same authority/Snake/Pontius Pilate figure and asked to denounce his homosexual lover and love. But the lines that Michelle Tan’s text keeps returning to again and again have nothing to do with the struggle for or against power:
“Your sorrow isn’t unique.”
“That doesn’t make it any less heavy to bear.”
Instead, they indicate that the truly endless human struggle is with and within our own selves: between our very real sense of despair and capacity for hope. Man versus himself. A never-ending existential crisis played out on the canvas of existence and interrupted (as the text itself points out at one point) only by death.

I have to admit, I felt torn by the show. This was my first time catching a Cake Theatrical Productions show, and I had been warned that their style was rather “unique”. As it was, I agree that their visual aesthetic (strobe lights! Videos! Dance! Song! Industrial/grunge-style angels leaping about the stage! Naked baby dolls impaled on spinning wooden poles!) is definitely like nothing else I have ever seen from a Singapore production company and certainly very arresting. And what really impressed me was the quality of performance. Tan’s text is riddled with clichés and platitudes. The lines I quoted above illustrate this point clearly: they are nothing new and have been said a million and one times before. Yet the quality of the actors’ performances was that despite the words they were saying and despite the highly abstract, surreal and unrealistic environment they were being asked to say them in, they were able to transcend the words to find the impact of them and make them seem fresh, new, and true once more. Words such as
“Some days are harder than others.”
“All days come to an end.”
were able to hit me as a listener in the core of my being because it felt like they were being spoken from the actors’ own cores. The cast really has to be credited for the massive effort they put into the work and the very impressive performance that they delivered. Special mention should also be made of Edith Podesta, who was particularly touching, funny, believable and magnificent in her role as the flighty schizophrenic/woman/bird-brained pterodactyl archetype.
Of all the cast it was she who inhabited the unnatural and rather demented space of the production with the most ease and effortlessness. As a result it was impossible to tear one’s eyes off her performance.

But, even as I registered the strength of the performances and Cake’s “unique” visual style, a part of me still found it impossible to be swept away by the production and the emotions it generated. Instead, that part of me registered how I felt that I was being repeatedly bludgeoned with the same ideas, the same words, and the same imagery over and over again (something possibly not helped when this atheist audience member found herself confronted repeatedly by liberal helpings of Christian imagery and language - so much so that at one point an actual Christ figure is wheeled out on a scaffolding, strung up to die and has her side pierced in a direct re-enactment of Longinus piercing Christ’s side with his spear. Even with my relatively high tolerance for allusions to Christianity in English literature, this seemed a little heavy-handed). And knowing, too, that the production sought to repeatedly hit me to my core with its discovered truths and wisdoms, my comment to my companion after was that at some point any relationship that consists of one party being persistently hit by another could (and possibly should) be considered abusive.


Conceived & Directed by: Natalie Hennedige
Story: Natalie Hennedige, Michelle Tan
Text: Michelle Tan
Scenic & Prop Designer: neontights
Sound Designer: Philip Tan
Projection Designer: Brian Gothon Tan
Costume & Visual Designer: David Lee
Lighting Designer: Any Lim
Mural Designer: Godwin Koay


Thomas Pang, Andrea Ang, Edith Podesta, Julius Foo, Goh Guat Kian, Rizman Putra, Kenneth Tan, Kow Xiao Jun, Bib Mockram, Alexandre Thio, Sukania Venugopal

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015 - Dementia

It’s been a while since this blog was updated, and I have to admit that a lot of it was due to sheer, simple laziness: I had grown too busy, I thought, to write reviews. And perhaps that is still the case, but with the recent closure of the Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance Reviews site that I used to be a writer for, I realized that there were few other outlets left for me to pursue theatre criticism anymore – and, more importantly, I also realized how much I missed doing this. So with this review, I bid myself “Welcome Back” and let’s see how long my good intentions last this time.


Proton Theatre’s (Hungary) Dementia is one of the offerings at this year’s Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) 2015. The theme of SIFA this year is “POST-Empires” – a phrase that brings to mind the kind of post-colonial literature and art that arose in the latter half of the 20th century. Dementia is certainly not a work that falls within that tradition; it does, however, address the broader question of how we should live in the present post-modern (or post-post-modern) world of globalized networks, neo-liberal capitalism and enormous monopolies of economic and social power.

The play’s drama is derived explicitly from a clash between the “old” and the “new” – between a small group of aging, isolated dementia patients trying to live the rest of their lives out in a dementia clinic which, they learn, is located in a building whose vacant possession a young, enterprising (if less salubrious) businessman (Bartonek played by János Szemenyei) claims he has purchased from the Hungarian state. Just four days before Christmas, he orders them to pack up and leave and receives – initially – the firm answer, “No”, from the clinic’s doctor. Who, it gradually becomes clear, is himself mentally unhinged, socially and professionally isolated and addicted to opiates.

What ensues is a demented mixture of lightness and darkness, and the surreal and the bizarre. The play mixes macabre humour with real pity and horror, song and dance with live action and live film footage (handheld cameras, Blair-witch project-style, projected on stage as the action takes place on stage); it culminates in a mass suicide on stage but will probably be best remembered for the immortal line: “You’ve got two tongues in your mouth and one of them isn’t yours.” I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard (while on the borderline between laughing and running away in horror) as I did during the scene where Dr. Szatmáry (Roland Rába) and Dóra the nurse (Annamária Láng) sewed Bartonek’s cut tongue back into his mouth while singing a cheerful tune that he then (cut tongue supposedly sewn back) joins in with a wide open-mouthed “Ahhhhhhhhhhh…”

Special mention must be made of Márton Ágh’s amazingly detailed and astonishing set, which nearly caused the audience to gasp when we realized that its two walls blocking off stage left and right were capable of folding inwards (like the front walls of a doll’s house) to form the Christmas-lit-up façade of the clinic’s building. The music too, (which coincidentally was by Szemenyei, who played Bartonek and who was clearly the most accomplished singer in the cast), was beautifully arranged and even catchy (hardly an easy task when playing to an international audience, since the entire play was in Hungarian with surtitles) at certain points. The lack of consistent surtitles during the songs was a bit of a problem, but one that could be easily solved if the theatre company wished to.

All in all, I would have to say that this was one of the most exhilarating and exciting productions I have seen this year (and well worth the wait my friends and I had to go through when the production started almost an hour late due to technical difficulties). At its heart, Dementia is a touching, real and empathetic look at the suffering caused by going mad and by being around those who are going mad. We are shown patient Lukács’ (Gergely Bánki) desperate resort to the only memory he still has (of a trip to a lake) when stressed by the need to try and remember, shown Lady Oci’s (Orsi Tóth) helplessness while strewing photographs on her bed in an attempt to recapture memories, and are reminded by Mercédesz Sápi (Lili Monori) that aggression is the only way that dementia patients are able to express the pain that they are in. We are made vaguely aware of what must have been Dr. Szatmáry’s own descent into madness over the years while trying to run and save the dementia clinic, and are made vividly aware of the nurse’s, Dóra’s, desperate loneliness when upon running into Bartonek unexpectedly in the shower room the only thing she can ask of him to let her give him a blowjob.

What ultimately makes the production amazing, though, is its daring to attribute some of that suffering to our modern-day society – which demands progress at any cost (if Bartonek’s business of remote web pornography can be described as “progressive” – but hey, it involves the internet, does it not?) and isolates (with deadly effect) those it considers unnecessary or irrelevant to capitalism’s ever-forward march – and the black humour with which it depicts society’s “rape” of the old and maladjusted. This daring acknowledgment that evil and darkness cannot be confronted without humour – lest we ourselves go insane – poses a fitting challenge to those who come to the play expected clean lines and neat answers. What they walk away with is an experience never to be forgotten and the sense of unease that comes with having been led down the rabbit hole without any guarantee that one has emerged on the other side intact.


Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Set and Costumes: Márton Ágh
Dramaturgy: Viktória Petrányi, Gábor Thury
Music: János Szemenyei
Assistant Director, Surtitles: Zsófia Csató


Bartonek: János Szemenyei
Dr. Szatmáry: Roland Rába
Dóra, Nurse: Annamária Láng
Mercédesz Sápi: Lili Monori
Henrik Holényi: Balázsn Temesvári
Lady Oci: Orsi Tóth
Lukács: Gergely Bánki
Dentist: László

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Pesta Raya 2015 - Yusof

(This review was written by me for TODAY newspaper and first published here on 17 August 2015. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on TODAYonline for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)


Director/playwright Zizi Azah bte Abdul Majid’s Yusof, presented as part of Pesta Raya, The Esplanade’s Malay festival of arts, is an intimate and refreshing look at the life of Encik Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first non-royal Yang-Di Pertuan Negara and first President on our independence in 1965.

The play jumps between different points of his life; between his time as President (opening with the celebration of Hari Raya at the Istana Melati house in 1966 and ending with his death in 1970); the days of his youth; his quarrels and interactions with his two brothers; and his struggles as the managing director of the newspaper Utusan Melayu in 1959.

As the titular character, actor Sani Hussin comes across initially as personable, if not quite commanding or charismatic enough to play the rabble-rouser who made grand public speeches to drum up monetary support for establishing Utusan. He shines, though, in two consecutive scenes in the second half of the play: The first, when as President, he expresses his frustration and anger at having his power to grant clemency to those on death row taken away from him in a private moment with his wife; and the second, when he and Tunku Abdul Rahman stage their final showdown over ownership of and the editorial direction of Utusan.

Sani’s depiction of Yusof’s outrage, frustration and disgust with himself against actor Najib Soiman’s slow, plodding but stubborn take at the Tunku makes for gripping viewing and culminates in the high dramatic point of the play, where Yusof stands by his refusal to write and publish an editorial about the Malaysian Elections Commission and finally resigns as managing director and editor of the newspaper in protest.

Versatile actress Siti Khalijah is a delight as Yusof’s wife Noor Aishah, convincingly depicting a country bumpkin who never left the shores of Penang (and who is astounded when she arrives in Singapore to find that Yusof’s house has neither electricity nor working toilets). She gradually grows into her role as First Lady and a leader of the Malay people in her own right.

Najib Soiman and Erwin Shah Ismail offer solid support, playing various roles - as Yusof’s brothers, his father as well as journalist and one of the founders of the PAP, Samad Ismail, in turn. Dalifah Shahril and Farah Ong take on multiple roles too, as members of Yusof’s extended family. But it is their comical turns as the squabbling fictional Utusan journalists that carried the most laughs of the evening.

In eschewing linear storytelling and focusing on Yusof’s personal and family life, the play is a marked departure from the productions which have focused exclusively on presenting the grand arc of Singapore’s journey, at the expense of breathing life into, and turning a nuanced eye on, the main characters populating that story.

In contrast, Zizi Azah’s portrays Yusof as a man with an education dearly bought and ambition keenly fostered by his father; a man with family, history, past, setbacks and flaws. And, while the play never quite reaches the emotional highs it aims for - first with its portrayal of the death of Yusof’s mother; and later Yusof’s own - it remains a convincing and touching portrayal of the man behind the portrait staring back at us every day when we look at the dollar bills we hold in our hands.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Singapura The Musical

(This review was written by me for TODAY newspaper and first published here on 25 May 2015. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on TODAYonline for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)


Creator and composer Ed Gatchalian’s Singapura: The Musical is two and half hours of one seemingly unrelated story tacked on to another, and — to be absolutely frank — about two hours too long. The audience is presented with a multiracial love triangle between a young Chinese girl, a British officer and a (unfortunately “friendzoned”) young Malay boy. It was an unconvincing love story tied in with an “ordinary” family’s anguish, fears and woes as they live (and die) through the turbulence of 1950s and 60s Singapore. This is further shoehorned into the larger “Singapore Story” of how this country went from Third World to First in just a space of 50 short years.

If all this seems like a lot of ground to cover in a single musical: It is. And if the question is whether Gatchalian succeeds in covering that ground in a convincing manner: The answer is, no.

It is hard to pin down exactly what makes Singapura: The Musical so difficult to connect with. For one, Gatchalian unabashedly credits the first volume of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs as the initial inspiration. The result is an overarching narrative that would not have felt out of place being taught in a school social studies lesson. There are no awkward questions asked; no new insights provided. The portrayal of events such as the Hock Lee bus riots, merger with Malaysia, Konfrontasi and the 1964 racial riots through the eyes of ordinary Singaporeans may be novel but shallow even though Gatchalian claimed to have spoken to people who had lived through those turbulent years to hear their personal stories.

Singapura: The Musical is based on real events, but never at any point feels real. Apart from the late Mr Lee (ironically never named, but referred to simply as the “Man in White”), heavyweights from Singapore’s past, such as opposition figures Lim Chin Siong and Syed Jaafar Albar, are whitewashed from the narrative entirely. And other than a single touching moment during the “Trouble (Hock Lee)” number, where the names and stories of those who lost their lives during the Hock Lee bus riots were acknowledged on stage, the musical dispenses dealing with real people, real deaths and real disagreements, preferring instead to peddle a romantic (and fantastic) view of the past as one where Chinese, Malays and Indians come together to dance at the Kopitiam and where 16 September 1965 is heralded by a sign reading “Merdeka!” floating across the stage held up by red helium balloons.

Audiences are also likely to have difficulties seeing our multiracial Singapore society in the almost entirely non-Singaporean cast. Colour-blind casting, while laudable in most other situations, strikes a discordant note in a production that purports to take us through very specific Chinese-Malay racial tensions. Just hearing the inconsistent accents from a cast that clearly had to be taught how to use “lah” and to say “kopitiam” and “gilat” only serve to remind one of how much local musical talent (both Chinese and Malay) were left out here. Could none of them have been cast in lead or supporting roles?

The production is not without any redeeming features. Director Greg Ganakas creates some impressive visual tableaux through deploying his large cast effectively against an audio-visual backdrop and creating enough action and dynamism to fill the Capitol Theatre’s impressive new Rococo-style space. Gregory Gale’s modular and multi-level set design is also impressive, if a little inefficient. On the whole, though, both the quality of acting and singing in this supposedly Broadway/West End-ready cast was patchy. During the show, I was also plagued by a chorus of “Whys” in my head. Just take the scene of the random woman walking across the stage dressed as empress dowager? What has such a woman to do with the transition in time and space from modern-day Singapore to the days when our ancestors arrived on this island seeking a new life?

Ultimately, Singapura: The Musical is not a production that strikes a familiar chord. The non-Singaporean origin of the entire project aside, it rings especially hollow as we’ve reached a state where we’re interested in and hungry for works of art that will portray our history in all its naked truth. After 50 years, we are (and should be) rapidly approaching a point when we are prepared to examine our past with an objective and critical eye. We deserve works that are willing to confront our history with bravery and with honesty. Singapura: The Musical fails to deliver on that score.