Saturday, 22 August 2015

Singapore International Festival of the 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.

Credits:

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

Cast:

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 the 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.

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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.

Credits:

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

Cast:

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.)

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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.)

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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.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Citizen Pig

(This review was written by me for the Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance Reviews and was first published here. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on The Flying Inkpot for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)

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Citizen Pig, an original play written, directed and played in Mandarin (and a few other dialects) by Oliver Chong and Liu Xiaoyi, is a smart, witty, and engaging piece on the state of our nation. While the social commentary that the play offers never quite manages to be as excoriating as its creators had presumably hoped, it still holds up an unforgiving and honest mirror to the experiences of Singapore’s inhabitants in a country that is famed for its law and order but which, on a very real and everyday basis, feels like it is failing the man on the street – whether he is a young entrepreneur struggling to get a business on its feet, or a foreign student trying to put a roof over his head.

The backgrounds of Chong’s and Liu’s characters seem wildly different at first: the first is a young entrepreneur struggling to get his design business on its feet; the second is a foreign student who is simply looking for a place to stay. But as they interweave and narrate their respective stories, what emerges is a common theme of the desperate (men in hock to loansharks) preying on other desperates (those looking for a cheap place to live) and of ineffectual justice. The police (perhaps a little unfairly at times) do not emerge well from this play at all.

Looking back, the publicity brochure for Citizen Pig might have been somewhat misleading. The brightly coloured materials promised cross-dressing! Pinafores! Colourful characters! Policemen! And even Liang Po Po! What the play delivers, however, is a stark stage with two lines of chairs gradually rearranged over the course of the play into a grid: a two-dimensional setting being given gradual depth and perspective. And two actors (dressed only in their t-shirts and jeans) telling us two distinct but similar stories – perhaps, even their stories – of petty cheats and pathetic conmen who take advantage of the weakness of others.

It is a simple production – almost too simple in its reliance on nothing but the tradition of oral storytelling (with only the change of tone, voice and action informing us of the change of characters) to convey its message. Both Chong and Liu demonstrated wonderful malleability in conveying the vast array of characters populating their story (Liu in particular, seemed to relish jumping between chairs, checking his nails and stammering as he played three of Chong’s fellow tenants during a late-night “meeting” about their rental situation). The production’s overall simplicity meant that I was taken aback by the sole “special effect” employed near the play’s end. When the audience seats began to shake and rumble to Liu’s speech about the sound and feel of passing MRT trains, I found myself wondering if the effect was intentional or if there really was a train that just happened to be passing under the National Library at that precise moment.

Yet, in spite of its simplicity, Chong and Liu’s two-hander is remarkably effective – in no small part because the stories they tell carry a ring of truth about them. When Chong's young entrepreneur bewails how ineffectual the police were in his case, or when Liu’s character muses that people claim that Singapore is a land of law and order but many actually feel it's full of conmen, you cannot help but feel the sting. From dishonest taxi drivers to ruthless landlords, the play lays bare what many of us are too privileged, or unwilling, to see: a vast underclass of lying, cheating, desperate “citizen pigs” who entangle others in the web of their own desperation. Such people get away with their crimes because they operate at the limits of the law and because both their crimes and their victims are small and marginal – such as the small two-man business trying to get off the ground and the immigrant student whose foreign status means he doesn't even fulfill the first requirement to get legal aid. Citizen Pig serves as a timely cautionary tale that, especially in Singapore, “low crime” certainly does not mean “no crime”.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Gruesome Playground Injuries

(This review was written by me for the Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance Reviews and was first published here. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on The Flying Inkpot for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)

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The year is 1983. The number one song on the US Billboards Hot 100 charts is Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen”, and 8-year-olds Kayleen (Seong Hui Xuan) and Doug (Alan Wong) meet in their school’s sickbay for the first time. She is there because her stomach is upset; he is there because he just rode his bicycle off the roof of the school and “broke his face”. As he regales her with tales of his accidents and his injuries, she responds first by calling him “stupid”, then asking if she can touch the cut on his face, and finally by picking out the gravel from the cuts in his hand.


1998. A much older and inebriated Kayleen is visiting Doug in the hospital the night before her father’s funeral, where he has lost an eye after accidentally lighting a firework which flew into his own face. The years progress and regress: 1988, 2003, 2008, 1998 again, and finally to 2013, when a wheelchair-bound, emotionally exhausted Doug rejects, then accepts, Kayleen’s desire to touch him and to rebuild the relationship they once had. As the play flits from one intersection of Doug and Kayleen’s lives to another, their childhood accidents and ailments begin to take on a darker, more dangerous, tone. Self-harm, self-destruction, and the tragic refusal to love and accept love where it is offered: these are the subjects of Ranjiv Joseph’s moving and deeply empathetic exploration of the bonds that are simultaneously built and destroyed by the experience of pain.

That exploration takes place on a stage dominated by Philip Englehart’s installation-art-inspired set. Englehart, who designed the beautiful multi-storey set complete with a light-up brain in PANGDEMONIUM!’s Next to Normal earlier this year, surpasses himself with a design that is worthy of being called a work of art. Instead of putting in walls around the raised platform stage, Englehart’s design creates walls out of items being suspended on wires on a single plane. These appear to explode out towards the audience from a single point at centre-backstage – like a fracture in space emanating from one point of time. Then, on closer inspection, one realizes that the cracks of this fracture are formed out of the very items responsible for hurting and harming the characters of the play. A bicycle, broken statues, fireworks, cigarettes, chainsaws, and ice skates: each item has either caused harm to the characters or been used to inflict harm on themselves. The result is a beautiful, striking, if disturbing visual reminder of the pain that dominates the play and each of its characters’ lives.

Seong and Wong do an excellent job of inhabiting their characters. Seong has come a long way from just over a year ago when I first saw her playing a supporting role in PANGDEMONIUM!’s Spring Awakening (2012). Kayleen’s neurotic character and Northeastern American speech patterns also seem to suit her better than the cadences demanded by the role of Olivia in SRT’s Twelfth Night (2012). Wong, too, is extremely convincing as the accident-prone Doug – perhaps because he conveys, quite (or maybe too) naturally, the necessary sense of immature recklessness that would explain why Doug never quite outgrows his childhood accidents. Watching Wong fling his long limbs carelessly across the stage, it is easy to see why disaster after disaster befalls his character – and to see why Wong himself has, apparently, fallen off the raised platform of the stage a few times in rehearsal.

Ultimately, though, it is the visual and aural aspects of this play that linger in one’s mind the longest. The set design provides the predominant imagery but it was the choice of music (a directorial addition on Tracie Pang’s part, as it does not feature in the script) played on the “radio” between scenes that – for me, at least – did the most in setting the time, place and emotional connection to the story. From Green Day’s Time of Your Life to Jason Mraz’s A Beautiful Mess to The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), Pang’s choice of music drew a straight line from the lives of these characters to my own as I found myself casting my mind back nostalgically to the years in which I heard (or was given – as in the case of Matchbox Twenty’s Unwell) those songs for the first time.

If you have ever cried listening to an old song – or watching a play, for that matter – I advise bringing a packet (or two) of tissues along. You will need them.

Gruesome Playground Injuries provides a fitting and fine end to PANGDEMONIUM!’s “Survivor”-themed trilogy of 2013. If this season is anything to go by, we have much to look forward to from this still relatively young company, which has – in this year alone – proven itself to be the equal of any of Singapore’s more established theatrical names.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Machine

(This review was written by me for the Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance Reviews and was first published here. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on The Flying Inkpot for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)

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Smart, sassy marketing freelancer Lina (Oon Shu An) and shy, compliant, Teresa Teng-listening Kim (Seong Hui Xuan) are two friends living together in a slightly too-modern, too-beautiful and too-empty apartment. One day, just as Lina is fuming over her broken computer, two travelling appliance repairmen arrive at their doorstep. Introducing themselves as Rex (Julian Low) and Heng (Eden Ang), they offer to fix the duo's washing machine ("Are you sure you can't fix PCs?" "No, afraid not"). The women accept their offer but as the repairs drag on, they find that they have done more than invite these two men into their home: they have unwittingly invited them into their hearts as well – with all the dangers and uncertainties that such invitations entail.


Tan Tarn How's Machine reads as a metaphor for the game of love – how it spins, tumbles, tangles and tosses its players out for a short interval only for them to be put back in again for another spin and turn of the drum. Director Jeremiah Choy described it as a kind of Big Brother reality show: an artificial set-up purporting to show you something real about human behavior and human nature. But does it, really?

This is where the datedness of Tan's play (now 10 years old) shows: for a new generation grown up on "Facebook marriages", college hook-ups and speed dating, Lina and Kim's insistence on anything more than temporary relationships with two men they know absolutely nothing about seems foolish – naïve, even. The fact is, women aren't always looking for men to settle down with and ultimately marry – any more than men are only about loving and leaving a trail of broken hearts in their wakes. What women and men want out of the game called love is complicated and the duality drawn between what Tan's women and men want comes across as slightly too simplistic in a world where women, as much as men, evince reluctance to commit to long term relationships and give up their freedoms.

In other ways, though, the play has been well updated for its modern audience. It was interesting to hear from Choy that this staging was far more "sexy" than it had been 10 years ago; it was even more fascinating to discover that he had deliberately cut the play's interval because he believed the Internet generation's short attention spans would have been lost with any break in the play's action and emotion. If this is the reasoning behind the growing trend of interval-less plays these days, I find myself a little bemused on the one hand by what seems like astuteness on the part of directors but also slightly patronized on the other.

One common effect of the lack of an interval is that the play-watching experience becomes that little more claustrophobic than it would otherwise have been. Such a feeling does suit certain types of plays. Machine is possibly one of them, with its showcase of intense emotions. There is nothing more claustrophobic and exclusive, after all, than the feeling of being in love. I do feel, however, that the Esplanade Theatre Studio was actually too big for this play. The large, stark, white set was too spacious and empty: the sexual tension between the actors felt as if it were evaporating into the surrounding space without ever managing to quite envelop and smother the audience in its bosom. Some of the play's intensity felt like it was lost as a result and I do believe that the play would have benefitted from being staged in an even smaller and more intimate venue.

A smaller venue would also have showcased the actors' talents better. All four put in excellent and convincing performances but the strongest was definitely Oon's. She was truly mesmerizing in the role of Lina: in one memorable scene, she entered the kitchen in which a half-naked Ang was busy repairing the washing machine. With just two long, silent, lingering looks over a pot of yoghurt, she managed to convey in an instant the unexpected desire she felt and her decision to act upon it. It was a lovely bit of acting and something I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

Friday, 29 March 2013

8 Women

(This review was written by me for the Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance Reviews and was first published here. The following is a reproduction of the published article as found on The Flying Inkpot for the benefit of my own records and for anyone who might be interested in reading it in future.)

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A set should not be this distracting. Sing'theatre's production of comedy murder mystery 8 Women is plagued by what appears to be a desire to be seen to be doing a lot of things at once. However, at no point does it seem to have asked, "Is this necessary? And does this work?" Watching the resulting production, I must have gone through a little of what someone with Attention Deficiency Disorder experiences: my attention was constantly being pulled away from the question of "whudunnit" by the thought of "Oh, what's happening over there?" It is a great pity, since the main selling point of this play is the rare chance to see eight of Singapore's best actresses share the stage. With so much going on, though, there is simply no way for the audience to focus on the play or the characters inhabiting the stage and a play that should have been about the lives and stories of eight women inhabiting a single household becomes a production obsessed with eight hundred things going on on-stage and off- instead.

Put the words "murder mystery" and "play" together, and in most people's minds the image summoned is of an Agatha Christie-like drawing room mystery. Playwright Robert Thomas' 8 Women does it best to live up to expectations: the action is set in a mansion in the middle of the French countryside. It is Christmas Day and after the elder daughter of the family (Sophie Wee) arrives, the entire household finds itself snowed in with a murder victim on its hands, the phone lines cut and the electricity shorting out in the midst of a storm. The sole male member of the household has been found in his bedroom with a knife in his back and the only possible suspects are his coolly possessed wife (Tan Keng Hua), his hysterical sister-in-law (Serene Chen), his alcoholic paraplegic mother-in-law (Neo Swee Lin), his elder daughter, his younger daughter (Julia Abueva), the housekeeper (Daisy Irani), the sexy chambermaid (Morgane Stroobant) and his sister of dubious occupations (Kimberly Creasman). The household's attempts to narrow the list of suspects descends, thereafter, into a rather bizarre (but less deadly) game of Cluedo, when the sister-in-law is suspected to have been poisoned by a cup of coffee in the kitchen, the housekeeper is nearly shot in the dark in the drawing room, and the younger daughter is found unconscious in the front yard with a candlestick lying next to her. Evidently, it is the sort of play that needs to be watched with one's tongue firmly in one's cheek.

I might have accepted the warning (inherent in the tagline "comedy murder mystery") that I was not to have taken 8 Women too seriously if the play did not demand to be taken seriously at all. Unfortunately, it does. The reveal at the end of the play tries to make a sober point: the tragic life of one man who has never been more than a side character on the periphery of the lives and the drama created by the eight selfish women with whom he shares his life and home with. My issue is that the twist simply is not plausible enough to hold water. An entire rigamarole did not need to be staged just for the husband to realise his tragic irrelevance to these eight women's lives - the events of the night before would have told him everything he needed to know already. This is quite apart from the fact that the play's ending feels decidedly dissatisfying because the audience has been cheated both of a clear solution and, as it turns out, the initial crime itself. Anyone who knows anything of the "Golden Rules" of writing murder mysteries would be chary to fall afoul of them after building up an audience's expectations that the writer would "play fair". Thomas, however, seems to have had no qualms about doing so.

With its distractingly problematic resolution, 8 Women already runs the danger of leaving its audience in a dissatisfied state. What director Samantha Scott-Blackhall does, however, compounds things. She commits the cardinal sin of refusing to trust either the script or her cast to do their respective jobs. Instead, an endless array of bells and whistles are rolled out for this production: a musician is employed to provide live background music that consisted primarily of playing the same few notes a little faster and slower depending on the mood of the scene; bits of the set are designed to shift, turn, pop out and wheel back and forth for brief scenes lasting at most a minute or two before shifting back and forth into its original position. The need for all these extras is simply not evident. There is no need for a live musician to be present to play the same note over and over again as the actresses speak over the music; there is no need too for the front door to rotate and reveal the husband's sister knocking on the outside only to rotate back since the ensuing action takes place entirely indoors. There is no need either to have parts of the main stage pop out carrying the elder daughter and mother-in-law, lit by only a single lamp between them for the short duration of the mother-in-law telling the daughter a secret before the stage and the characters are returned to a normal setting.

These never-ending shifts of the set, coupled with the unusual pre-show sight of the actresses and backstage crew walking about on stage - apparently testing the mikes and the various lighting points on the stage - gives the strong impression of a production that is still a "work-in-progress" even at the time of opening and which has not quite made up its mind what it is setting out to do.

It is a shame, really, that the production does not dare to simply let its actresses to carry the play. It is so rare to see an all-female cast with this much potential on stage. I especially cannot remember the last time Tan, Neo and Irani may have shared a stage or screen together. And on the whole, the cast deliver a very competent performance - with the exception of Serene Chen, who might have turned the dial on the hysterical-hypochondriac-with-a-crush-on-her-brother-in-law machine a little too close to 11. A clever adaptation posited the marriage of a Singaporean wife to a French husband, so that the fact that this French country mansion is inhabited by a mixture of Singaporeans (both Chinese and Indian) and Caucasians does not seem strange at all. Even the fact that the elder daughter, played by Wee, is so much taller than her supposed mother Tan is cleverly explained by a quick remark at the start that the daughter had grown so much that she has her (unseen) father's height. But while the performances are competent, one comes away with a nagging feeling that they are not as good as they could have been - that this cast, if pushed, could have delivered far better performances and made something more of their characters than the stock stereotypes that some (Chen, in particular, but to some extent Neo as well) had fallen back on.

The production was, ultimately, saved by its actresses, but you were left wondering what might have happened if the production had been willing to trust them to go the extra mile and to bring this play to life without the need for fancy shenanigans and special effects.