19 July 2014

Butterfly

by Ramesh Meyyappan
The Studios 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's impossible to watch a Ramesh Meyyappan production and not be filled with a sense of awe. The deaf, Glasgow-based Singaporean artiste’s physical theatre productions are marked by their simplicity and profound visual narrative: a reminder that one can effectively capture an entire spectrum of human emotions without ever needing to rely on dialogue. In Butterfly, Meyyappan presents us with a stunning adaptation of the well-known tale of Madame Butterfly that is by turns breathtaking and barbarous.

This taut, sixty-minute performance makes use of the most basic of props but manages to be larger than itself precisely due to the beauty and grace in which it is executed. Butterfly (Ashley Smith) is a fun-loving kite-maker who meets a travelling lepidopterologist, Nabokov (Meyyappan), and embarks on a brief and passionate relationship with him. Things are brought to a horrible halt when Nabokov catches sight of her being sexually assaulted by a jealous customer (Martin McCormick) and misinterprets the situation. He walks out in a blind rage, leaving Butterfly alone, miserable and pregnant.


Central to the production is the motif of the butterfly, that graceful and delicate creature whose life can be so easily be snatched away. In an arresting sequence, Nabokov goes through the motions of preserving a butterfly he has just caught by dipping it in liquid, forcing it down and carefully piercing its wings and thorax onto a stand. When Butterfly is assaulted by the customer and finally capitulates to him, her actions mimic those of the butterfly, a creature whose joyous flutter has been irrevocably stilled.

Indeed, there is a bitter irony in the idea that Butterfly, a kite-maker who creates beautiful objects to be let loose into the sky, is drawn towards Nabokov, whose passion sees him hunting down wild butterflies and immortalising them in jars. The butterfly which Nabokov preserves and hands to Butterfly early in the play is an apt symbol of how Butterfly herself is, in some ways, a living insect, framed and boxed in by her dependence on him.  One is reminded of the destructive power of love and how women in particular are consumed, both physically and emotionally, by their love for men. Smith, in a remarkable physical theatre debut, conveys the pain and isolation of  a woman whose life has been turned upside down with tremendous empathy.


Butterfly marks Meyyappan’s first foray into puppetry and there is excellent work by Meyyappan and McCormick in manipulating the puppets as they bring Butterfly’s child to life, conveying the playfulness and delight of an infant romping around. The puppets also feature in dream sequences where a sleeping Butterfly dreams of a world where her child and her lover finally reunite. One cannot deny the tremendous degree of skill involved in working with the puppets while never compromising on the emotional arc of the narrative and it is a credit to the entire production team for bringing a true sense of theatrical magic to the performance by introducing something so simple. Kudos also to the lighting and sound designers for creating an evocative aural and visual landscape which complements the action on stage.

If I did have a cavil about this thoughtful and otherwise beautifully executed production, it was in wishing for a more intimate acting space where the audience could truly be up close to the performers and part of their world. It can be difficult to appreciate the puppet work from a distance and if the scores of craning necks in the packed Esplanade Theatre Studio were any indication, almost everyone wanted to catch every last physical flourish.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

13 July 2014

Red

by John Logan
Blank Space Theatre
The Studios 2014
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

This latest offering by Blank Space Theatre is a biographical drama about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Set in 1958 and 1959, it delves into the life of this intensely private but volatile man who spends his days holed up in a studio, creating immense pieces of art for a prestigious restaurant commission. As one looks closer at these rectangular blocks of colour, one learns that the worlds of history, philosophy, music, mythology and spirituality are inextricably etched into its luxuriant surface.


John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play is superbly revived in this gripping black–box production by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, whose last production at the Studios in 2012’s Freud’s Last Session garnered rave reviews and multiple Life! Theatre Award nominations. The unlikely pairing of the real-life character of Rothko (Daniel Jenkins) and Ken (Gavin Yap), his fictitious, mild-mannered assistant, is a catalyst for great drama and we are drawn into the verbal pyrotechnics that unfold before us as these two men dissect the nature of art while trying to come to terms with their own identities.

So much of a play like this depends on the characters and we are treated here to a truly spectacular performance by Jenkins, one that is both mesmerising and empathetic. Shuffling around on stage with a prosthetic nose and somewhat dubious-looking hairpiece, he speaks in a clipped New York drawl and alternates between intense brooding and equally spine-chilling moments of lucidity as he explains his convictions, theories and fears. For all this arrogance, we sense that Rothko’s ultimate fear is to become redundant, to be but a footnote in the annals of art history in the face of a younger, more experimental wave of newcomers.


Gavin Yap, who has turned in solid performances in Wild Rice’s The Importance of Being Earnest and PANGDEMONIUM!’s Fat Pig, is also no pushover. While his character is largely a sounding board for Rothko’s opinions, he displays tremendous skill in conveying the quiet determination of a young man who wants to matter and make his voice heard. This comes to a head when he finally confronts Rothko and the latter's pretension in agreeing to paint a series of murals for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant - a place that represents the very temple of consumerism which he despises - leading to an chastened Rothko to remark: “Today, you’ve existed”.

One cannot help but feel that the Logan's script occasionally comes across as a thinly concealed art lecture and is deliberately bombastic in its swathe of ideas. This is of course a function of the character it explores and indeed, many of the lines uttered by Rothko in the play are actual quotations taken from his life. Yet, Rothko's numerous monologues can prove a little trying, especially when there is so little provided by way of counterpoint from Ken.


Scott-Blackhall excels in manipulating the full size of the stage and creating rich visual tableaus. In a beautiful scene, Rothko and Ken apply a base coat of red paint to a blank canvas while listening to music, working so perfectly in sync that their brushstrokes almost resemble a dance. The scene transitions - relaxed yet fluid - are also handled well and we are constantly engaged in the trajectories of these two characters throughout the play.

Equal credit goes to the excellent production team. Set designer Wong Chee Wai creates a perfect reproduction of an airy, high-ceilinged New York studio loft, complete with paint-splattered wooden floor and painting paraphernalia scattered around. The life-sized reproductions of Rothko’s work that were specially commissioned for this production are also to be commended; it is difficult to appreciate the context unless one gets a sense of the scale of these works and the intensity of the solid blocks of colour. The stage is also beautifully lit by James Tan, allowing us a glimpse into the sequestered world that the artist creates for himself. Light is depicted as both an ally – adding an element of mystique and romance in its soft shadows – and as an enemy – when Ken turns the lights fully on, the paintings somehow diminish in intensity under the harsh glare.

Red is a play that opens our eyes to the fragile and fractious world of the artist. Like Ken, we too feel compelled to see something in these magnificent works and as the iridescence of the final scene descends upon us, we realize that there is truly an element of magic that lies in these creations.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

20 June 2014

Another Country

by Julian Mitchell
Trafalgar Studios, London

There's a dreadful homogeneity that attracts public schools in England and Julian Mitchell's 1981 play, famously adapted into a 1984 film starring a young Rupert Everett and Colin Firth, remains a harsh reminder of the polarising effects of a world of privilege.

The setting is a fictional boys' public school in 1930s England and the spotlight is on two particular misfits: the suave, flighty and openly gay Bennett (Rob Callender) and the serious, academically-inclined Judd (Will Attenborough), whose Marxist views fly in the face of the world of privilege that confronts him.


Mitchell's theme is that English public schools were a prime breeding ground for the so-called generation of 'Cambridge spies' who betrayed their country during the war. The character of Judd certainly leaves us in no doubt that he would turn against the moneyed establishment he opposes and even the carefree Bennett is quietly pulled away from apathy at the hypocrisy of the people he is surrounded with at school and the realization that he will always be excluded from the world he desires to be a part of. Indeed, the homosexuality that causes a student to commit suicide early in the play is revealed to be tacitly accepted as a way of life by many of the students, despite the official line that such actions are to be condemned.

Another Country is also a sentimental study about friendships forged in a home away from home and the codes and rituals so common in public schools. There is a tender moment when Judd comforts a tearful junior rattled at the death of a fellow student, reminding us that many students look up to their seniors as role models and surrogate parents in the unfamiliar and often harsh boarding school environment. In an equally gripping sequence, the harsh strokes of Bennett being caned sound out, reminding us of the realities of corporal punishment for misdemeanours.


Jeremy Herrin’s production, a Chichester Festival Theatre transfer, is buoyed by a young and energetic cast. Callender in particular turns in a superb performance as Bennett, bringing a perfect mix of sexy nonchalance and rakish charm that keeps one's eyes on him throughout his scenes. Attenborough provides an earnest though somewhat plodding presence as Judd with his constant devotion to his books. There is also fantastic support by Julian Wadham as a flamboyant visiting academic.

Peter McKintosh’s wooden set - which easily converts into a dormitory, office and cricket field - conveys the grandeur and tradition that comes with a venerable institution and the production is sensitively lit by Paul Pyant. We are reminded as ever of the pull of the outside world intruding upon the little space created by these individuals as they navigate their nascent ideological battles.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

18 June 2014

A Small Family Business

by Alan Ayckbourn
National Theatre (Olivier), London

Close to 30 years after it first premiered at this theatre, Ayckbourn's A Small Family Business remains a canny thesis on the world of capitalism and its effects when the lines between business and family blur. Adam Penford's revival moves along at a brisk pace even if it feels more like a well-structured farce instead of a black comedy whose laughs reveal a rotting heart.


The action centres around the honest, well-meaning Jack McCracken, who has just left his old job and been appointed as the managing director of the family-run furniture business. As he starts delving into the goings-on in the company, he rapidly discovers that theft, fraud and other dubious practices are rampant and all his family members have been carrying on as if nothing is wrong while quietly lining their pockets.

Ayckbourn once again demonstrates a knack for finding humour in odd situations and we follow the bewildered Jack as he uncovers layer upon later of deception in the family - from his teenage daughter's bizarre shoplifting to his sister-in-law's liaisons with a bevy of shady Italian businessmen to his brother-in-law and business partner siphoning away money to fund his dreams of being a chef. It's both funny and quietly horrifying that none of these characters seem to regard their actions as being wrong.


Nigel Lindsay endows Jack with the right mix of self-righteous indignation and weary resignation as he inevitably feels himself falling deeper into the web of deceit that has been so meticulously spun around him. There is excellent support from Ayckbourn veteran Matthew Cottle as the waspish private investigator Benedict Hough and and Nicky Wardley as Jack's vixen like sister-in-law with her colourful sex life.

Even if the editing could have been tighter, the play crackles along and Lindsay is alive to Ayckbourn's ear for comedy and rip-roaring one-liners. The opening scene, which sees Jack trying to have sex with his wife while being unaware of the guests in the next room waiting to surprise him, is marvellously choreographed. In another memorable scene, a heated argument in the kitchen is promptly silenced by a character poking her head out of an alcove like a cuckoo clock to shush everyone because her beloved dog is trying to sleep. Set designer Tim Hatley provides a perfect cross-section of a two story suburban home, deftly balancing scale with intimacy.


Like many of Ayckbourn's plays, there is a streak of darkness that hangs over the action and if Lindsay's production falters slightly, it is in treating many of the laughs at face value instead of using them to reveal the corrosiveness at the core. It is worth remembering that A Small Family Business is, after all, a morality play, a clever satire on the ethos of individualism and economic progress that infected the world of Thatcherism during which it was written.

Indeed, the final image of the play is of Jack's teenage daughter sobbing alone in the bathroom as her father proudly toasts to the future of the family business. Will all the money in the world help to overcome the emotional estrangement she feels from her family members? Will Jack ever regain his once steadfast morality and integrity? We are reminded that material success and domestic bliss make reluctant bedfellows.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

24 May 2014

Playwrights Galore (2014)

Time for this yearly round-up: here's the updated list of all playwrights from whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Henrik Ibsen.

William Shakespeare (15)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x3)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-The Tempest (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Macbeth (x2)
-Hamlet
-Coriolanus
-Julius Caesar
-Richard III 
-Much Ado About Nothing 
-A Winter's Tale
-The Merchant of Venice

Alan Ayckbourn (10)
-Absurd Person Singular
-Table Manners
-Living Together
-Round and Round the Garden
-Bedroom Farce
-Taking Steps
-Season's Greetings
-Snake in the Grass
-Life of Riley
-Relatively Speaking

Haresh Sharma (8)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Mobile
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-godeatgod
-Best Of
-Poor Thing 

Alfian Sa'at (6)
-Cooling Off Day (x2)
-Homesick
-Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1
-Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2
-Hansel & Gretel
-Cook a Pot of Curry

Noel Coward (5)
-Present Laughter
-Blithe Spirit
-Private Lives
-Design for Living
-Hay Fever

Harold Pinter (4)
-The Lover (x2)
-The Dumb Waiter
-The Collection
-Betrayal

Irfan Kasban (4)
-94:05 (x2)
-Genap 40
-W.C.
-Tahan

Neil Simon (4)
-The Prisoner of Second Avenue (x2)
-The Odd Couple (female version)
-Rumors
-Lost in Yonkers

Tom Stoppard (4)
-Rock 'n' Roll
-Arcadia
-The Real Thing
-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Arther Miller (4)
-The Man Who Had All the Luck
-The Crucible
-All My Sons
-Death of a Salesman

Tennessee Williams (4)
-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
-The Glass Menagerie
-A Streetcar Named Desire
-Sweet Bird of Youth

David Mamet (3)
-Glengarry Glen Ross
-Speed-the-Plow
-November

Anton Chekhov (3)
-The Seagull
-Ivanov
-The Cherry Orchard

Peter Shaffer (3)
-Black Comedy
-White Lies
-Equus

Chong Tze Chien (3)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms
-Spoilt

Henrik Ibsen (3)
-Hedda Gabler
-The Master Builder
-An Enemy of the People