15 August 2015

Dementia

by Kornél Mundruczó
Proton Theatre
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

In a forgotten ward of a derelict psychiatric hospital in Budapest, a group of mental patients languishes, presided over by a self-medicating doctor and a sexually frustrated nurse. Against all odds, they have achieved a warped sense of equilibrium in this wasted space, using music to take their minds off the numbing pain. Their daily routine is disrupted by the arrival of a cavalier investor, Bartonek, who declares that he has just acquired the property and intends to evict the patients in a few days. This is the world of Dementia, a gritty microcosm of modern day Hungary with its alienating effects on society.

There's no easy way to sum up this maelstrom of a production by film auteur Kornél Mundruczó as part of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts. It is as irreverently genre-bending as it is unforgettable: at once painful and poignant, flawed and funny. There are crucial themes about the importance of end-of-life medical care, mental health and social inequality in a capitalist society. Yet far from being hard-hitting and didactic, Dementia is a many-headed beast, gleefully taking comedy, tragedy, film and song in its stride. The very schizophrenia and arbitrariness of the narrative may prove frustrating but there is a method to the madness; one cannot think of a better way to capture the fractured state of mind of the mentally handicapped.


Much of Dementia's strength derives from its superb ensemble cast who invest their characters with both depth and dash. Roland Rába commands the stage from the very outset as the loquacious doctor who is gradually revealed to be almost as mentally unhinged as his patients. He makes a fantastic double act with János Szemenyei's Bartonek, the slimy, besuited opportunist who only cares about making a profit. There is also a stirring turn by Annamária Láng as the nurse whose only way of dealing with her loneliness is to fellate an unsuspecting man who encounters her in the shower. The actors playing the mental patients are revelations in their own right, hinting at tragic private lives and shattered dreams.

Mundruczó's dark sense of humour and penchant for casual violence pervades the production, which hurtles at us with an unflinching ferocity across nearly two hours. Our sheer horror at witnessing Bartonek's tongue getting snipped off by a manic patient dissolves into helpless laughter as the doctor and nurse scramble to sew it back on, accompanied by a bawdy song and dance sequence. Mundruczó's film background underscores the production and conjures up a Big Brother-like state of constant surveillance that the patients are subject to. A heartbreaking scene where each of the patients, in turn, is forced by Bartonek and the doctor to sign a declaration that they ready to be discharged is filmed on a hand-held camera and displayed on a screen, in unforgiving close-up. Suddenly, the curtains are pulled back to reveal the events unfolding before us in real time.

Photo Credit: Marcell Rev

Credit must go to Márton Ágh's gorgeously realized set, complete with beds, medical equipment, a second-floor shower room and dilapidated walls and fixtures. The two ends of the set even impressively fold inwards towards the end, revealing the wintry façade of the hospital. The grim realism of the set, a stark reminder of the conditions facing mental patients at the fringes of society, is nicely contrasted with the many absurd, larger-than-life sequences. The music by Szemenyei also proves a highlight of the production and adds a jagged, jaunty flavour to the action. Indeed, it is a testament to  Mundruczó's direction that despite all the emotional ups and downs, our attention in this demented party never wavers.

The bitter yet beautiful dénouement, where the denizens of the hospital are driven to the only logical way of dealing with their predicament - the quiet embrace of suicide - will not fail to move. It reminds us of the despair of those who exist of the edges of our consciousness, the voices of those individuals who get drowned out in the march of modernity. If we as a society in this teeming post-modern world allow that flame to die out, it is us who will ultimately be engulfed in a crippling darkness. And for reminding us of that, we have Mundruczó and his team at Proton Theatre to thank.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

14 August 2015

Yusof

by Zizi Azah
Pesta Raya - Malay Festival of Arts 2015
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

We've had a slew of glitzy, grandiose productions this year that have jumped on the SG50 bandwagon, championing their version of the national narrative. This special commission as part of the Esplanade's annual Pesta Raya (Malay Festival of the Arts), written and directed by Zizi Azah, manages to inject a much-needed breath of fresh air amidst all the sound and fury.

Here is a fresh take on the Singapore Story, one which doesn't feature the same cast of characters and hackneyed tropes from our social studies textbooks. We delve into the life of Yusof Ishak, the country's first President, moving back and forth across more than thirty years to gain a closer and more nuanced look at the man whose portrait graces our banknotes.


Yusof begins with a colourful Hari Raya party thrown by President Yusof Ishak (Sani Hussin) and his wife Puan Noor Aishah (Wan) (Siti Khalijah) for his siblings and ends with a wistful monologue delivered by Wan shortly after her husband's demise in 1970. In between, we trace the journey of Yusof as a bright young man in Perak with fiery ideals, his time running the Utusan Melayu - Singapore's first Malay newspaper, the rise of nationalism and his eventual appointment as Singapore's Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State). The historical context sets the scene but it is ultimately the story of Yusof as a family man that lies at the play's heart.

Sani and Siti make a solid pairing and carry their scenes with a mix of both vigour and empathy. While Sani tends to be a little too aggressive at times, he conveys the steadfast ideals of Yusof with conviction and is especially arresting in his confrontation with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Prime Minister of Malaya, who orders him to use the Utusan Melayu as tool to further the ends of Malaysian  political party, UMNO. Sani also excels in moments of quiet introspection, a side he displayed to great success when he performed Irfan Kasban's monologue 94:05. Siti, ever the versatile actress, is luminous as the young wife who stands by Yusof's side and her mastery of the Penang accent and more formal linguistic style of the time is commendable.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Indeed, it's difficult not to draw a comparison between this charming husband-and-wife pair and that of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Kwa Geok Choo in the much-vaunted The LKY Musical which recently ended its run. While the relationship there had felt weak and poorly delineated, Zizi injects both humour and pathos into her characterisation and reminds us that Wan is no mere character standing in the shadows but a robust woman with a quiet, unassuming power of her own.

The supporting cast juggle a variety of roles, with notable work by Erwin Shah Ismail (in his first Malay theatre role) as the pragmatic editor of the Utusan Melayu, and Farah Ong as a feisty young journalist who provides a delicious dose of comedy. Najib Soiman and Erwin also shine as Yusof's two younger siblings, the gregarious Ramley and more reserved Aziz.

Zizi handles the fact-heavy material well and the non-linear structure of the play - an approach last seen in her intriguing adaptation of Claire Tham's The Gunpowder Trail - keeps things fresh. One wishes that the play had probed a little deeper into the life of Yusof as the Head of State; the bulk of the plot rightly focuses on his work at the Utusan Melayu but it would also have been meaningful to see him as a leader of the nation when he finally reaches the zenith of his political journey.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Izmir Ickbal's set is simple yet striking, comprising of a series of arched entrances and a second storey landing. It's a pity that this upper level is not utilised more. There is a nice scene of the Utusan Melayu staff gathering on the roof and watching the arrival of the Japanese soldiers in Singapore during the Second World War and I would have liked to see this vantage point being used more creatively elsewhere. Kudos also to the charming musical backdrop by Alhafiz Jamat that conjures up the sounds of yesteryear with its emphasis on traditional Malay music. Zizi's direction is generally good though the scene transitions could be made quicker and tighter - these tend to slow down the pace.

All in all, Yusof is a compelling and elegant historical drama and a makes a wonderful addition to the Singaporean Malay theatre canon. It's refreshing to examine our nation's journey from a different angle and this vivid glimpse into the life of a statesman whom many may not know all that much about is certainly appreciated.   

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

31 July 2015

The Lower Depths

by Maxim Gorky
translated and adapted by Nelson Chia
Nine Years Theatre
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Over the years, we've come to expect solid, thoughtful productions of world classics from Nine Years Theatre. Its latest project is an adaptation of Russian playwright Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, a bleak, bitter tale about a group of people living in a homeless shelter in an unnamed Russian city. This is certainly no frothy crowd pleaser and I'm really glad to see a play of this nature staged in Singapore (and by a Mandarin theatre company, no less) even if the overall effect proves a little less than inspiring.



Director and translator Nelson Chia has pared down Gorky's play by condensing both the text and the wide cast of characters. Each of the seven actors plays more than one character. Other more obvious Brechtian flourishes that have featured in the company's previous productions (actors getting dressed at the side of the stage or introducing their characters to the audience) have been omitted this time round, making for a cleaner and less laboured feel. Chia is alive to that particular trait of Russian theatre where comedy weaves its way into the grimmest of situations and the production is buoyed by several instances of black humour. His direction is generally smooth though the scene transitions could have been made far more crisp; the play tends to lose some momentum as it goes on.

The fundamental theme that emerges is the despair of the dispossessed. These are individuals who exist at the very fringes of society and live, precariously, from one day to the next. To distract themselves from the bleakness of their predicament, they tell stories, pursue fantasies and embrace the heady comforts of alcohol. They strive for a richer, better life though it is clear that this will always elude them. Chia's version of the text unfolds in simple, sparse language and the characters are merely identified by their professions such as a pot-builder, musician  or thief.

Photo Credit: Nine Years Theatre

Most of the cast are members of the Nine Years Theatre Ensemble Project who have been working and creating theatre together over a sustained period. The ensemble display good energy and an earnestness in embracing the material but, unfortunately, this is one of those plays which is difficult for a company of mostly young urban actors to connect with. There is a melancholy and emptiness that claws through the text which cannot simply be conveyed by donning shabby clothes and looking stricken. It's because of this that the production ultimately fails to move; one appreciates the dark, weighty themes simmering below the surface but is unable to truly empathise with any of these characters as an authentic individual.

Tay Kong Hui stands out for his portrayal of the Old Man, an amiable new arrival to the shelter who breathes life into the denizens' depressing routine and offers them a glimmer of hope. There is also an engaging turn by Johnny Ng as a bumbling, retired actor who keeps breaking out into snatches of Shakespeare. While there is a genuine attempt by the cast to distinguish the characters they are playing by using accessories like beards and wigs, this does not always work: one cannot shake off the sense of watching a group of youngsters playing dress-up.

In a country like Singapore with an ever-widening economic gap, The Lower Depths is a sobering reminder of the quiet, downtrodden people who share the same space as more privileged members of society. This is a moving and important play that continues to provoke debate though the manner of its execution in this production could have done with some refining.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

24 July 2015

The LKY Musical

book by Tony Petito
story by Meira Chand
lyrics by Stephen Clark
music by Dick Lee
Metropolitan Productions
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the biggest local theatre productions in recent years, The LKY Musical is the inaugural production by Metropolitan Productions, sweeping us through a quarter century of Singapore’s history through the eyes of the country’s founding Prime Minister.

We move from Lee’s student days at Raffles College in 1941 to the Japanese Occupation and his studies in the UK before he returns to Singapore to champion independence in 1965. The plot ticks off the key events one would expect of the period. However, by trying to fit everything into a neat dramatic arc, Tony Petito’s book and Meira Chand’s story tends to broad-brush some of the nuances of history, going for efficiency rather than emotional weight.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Productions

One wishes for a slightly more balanced representation of characters. For instance, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman appears as an insouciant poker player while politician S Rajaratnam seems little more than an industrious scribe.

Adrian Pang carries the show as Lee, capturing the man’s fears, frustrations and unwavering tenacity in pushing for change. While Pang catches Lee’s distinctive inflections and gait, there is a sense that he is dutifully performing a role rather than truly inhabiting it; this is a good performance but perhaps not a great one.

It is a shame that Lee’s wife, the formidable Kwa Geok Choo (Sharon Au), is but a footnote in the narrative instead of being central to the story; she is mostly huddled by a table listening to the radio. Au also proves to be the cast’s weakest link, with brittle delivery and pitiful singing skills.

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Productions

There are standout performances by newcomer Benjamin Chow as charismatic trade unionist Lim Chin Siong and funnyman Sebastian Tan as rickshaw puller and loyal family friend Koh Teong Koo. Edward Choy and Tan Shou Chen also provide good support as PAP stalwarts Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, respectively.

Dick Lee disappoints with a score that is vast and varied but ultimately vapid; one would be hard pressed to recall a single distinctive refrain. The melodies in the second half almost blur into a mix. Indeed, one wonders if there is any real point in having the characters sing instead of speak the dialogue; the neatly choreographed numbers and rhyming lines somehow push authenticity to the side.

Director Steven Dexter keeps the pace tight and delivers the requisite spectacle one would expect, though some scenes, like a mantra about glorious economic progress and a lurid, National Day Parade-like number complete with the national anthem, are decidedly stagey. The three-storied set by designer takis, upon which multimedia projections are superimposed, evokes a sense of grandeur that echoes the powerful emotions on stage.

As a tribute to a man whose actions speak far louder than words, there is only so much that a piece of theatre can do. The LKY Musical reminds us of the difficult journey behind the country we have today and even if it does not throw up anything groundbreaking, this is a sleek, serviceable history song that is bound to satisfy.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 27 July 2015.

27 June 2015

Another Country

curated by Alfian Sa'at and Leow Puay Tin
W!LD RICE
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

Hot off the heels of its high-octane production Public Enemy in April, W!LD RICE explores the tenet of peace by examining Singapore's relationship with her closest neighbour, Malaysia. Another Country is a new and rebooted version of W!LD RICE's hit production ten years ago called Second Link: The Singapore-Malaysia Text Exchange. The concept is simple but engaging: five Malaysian actors perform a selection of Singaporean texts followed by five Singaporean actors who take on a variety of Malaysian texts.

Another Country is an enticing mix of old and new. Apart from Lim Yu-Beng and Gani Abdul Karim who were part of the original Second Link cast, the production features a new mix of faces from both sides of the Causeway. Alfian Sa'at steps in to curate the selection of Singaporean extracts (this was previously done by Eleanor Wong and Alvin Pang) while Leow Puay Tin continues in her role as Malaysian curator. Ivan Heng, who had originally directed Second Link, here directs the Singaporean performers while acclaimed Malaysian performer Jo Kukathas helms the Malaysian contingent. Another fun fact: the Malaysians wear black outfits and the Singaporeans wear white, reversing the colour scheme used in Second Link.


The first half of the production (titled Sayang Singapura) stands out due to the rich and thoughtful selection of texts. While the Singaporean selection in Second Link had mainly featured plays, poetry and novels from established writers, Alfian pulls together an almost entirely new set of literary treasures and spreads his canvas wide, throwing in amusing colonial accounts of Singapore, letters and petitions by members of the public, little-known songs and bittersweet meditations on national identity. Each extract is also presented in chronological order, captioned and accompanied by evocative visuals, helping audiences appreciate the context of the works.

We have a good mix of the familiar and the unusual - an extract from Kuo Pao Kun's seminal multi-lingual play Mama Looking For Her Cat performed entirely in Tamil and Hokkien stands out and other pieces such as Arthur Yap's 2 mothers in a hdb playground and Claire Tham's Highway immediately resonate with the audience by bringing key Singaporean traits to the fore. Kudos to Alfian for also keeping the selection up-to-date and including works from recent years such as Haresh Sharma's politically-charged Gemuk Girls, Tan Tarn How's insightful Fear of Writing and Amanda Lee Koe's charmingly nostalgic Flamingo Valley.

There is strong work by the Malaysian ensemble and Anne James and Ghafir Akbar stand out for their engaging performances. One is particularly taken by the stirring extract from Gopal Baratham's novel Sayang, which in many ways captures the soul of this first half: the unique admixture of joy and grief one feels when confronted with the Singapore Story; a narrative that is largely monolithic but which contains so many rich, multifaceted aspects should one take a closer look.

Photo Credit: Wong Horng Yih, W!LD Rice

The Malaysian selection is titled Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2 and rather than proceeding in a chronological fashion, the audience gets to choose the order in which the extracts are performed by picking pieces off a giant board. Naturally, not all the texts can be performed in the allotted time span of one hour so each performance will invariably be different. While this charming randomness presents a nice contrast to the neat, structured tour through Singapore's literary history, I note that very little has changed on the Malaysian side. Indeed, more than three-quarters of the extracts in Tikam-Tikam are the same ones presented in Second Link and there is not much of a sense that something new has been provided for the audience to chew over.

The Singaporean quintet dive into the material with relish and despite the obvious difficulty of working with a new sequence for each show, the scenes are executed with polish, panache and effortless pace. Classic pieces from Hikayat Abdullah and Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) go down well and there are many extracts that explore folklore, culture and politics not just exclusive to Malaysia but which are representative of both countries. In general, the tone is far more jovial and relaxed than the first half and the actors have a lot of fun with the material. Sharda Harrison and Siti Khalijah are a delight to watch; the former's rendering of Sir Stamford Raffles' crisp, British-accented Malay and the latter's portrayal of a kindly but ignorant American grandmother when faced with "Asiatics" are highlights of the evening. 

Interestingly, while I felt the Malaysian selections in Second Link has been far superior, they somehow paled in comparison to the Singaporean ones this time round. This may well be because the Singaporean texts were far more diverse but one cannot ignore that fact that the overall production is fairly long and one's attention begins to slide by the second half. I also rather lamented the exclusion of Huzir Sulaiman's hilarious Atomic Jaya from the Malaysian mix; this had proven one of my favourite extracts in Second Link and I felt that the extract from Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill selected here - which is likely to be the text most recognisable to Singaporean audiences - was not quite the best one from the play.

Photo Credit: Wong Horng Yih, W!LD Rice

Another Country ultimately emerges  as far more than the sum of its parts. It reminds us that while Singapore and Malaysia may be two nations with different politics, economies and societies, our hearts beat as one. And this is perhaps best summed up in the beautiful ronggeng presented by all ten performers as the finale piece: instead of merely dancing around each other, let's hope that "our hands would clasp" and we genuinely engage with our neighbours, viewing them not just as another country but, hopefully, an extension of our own.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5