18 February 2017

Crossings

devised by young & W!LD
written by Rodney Oliveiro
young & W!LD (a division of W!LD RICE)
Centre 42 Black Box, Singapore

W!LD RICE’s youth development division, young & W!LD, has proven itself over the years to be a great platform for young Singapore theatre makers. The programme is currently in its fourth cohort under the mentorship of theatre practitioners Rodney Oliveiro and Serena Ho. This double-bill of plays, which examines the pleasures and pains of everyday choices, is the group's first public showcase.


The evening opens with The Mother, The Son and The Holy Ghost (2/5), a dramedy which pits social media activist Vix (Jasmine Blundell) against an older woman suffering from dementia (Natalie Koh) whose taxi-driver son Boon (Aeron Ee) is trying to drive her into a nursing home.

There are elements that certainly strike a chord with the audience like inter-generational conflict, modern versus traditional values and the idea of memories that seep their way into human experience. Unfortunately, the script lacks any nuance in its exploration of filial piety and failed opportunity. It also suffers from an ragged pace that grows increasingly frustrating to watch.

Boon is a particular culprit and one struggles to find any redeeming qualities to the character given that Ee spends most of his time on stage being sullen and excessively shouty.  The garrulous, holier-than-thou Vix also tends to outstay her welcome and all but drowns out the more passive mother character, sensitively portrayed by Koh. There is a attempt to inject some pathos towards the end but the resolution feels too abrupt to adequately round out the story.

In short, this is an uneven piece that could do with a more developed script and compelling characters. In its current incarnation, it fails to sustain one's interest and feels a little too contrived for any emotions to land.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

The second play, Arbitrio, (3/5) is a richer and more layered offering that takes the form of a play-within-a-play. It opens with a bearded, prophet-like figure (Mel Bickham) in the midst of an unsuccessful audition. When asked if he has any new material, he offers up for consideration an original play about a newly married couple complete with his own actors, cheekily breaking the fourth wall every now and then with comments, stage directions and even a cameo.

Within the world of the play itself, we quickly learn that things are far from rosy. The husband is a workaholic who is revealed to be carrying on with a pregnant ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, the wife, lonely and craving companionship, tentatively enters into a relationship with a female bookseller.

There are spirited turns by Sharmaine Goh and Krish Natarajan as the central couple and Blundell as a feisty third party. The central theme seems to be that the choices one makes in life are indeed arbitrary: the wife could just as easily end up in the arms of her lesbian lover as her husband. The framing device underscores this by indicating that the events of the play unfold purely at the whims of the fickle writer-director. It also forms a great showcase for Mel Bickham, one of the strongest performers of the group, to flex her comic chops.

Yet, for all its wordplay and wit, Arbitrio cannot seem to decide if it wants to be serious or purely whimsical. The narrative is weighed down by scenes which include a cheesy Bollywood dance number and a gratuitous dream sequence. There is a serviceable one-act play embedded here but it could certainly do with some editing as the overall message ends up diluted.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

Like most other young & W!LD productions, Crossings is buoyed by an enthusiastic and earnest group of young actors whose energy drives the evening forward. That being said, for a group that is one year into its artistic journey, the final product feels belaboured and somewhat unpolished. One looks forward to a more refined experience the next time round.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

04 February 2017

Actor, Forty

by Haresh Sharma
translated by Quah Sy Ren
The Necessary Stage
Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts 2017
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What lies at the intersection of personal life and professional success? Does an actor who has built up a career playing a multitude of roles find it any easier to take on the real-life role of a mother? These are some of the questions posed by Haresh Sharma's probing 75-minute monologue, a commission for Huayi 2017 performed by award-winning film, screen and stage actress Yeo Yann Yan.

Yeo plays a forty-year-old, once-famous actress who is obsessing about her comeback role in a film called 'Woman, Forty' where she will star as a forty-year-old heroine who juggles work and family commitments. Shortly before filming commences, she discovers herself pregnant. Amidst a flurry of media activity and rehearsals, she tries to keep this a secret, going through a period of soul-searching before she finally learns to accept her situation.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon, Esplanade

Sharma and director Alvin Tan are no stranger to the monologue format and Actor, Forty follows in the footsteps of previous productions such as Best Of and the recently-revived Rosnah which uses a single character to expound on a range of powerful themes affecting society. In crafting his narrative, Sharma draws heavily from Yeo's two decades of experience as a versatile, globe-trotting actor, all the while dealing with universal issues such as growing older and coming to terms with one's identity.

It is a testament to Yeo that the monologue feels utterly organic. She turns in an energetic, funny and deeply moving performance that never leaves us in any doubt of her star power. As she steps in and out of costumes and deals with countless work engagements, she tells us candidly about her life growing up in an almost entirely Chinese community in Malaysia before moving to Singapore at the age of twenty. We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the character's career highlights including fielding difficult questions from the media, playing iconic villains on television and starring in sultry shampoo commercials. Yeo is especially earnest as she describes her meaningful working relationship with the late Yasmin Ahmad and Kuo Pao Kun, directors who taught her the true meaning of embracing multiculturalim.

Tan keeps the pacing tight by creating a constant sense of movement as Yeo slips, almost breathlessly, from role to role with the aid of two capable assistants. Kok Heng Leun's spacious set forms part dressing room, part film set and part apartment, suggesting an admixture of the personal and professional that is increasingly difficult to separate. For all the people Yeo's character encounters, one gets the sense that she ultimately leads a lonely life where she has been forced to deal with problems on her own. When tragedy strikes, she learns to overcome her anger and to quietly move on with grace.

Photo Credit: Ruey Loon, Esplanade

Yeo's scenes prove highly captivating to watch and fans will relish getting a tremendous bang for their buck. Yet, the fact remains that in this art-imitating-life construct, there are times when Yeo the effervescent, shape-shifting actress risks robbing the emotional journey of her character. Are we drawn to the real life of the actress or her immensely more colourful fictional universe?

As the first production of The Necessary Stage's 30th anniversary season, Actor, Forty is an apt celebration of the company's roots in intercultural theatre. This happens to be the first collaboration between Tan and Sharma that has premiered in Mandarin and kudos to  the production team - particularly Melissa Lim as dramaturg and Quah Sy Ren as translator - for tapping on linguistic and cultural nuances to bring a rich Chinese heritage to the production. Quah's translation is both entertaining and heartfelt, faithful to the clean lines of Sharma's text while playing to Yeo's strengths and exploring variations of accent, dialect and colloquialisms to craft a more endearing and authentic character.

Just as life for a woman does not stop at the age of forty, the life of an actress extends far beyond the confines of the stage. Actor, Forty is a reminder of the many roles we play in life and how we owe it to ourselves to take each one in our stride.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

31 December 2016

Crystalwords Theatre Highlights 2016

Happy New Year's Eve! It's time for the Crystalwords annual Singapore theatre round-up.

Following an outpouring of arts productions alongside last years's SG50 celebrations, 2016 has been a much quieter year for Singapore theatre. I've seen far less shows compared to the past few years and there have been fewer standouts, most productions being just average instead of truly spectacular. Nonetheless, the year has seen a handful of powerful, challenging productions tackling important themes and original plays that make things look bright for the future.

A couple of preliminaries:

(a) This list is written in a purely personal capacity and reflects all the theatre productions I have watched in Singapore for the year, whether by local companies or touring foreign companies. It does not purport to be definitive by any stretch. Revivals by the same theatre company are generally not considered unless I did not watch the original production.

(b) I rate all my productions out of five, basing my score on acting, directing, script, production values and the overall experience. My average production score for 2016 is 3.33/5. The vast majority of productions have been in the serviceable but otherwise ho-hum three-star category with only three local productions earning a solid four-star rating.

(c) I've done my theatre round-up in Academy Awards style like previous years without any specific commentary on my choice - please click on the links to read my full reviews for each production.

*****

Best Actor
Andrew Marko, Falling (Pangdemonium!)

Best Actress
Tan Kheng Hua, Falling (Pangdemonium!)

Best Supporting Actor
Aaron Khaled, Rent (Pangdemonium!)

Best Supporting Actress
Frances Lee, Rent (Pangdemonium!)

Best Original Script
Helmi Yusof, My Mother Buys Condoms (W!ld RICE)

Best Set Design
Wong Chee Wai, Falling (Pangdemonium!)

Best Costume Design
Moe Kasim, Romeo and Juliet (Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Best Lighting Design
Gabriel Chan, Romeo and Juliet (Singapore Repertory Theatre)

Best Sound Design
Darren Ng, Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde (The Finger Players)

Best Multimedia Design
Brian Gothong Tan, Ghost Writer (The Necessary Stage)

Best Ensemble
The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco (Checkpoint Theatre)

Best Director
Tracie Pang, Falling (Pangdemonium!)

Production of the Year
Falling (Pangdemonium!)

Playwrights Galore (2016)

Time to round up 2016! Here's my list of playwrights from whom I've seen at least three plays. Always found this way a great way to track my evolving theatrical diet. 

I had previously done this list every May but will now compile it at the end of each year.

William Shakespeare (21)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x4)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-The Tempest (x3)
-Macbeth (x3)
-Hamlet (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Richard III (x2)
-Coriolanus
-Julius Caesar
-Much Ado About Nothing 
-The Winter's Tale
-The Merchant of Venice
-Henry VI Part I
-Henry VI Part II
-Henry VI Part III
-Henry IV Part I
-Henry IV Part II
-Henry V

 
Alan Ayckbourn (11)
-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
-A Small Family Business

Haresh Sharma (11)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Mobile
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-godeatgod
-Best Of
-Poor Thing
-Pioneer (Girls) Generation
-Ghost Writer
-Best Of (His Story)

Alfian Sa'at (9)
-Cooling Off Day (x2)
-Homesick
-Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1
-Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2
-Hansel & Gretel
-Cook a Pot of Curry
-Geng Rebut Cabinet
-Hotel
-Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares

Chong Tze Chien (6)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms
-Spoilt
-Turn by Turn We Turn
-Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde
-Between the Lines: Rant and Rave II 


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

Huzir Sulaiman (4)
-Occupation
-Atomic Jaya
-The Weight of Silk on Skin
-The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco

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

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

Kuo Pao Kun (3)
-The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole
-Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
-The Spirits Play

Zizi Azah (3)
-The Gunpowder Trail
-Paradise
-Yusof

19 November 2016

Disgraced

by Ayad Akhtar
Singapore Repertory Theatre
KC Arts Centre, Singapore

"They disgraced us," a character utters towards the end of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It's a dirty word, an expression of contempt against a society that has formed its own view about what is right and who is wrong. In this post-Brexit, post-Trump world where it is impossible to ignore the fault lines of race and religion, Akhtar's play about a disastrous dinner party has never felt more urgent.

Disgraced throws us into the world of an urbane New York couple: Pakistani-American Amir Kapoor (Gaurav Kripalani), a successful corporate attorney,  and his white wife Emily (Jennifer Coombs), an artist with a penchant for exploring Islamic designs. In his climb up the economic ladder, Amir has shed his last name together with virtually all vestiges of his religion - he drinks like a fish, decries the Quran as a "hate-mail letter to humanity" and relishes a good pork tenderloin. When he reluctantly helps an imprisoned imam, suspicions are raised at his law firm as to his affiliations. Things reach boiling point over dinner with his African-American colleague Jory (LaNisa Frederick) and her Jewish art curator husband Isaac (Daniel Jenkins).

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Central to the play is the fact that it's impossible to break away from the labels etched by one's cultural identity. Amir may have achieved success in every sense of the word but it only takes an airport security check or a pointed question about where his parents are from to make him realize that people like him will always be viewed askance.

This Singapore premiere, directed by Nate Silver, is serviceable and generally well-paced. It catapults us straight into the action, allowing Akhtar's slow burn of dialogue to keep us entranced throughout the ninety minutes.

Swapping his producer's hat for an actor's, SRT Artistic Director Kripalani tries his best at the leading role but ultimately proves disappointing. He comes across as merely delivering a series of lines and gestures rather than inhabiting a full-blooded character and this lack of believability in his performance weakens the tone of the production. One simply cannot understand the anger his Amir feels at a religious tradition he has sworn off. When he finally explodes, we are unable to see what leads him to this point.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Frederick is a standout as the confident, straight-talking Jory, bringing some much-needed comedy to leaven the escalating tension. Coombs's Emily is also a powerful presence, conveying a liberal who is simply unable to look past the rose-tinted lenses of her white privilege to understand her husband's cultural tussle. Her realization, albeit too late, that she has been "blind" all along wrenches the soul.

Local theatre stalwart Jenkins makes a smooth transition from pleasant acquaintance to outraged global citizen although his patchy American accent proves distracting. Rounding out the cast is Ghafir Akbar who has a small but solid turn as Amir's nephew, a steadfast young man who finds himself caught between his adopted American life and standing up for his own people.

One remains unconvinced by James Button's clean, functional set which seems to channel an IKEA showroom instead of  the moneyed world of New York's Upper East Side. The iconic painting by Emily, which forms a recurring topic of conversation, looks like a giant mosaic tile and it's difficult to believe that this would be striking enough to impress a veteran gallerist.

It's no surprise that Disgraced is currently one of the most widely produced plays in America and the SRT has done a terrific job in bringing us this vital, provocative piece of political theatre. The identity politics and deep-seated prejudice it explores are frequently glossed over in everyday conversation and it's essential for these issues to be dissected in the open. It's only by confronting what is ugly in society that we can correct misunderstandings, accept people for who they are and, ultimately, learn to live with grace.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

18 November 2016

You Are Here

by Pooja Nansi
The Esplanade
Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts 2016
Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore

This absorbing chamber piece, written and performed by poet and spoken word artist Pooja Nansi, began its journey as part of Checkpoint Theatre’s performing arts showcase What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015. It was subsequently featured as a work-in-progress at The Esplanade's Studios season earlier this year. In this version for the Kalaa Utsavam, directed and dramaturged by Joel Tan, it finally reaches its full potential.

You are Here is both a heartwarming recollection of Nansi's family stories sprawling across three generations and a struggle to understand her cultural identity as a first generation Gujarati Singaporean. We are introduced, in turn, to a series of couples who we learn are her parents and grandparents - unique, interesting individuals whose life choices led to her existence in this place and country.


Running through the narrative is an attempt to make sense of her place in the world. Entering primary school in the late 1980s, the young Nansi is shepherded into a Tamil language class by default because she is Indian and it takes some convincing before the school allows her to offer Malay as a second language instead. She is bewildered by a canteen selling strange items like chicken rice and chin chow which look nothing like the Gujarati food she has been brought up eating. When her mother packs her a tiffin meal, Chinese children tease her for eating food that looks like brown shit. In a desperate attempt to fit in, she implores her mother to make her a jam sandwich the next time.

Anecdotes such as these shine a spotlight on those who quietly slip through the cracks in a country that prides itself on being multi-cultural. Indeed, Singapore is one of those places where society is only too keen to pigeonhole people into neat little boxes and does not always respond well when someone bucks the trend.

The sixty-minute performance is interspersed with a lively mix of songs and poetry. Nansi delivers a memorable account of the heady clubbing culture amongst Indian university students in early 2000s Singapore and sings an aching song of devotion to one's country, reminding us of the pleasures and pains of cultural dislocation and creating a home away from home.

However, not all the elements work well. A recurring segment sees Nansi recording significant statements or remarks drawn from her narrative and playing them in loop. This swirling montage of words that have shaped her cultural consciousness and sense of place grows tedious after a few iterations. In the same vein, email exchanges between Nansi and an NParks official regarding her attempt to hold an outdoor Hindu wedding ceremony at Hort Park provide some laughs but do not feel a particularly necessary addition to her story.


The narrative is brought to life with the aid of a great technical team. Wong Chee Wai's set comprises of three large panels on which life-sized family photographs are projected and the stage is beautifully lit by Lim Woan Wen as Nansi walks around recounting details of their lives and loves over the passage of time.

You Are Home ultimately shines as a piece of honest, unadorned storytelling about finding and accepting oneself, regardless of the labels society may choose to brand one with. In this rapidly changing world, it reminds us to connect with the stories of our past and to celebrate the colourful and contradictory forces that have shaped our identity.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

13 November 2016

Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares

by Alfian Sa'at
Singapore Writers Festival 2016
Play Den, The Arts House, Singapore

Siti Khalijah has played many roles in her time. One of the most talented and versatile actors of her generation, she burst onto the scene in 2003 when, as a shy ITE student, she participated in the year-long Theatre For Youth Ensemble (TFY) programme run by The Necessary Stage. She found her calling, decided to make a career out of acting and has never looked back since.

Now she gets to spend a whole hour playing no one but herself. It's not something she finds easy, being so used to slipping into the psyche of another character like diffident mental patient Saloma in Off Centre, trilingual political aspirant Juliana in Gemuk Girls or hapless Indonesian maid Melly in Model Citizens.

Photo Credit: Singapore Writers Festival

This special commission of the Singapore Writers Festival, penned by Alfian Sa'at and directed by veteran thespian Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, gives us an intimate glimpse at the person behind the actress and her journey towards becoming the well-known theatre and television personality she is today. Drawing its inspiration from Konstantin Stanislavsky's iconic book An Actor Prepares, we are treated to a cosy confessional as Siti applies make-up, does stretching exercises and dresses in a shimmering gown before our watchful eyes.

Siti starts by reading out excerpts from Stanislavsky's book on the craft of an actor, contrasting acting by 'method' (from inside out) versus acting by 'technique' (from outside in). This is juxtaposed with stirring anecdotes from her past. Theatre in Singapore is a largely upper middle-class activity, she candidly remarks. It's something few people from her background would have been a part of. She takes us back to her days as an eager but gauche student, keen to try new things but never quite fitting in with the cool crowd. Her foray into the performing arts through Chinese dance and cheesy pop songs finally reaches fruition when she is selected for the TFY programme under the mentorship of respected practitioners such as director Alvin Tan and  playwright Haresh Sharma.

Even then, she cannot help but feel like a fish out of water. With a characteristic blend of humour and honesty, she describes her experience in the programme as akin to a minah from the ghetto being thrown into a ballet academy. Yet, looking past this world that seemed full of upper-class people with a fancy arts education, she persevered and the fruits of her labour paid off. Her work on stage has allowed her to travel the world and earned her a place on hit television programmes such as The Noose. She is a two-time-winner of the Life! Theatre Award for Best Actress and was a recipient of The Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council in 2014.

One is struck by the incredible humility and discipline Siti displays in the face of such an impressive resume. Rather than feeling typecast as a Malay-Muslim woman, she relishes the opportunity to act as a voice for her people and to tell their stories on stage. In a memorable sequence, Siti ponders what her life would have been like had she not gone into theatre. In this alternate world, she would have continued her studies, married a nice Malay boy and had three kids. She would have led a simple and generally contented life but perhaps, in her spare moments while watching television, she would wonder if she could do a better job than the actress on the screen.

It's a testament to Siti's skill as a performer that one remains enraptured throughout the piece. An Actress Prepares is a heartfelt, engaging and ultimately heartwarming celebration of a life well spent in the theatre, one that will only be filled with brighter tomorrows. As Siti finally stands centre stage, all dolled up, and belts out a song dedicated to those who have left the local arts community, we understand what all the fuss is about: she is every inch the star.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

05 November 2016

Best Of (His Story)

by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage
The Necessary Stage Black Box, Singapore

There are two sides to every story. Three years ago, The Necessary Stage gave us Best Of, a monologue about a day in the life of a young Malay-Muslim woman undergoing divorce at the Syariah courts. We gain a compelling snapshot of her fears and frustrations and learn of a husband who has stopped responding to her.

That husband (Sani Hussin) now has the chance to air his side of things in this companion piece by playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan, which picks the story up one year later on the day the divorce is to be finalised.


Like its predecessor, the play explores divorce within the Malay-Muslim community and the structures that stand in the way of a couple deciding that marital life is not for them. We hear of a religion which allows yet frowns upon divorce, a court counsellor intent on making the couple change their mind and a quietly crestfallen mother who never sees her son in the same light after learning of his failed marriage. All this is superimposed on an image of a marginalised community grappling with issues such as crime and academic underachievement.

While the wife's character in Best Of simply sat on chair and told her tale, Sani paces back and forth for seventy minutes, recounting the events of the day and providing occasional flashbacks. Sani displays a solid range of emotion to power the script and provides colourful impersonations of his two best friends, a louche ex-con and campy civil defence buddy.

Tan's direction however feels unwieldy and only serves to underscore a fairly dull character who does not know what he wants in life. The most arresting moment of the evening is also its quietest - the character performing the solat istikharah, a prayer to seek guidance and direction.

A key theme in Best Of (His Story) is the evolving concept of masculinity. The husband feels trapped between cherished images of his father and grandfather, men who demanded submission from their spouses, and a sensitive modern man who respects his wife’s need for independence and her own social life. This tussle between tradition and modernity is physicalized in him vacillating between the designer sofa bought by his wife and a straw mat on which he recites prayers.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

Vincent Lim's set is fringed by sheer white curtains which Sani tugs on throughout the play, closing off the space his upwardly mobile wife had created. When he finally moves the expensive furniture aside, we see him as a man who has reclaimed his place, allowing him to truly relax and dance to the tunes of his childhood. All this is conveyed by Gabriel Chan's simple and sensitive lighting.

Where I ultimately struggled was in buying the authenticity of the character. One cannot shake off the sense that this is just an actor pulling off a competent performance. It is worth noting that the earlier iteration had been developed with and written specifically for actress Siti Khalijah, resulting in a performance so natural and organic that it virtually broke the fourth wall. One somehow expects the same degree of realism but this just does not come through.

Both plays in the Best Of series provide a nuanced portrait of a community struggling to find meaning in an uncertain world. These are by no means perfect individuals but they are trying, against all odds, to make the best of their situation. And one is inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

04 November 2016

Between the Lines: Rant and Rave II

by Chong Tze Chien
The Finger Players / Singapore Writers Festival
SOTA Studio Theatre, Singapore

The Singapore Writers Festival 2016 kicks off with an intelligent and carefully researched work of documentary theatre by Chong Tze Chien that takes us on a journey through Singapore's literary history spanning more than half a century. Unlike his 2012 production Rant & Rave which focused exclusively on the Singapore theatre scene, Chong draws the canvas far wider in this sequel and explores the style and content of local literature, the role of institutions and policies in shaping the development of an indigenous literary scene and the key players in the landscape such as readers, writers and academic commentators.


The result of this vastness of material makes the themes feel slightly disorganized. We start with a cursory glimpse of Malayan literature in the colonial era before swiftly moving to post-independence Singapore and the struggle to find a uniquely Singaporean voice and idiom, as reflected in iconic poems by pioneers like Arthur Yap and Edwin Thumboo.

Chong reminds us how Singaporeans' love of local literature developed though a healthy diet of horror fiction and sensationalist writing such the True Singapore Ghost Stories series and Bonny Hicks's bawdy confessional Excuse Me, Are You A Model before the current literary renaissance that has seen an outpouring of fresh writing on all topics, eagerly encouraged by publishers like Math Paper Press and Epigram Books.

A segment that is of particular interest focuses on institutions shaping the literary culture. There were nostalgic sighs from the audience at references to the Bookworm Club of the 1980s and the arrival of American bookstore Borders in the mid 1990s which rapidly became the hottest hangout in town until poor sales forced it out of the market, a victim of its own liberal browsing policy. While bringing in references to independent bookstores like BooksActually and Littered with Books is important, the narrative could have explained how the rise of online merchants in the past decade has been a primary factor explaining the dearth of traditional book buying.

Photo Credit: Singapore Writers Festival

Finally the role of governmental policies is not spared. As liberal as we may fancy the current scene, the spectre of censorship is always there to rear its ugly head. Recent scandals over the culling of a children's book with homosexual characters from the public libraries and the removal of a grant for Sonny Liew's critically-acclaimed graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (which went on to win the coveted Singapore Literature Prize) provide powerful illustrations.

Similar to the original production, performers Jean Ng and Serene Chen read out extracts from the various publications and take on the guises of an assortment of personalities through a quick change of hat, wig or glasses. They handle the material with confidence though one senses that they are rushing to switch between the numerous roles instead of letting some moments simply simmer. Chong's production could also be better paced, particularly in the more languid second half. The opening of illuminated, book-shaped lanterns to mark each theme is a nice visual touch but feels laboured, particularly in the closing sequence.  

Still, there are a number of colourful impersonations to enliven the evening. Serene Chen nails the cadences of outspoken writer Catherine Lim and an ineffectual politician while Jean Ng's portrayal of bookseller Kenny Leck, complete with Medusa-like hair and purring kittens, brings the house down.

It's perhaps the finale of the show that is most special. The stage, comprised of rows of tall white bookcases, turns into a mini bookstore and the audience is invited to wander in and sample the rich delights of local literature. A fitting end indeed to a performance that celebrates the world of books.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

13 October 2016

Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde

by Chong Tze Chien
The Finger Players
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

This ambitious play, the first of a planned trilogy by playwright-director Chong Tze Chien on Adolf Hitler, seeks to interrogate the life of the infamous German dictator and provide us with a fresh context in which to view the man.

Chong frames his play as a trial where a Nazi Prime Minister (Joshua Lim) questions Ava Braun (Edith Podesta), Hitler's mistress, to find out more about him. Braun simply cannot fathom how the man she grew to love so much could be capable of acts of horrific violence and starts painting a portrait of him for us.
 

We are swept back to a calmer world which presents Hitler (Daniel York) as a struggling painter called Jekyll who fails to get into an art academy and is reduced to hawking his work for money. Braun, a gallery owner, takes pity on him and brings him into her world and gradually, her heart. Little is she aware that Jekyll battles his own demons. He is confronted by a voice deep within him that champions the provenance of a pure Germanic race, spurring him to eradicate Jews whom he feels have unfairly robbed him of artistic advancement.

Taking on this Jekyll and Hyde template, the mild-mannered artist is powerless to control the machinations of his alter ego. Massacres of Jews erupt all over town as the latter's acts grow more insidious. Lim's character, a junior police inspector at the time, is tasked with the job of cracking down on this brutal serial killer, all the while hiding his own secret: his beloved childhood nanny (Jo Kukathas) is herself a Jew and has been staying with him.

The production is carried by the strength of its ensemble cast and there are particularly powerful turns from York, who invests the titular character with malevolence and melancholy, and Podesta as a strong yet tragic voice of reason. In a nod to the company's roots in puppet work, Chong makes extensive use of shadows, where actors enact scenes behind a white screen, looming larger or smaller as they move deftly around the lights. Lim Woan Wen's lighting and Darren Ng's soundscapes contribute to this evocative and visually sumptuous experience, with black and red forming rich colour palettes.
 
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Yet, one remains unsure what Starring Hitler seeks to achieve. Is it meant to humanize a tyrant like Hitler by painting him as a victim of split personality? Or does it seek to satirize the state agenda of controlling artistic expression which results in its own downfall? There are various strands to the tale that do not fully interlock.

Julius Foo appears as a closeted police commissioner whose clandestine relationship with a younger officer proves to be his undoing. This homosexual theme however seems to be only incidental to the plot. Likewise, Jekyll makes powerful speeches about the merits of art, giving the play the feel of a performance-lecture which rails against arbitrary censorship of the arts. What this adds to the rest of the narrative remains unclear.
 
A more powerful metaphor is offered in the opening and closing sequences which feature the cast standing in a row, bearing placards with their actual ethnicities. They then flip this around to reveal the words 'Jew' or 'German' to reflect the characters they are playing. The point here seems to be that we are all, always and inevitably, pigeonholed by our identities: be it racial, religious or political. 

Starring Hitler is a play of rich ideas and richer contradictions. Chong may not have something classic on his hands but he has certainly crafted an intelligent work that does not shy away from asking the hard questions. It's just sometimes important to know what these questions actually are.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5