09 June 2016

Ghost Writer

by Haresh Sharma
dramaturged by Charlene Rajendran
The Necessary Stage
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What makes us who we are? What pushes us to create art? The Necessary Stage’s latest collaborative, devised production, Ghost Writer, seeks to explore these hard questions by taking us on a journey that cuts across different artistic disciplines.
 
The narrative, crafted by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan with dramaturgy by Charlene Rajendran, is broken into chapters focusing on different characters.
            
Celebrated dancer Savitri (Sukania Venugopal) has inherited her father’s bharathanatyam dance school in India and is searching for a successor. Her most-promising dance pupil Priya (Ruby Jayaseelan) emigrates to Canada to expand her craft and ends up re-discovering her cultural identity. Savitri’s academic son (Ebi Shankara), on the other hand, moves to Singapore with his new bride (Sharda Harrison), a woman who learns to find her own voice and exorcise her inner demons.
 
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
 
The tales of these three women — powerful, bold and passionate — form the heart of the show and unfurl in an adroit fusion of dance, theatre, film and music. The spirit of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and his muse Kadambari lingers delicately over the performance and provide a rich aesthetic gloss. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a series of filmed interviews about the provenance of the dance school over the years, a symbol of the artistic spirit that binds them together.
 
The theatre elements are far easier to digest and allow for rich, absorbing performances by the likes of veteran actress Venugopal and rising star Harrison. The dance aspects, however, are a little more abstruse, particularly to the casual theatre-goer. Choreographer Ole Khamchanla juxtaposes modern dance with classical movements, and this collision between styles can sometimes appear baffling. Dance artist Jereh Leong, who plays Priya’s love interest, twirls and thrashes around in a remarkably acrobatic but distracting fashion that seems to blend yoga and breakdancing.
 
It would be impossible not to credit the production team in such a richly collaborative endeavour. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design features striking textual projections and black-and white filmed sections that infuse the narrative with magnificence and melancholy. Wong Chee Wai’s mobile, utilitarian set forms a blank canvas for a variety of visual spectacles.
 
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
 
One cannot deny the creativity in the soundscapes by award-winning Bani Haykal, an arresting aural potion that blends the familiar and ethereal, and that is beautifully complemented by the live vocals of Namita Mehta. However, the almost-constant stream of sounds could quite easily have been pared down to let the visuals speak for themselves.
 
At just seventy minutes, the production does not outstay its welcome, although there is some imbalance between the generally linear exposition in the first half and the more abstract sequences that creep in towards the end.
 
Ghost Writer is a re-worked version of the company’s 2014 production Gitanjali (I feel the earth move) — a somewhat raw and frustrating work that had a similar framework and characters. The cross-disciplinary craft has certainly been refined, but is some way from being perfect. Still, this is one fusion experiment well worth visiting.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 13 June 2016.

14 May 2016

Falling

by Deanna Jent
PANGDEMONIUM!
KS Arts Centre, Singapore

SINGAPORE — In a society that valorises wealth, popularity and privilege, too many of our everyday heroes are ignored. Falling, a gripping drama by American playwright Deanna Jent, sheds light on just one such group — the caregivers of people with autism.

The Yeos are a typical family: Rebellious teenage daughter Lisa (Fiona Lim), nagging parents Bill and Tami (Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua) and a Bible-thumping grandmother who has come to visit (Neo Swee Lin). The only difference is that living among them is Josh (Andrew Marko), Bill and Tami’s severely autistic 18-year-old son.


Josh’s condition is such that he requires constant attention. He gets agitated by loud noises like the sound of a blender or a dog barking, likes routine and nothing calms him more than pulling a string attached to a box, causing feathers to cascade over his head.

A simple exercise of getting Josh ready for school is a mission — his parents have to enact song and dance sequences and deal with his daily tantrums, some more violent than others.

Marko gives a standout performance that is all twisted hand gestures, shuffles and grunts, a tour de force of character acting that is testament to the detailed preparation that has been undertaken to understand why Josh acts the way he does.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

It’s no surprise that Josh’s condition takes an enormous toll on the family. Tami resorts to alcohol to calm her nerves and is emotionally distant from her husband. Lisa just wants to live a normal teenage life without her “freak” of a brother. “You can hate him,” Tami tells her at one point. “Mothers don’t have that choice.”

Tan’s Tami is the beating heart of the show and her nuanced performance of a quietly resilient mother will have one biting back tears. Indeed, it’s nothing short of fiercely unconditional love that enables one to deal with a situation like this on a daily basis, being constantly bullied and berated. In one of the play’s most powerful moments, Tami dreams what her life would be like if Josh dies and is so consumed by guilt that she rushes to hug her bemused son, realising that there is no truer gift than him just standing there, being himself.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

Much of what makes Falling so powerful is its authenticity — Jent is herself the mother of an autistic child — and her scenes pulsate with honesty. Director Tracie Pang calibrates the emotional temperature to perfection, keeping the action lived-in and avoiding sentimentality or theatrics. The play also translates effortlessly to a Singapore setting, reminding us that autism is very much a universal problem. The production is rounded out by Wong Chee Wai and Chris Chua’s stunningly recreated apartment set and James Tan’s beautiful lighting.

It is important to recognise PANGDEMONIUM!’s outreach efforts to members of the autistic community and engaging post-show talks. Awareness is the first step to a society that will stop such individuals from falling through the cracks. Like Josh, they just need the comfort of feathers.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 16 May 2016.

09 May 2016

Playwrights' Galore (2016)

Here's the annual list of playwrights of whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Zizi Azah and (far too late) Kuo Pao Kun.

More significantly, I've finally completed more than half the Shakespearean canon following two very fortuitous theatre marathons over past year: John Barton and Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses in Kingston, London last October and the RSC King and Country series comprising the two Henry IV plays and Henry V in Hong Kong this March. 21 down, 16 more to go!

William Shakespeare (21)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x4)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-The Tempest (x3)
-Macbeth (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Hamlet (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 (9)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Mobile
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-godeatgod
-Best Of
-Poor Thing
-Pioneer (Girls) Generation

Alfian Sa'at (8)
-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

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

Chong Tze Chien (4)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms
-Spoilt
-Turn by Turn We Turn

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

Huzir Sulaiman (3)
-Occupation
-Atomic Jaya
-The Weight of Silk on Skin

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

30 April 2016

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare
Singapore Repertory Theatre
Shakespeare in the Park
Fort Canning Park, Singapore

The main challenge one finds with Singapore Repertory Theatre’s popular Shakespeare In The Park series every year is balancing spectacle with substance. Director Daniel Slater’s dynamic modern dress production of Romeo and Juliet strikes the right note, allowing for grand tableaus and beautifully private moments without unnecessary theatrics.
 
 
From the outset, we are reminded that this is no feel-good romance for the millennial generation — tank tops and ripped jeans notwithstanding. The rift between the feuding families is represented by a cleft on the stage that divides Frances O’Connor terraced set in two with conveniently colour-coded sections for the Montagues (blue) and the Capulets (red).
            
The world of religion is central to Slater’s production: stained-glass panels, crucifixes and candles are a constant reminder of the Catholic Church. The play begins and ends with the words of a hand-cuffed, guilt-stricken Father Laurence. This theme of guilt is perhaps taken a touch too far; the priest carries out an act of self-flagellation at one point and we are confronted with the image of a bedraggled Mercutio lurking in the shadows after his demise. Indeed, the apothecary who sells poison to Romeo is the ghost of Mercutio himself, although whether this is meant to suggest that death is the price to pay for following the dictates of passion is left unclear.
 
Thomas Pang is a captivating Romeo, capturing the character’s zest and energy with effortless charm and displaying an impressive confidence in his verse. The scenes between him and Cheryl Tan’s Juliet are positively electric with passion. Tan successfully conveys Juliet’s innocence and ecstasy but is less convincing in charting her mettle and determination to be with her sworn enemy. She also needs to work on her pitch and tone.
 
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
 
Among the supporting cast, there are beautifully rendered performances by veteran actors such as Daniel Jenkins as Father Laurence, Remesh Panicker as Capulet and Jo Kukathas as the Nurse. However, there are some uneven notes to the cast. Shane Mardjuki, all swagger and bombast, fails to endow the character of Mercutio with the pathos it demands. There is a stiff performance by David Gooderson as Montague, who looks vaguely perplexed as to what he is meant to do.
 
Slater’s production is full of action and drive at the beginning but there is a notable dip in energy in the second half and the pacing needs to be improved. The deathbed scene, in particular, feels almost perfunctory and there is hardly a moment to allow the weight of the tragedy to sink in.
 
Certain physical sequences can certainly be improved — one remains unconvinced by all the stage slaps — and the musical refrain for the young lovers feels monotonous after a while. However, there is great lighting work by Gabriel Chan and truly splendid costume work by Moe Kasim, whose designs blend modernity with tradition and showcase rich Asian motifs.
 
SRT has delivered a solid production of this well-loved classic that is, simultaneously, heady romance and cautionary tale. It makes for a riveting soirée under the stars.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 3 May 2016.

26 April 2016

16th Life! Theatre Awards 2016

The 16th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards were held yesterday afternoon at the Esplanade Recital Studio. This year saw the largest number of awards ever given out (fifteen) with a brand new category for children's theatre.

W!LD RICE's epic, five-hour homage to Singapore's storied history, Hotel, was the very deserving star of the show, bagging a total of four awards: Best Original Script, Best Director, Best Ensemble and the coveted Production of the Year. Shout-outs are also due for The LKY Musical and Off Centre.

Full list of winners and nominees below. Heartiest congratulations to all!


Production of the Year 
Hotel (W!LD RICE)
  • It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk) (Drama Box)
  • Off Centre (Oliver Chong; Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)
  • The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers (Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)
  • The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions/Singapore Repertory Theatre)
  
Production of the Year (Readers' Choice)
The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions/SRT)


Best Production for the Young
The Wee Question Mark And The Adventurer - A Children's Musical (The Theatre Practice)
  • Journey West: Web Of Deceit (Paper Monkey Theatre)
  • Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine (Players Theatre)
  • Samsui Women: One Brick At A Time (The Finger Players; Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)
  • Treasure Island (Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company)

Best Director
Ivan Heng and Glen Goei (Hotel; W!LD RICE)
  • Alvin Tan (untitled women)
  • Kok Heng Leun, Koh Wan Ching and Li Xie (It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk)
  • Ong Keng Sen (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers)
  • Tracie Pang (Tribes)

Best Actor
Adrian Pang (The LKY Musical; Metropolitan Productions/SRT)
  • Ebi Shankara (Off Centre)
  • Khairudin Samsudin (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Thomas Pang (Tribes)
  • Yang Shi Bin (The Struggle: Years Later)
 
Best Actress
Siti Khalijah Zainal (Off Centre; Oliver Chong/Esplanade) 
  • Karen Tan (Emily Of Emerald Hill)
  • Li Xie (Legends Of The Southern Arch)
  • Neo Swee Lin (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Oon Shu An (Chinglish)

Best Supporting Actor
Benjamin Chow (The LKY Musical; Metropolitan Productions/SRT)

  • Ghafir Akbar (Public Enemy)
  • Johnny Ng (The Lower Depths)
  • Norisham Osman (Ma'Ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do)
  • Tay Kong Hui (The Lower Depths)

Best Supporting Actress
Serene Chen (Public Enemy, W!LD RICE)

  • Edith Podesta (Versus)
  • Frances Lee (Beauty World)
  • Jalyn Han (Tartuffe)
  • Yap Yi Kai (Public Enemy)
Best Ensemble
Hotel (W!LD RICE)

  • Another Country (W!LD RICE)
  • It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk) (Drama Box)
  • Normal (Checkpoint Theatre)
  • Tribes (PANGDEMONIUM!)
 
Best Original Script
Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten (Hotel; W!LD RICE)
  • Alfian Sa'at (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Chong Tze Chien (Seed)
  • Jean Tay (It Won't Be Too Long (The Cemetery: Dusk))
  • Tony Petito (book) and Meira Chand (story) (The LKY Musical) 

Best Set Design
Wong Chee Wai (Legends Of The Southern Arch; The Theatre Practice)

  • Chris Chua (Titoudao)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Hotel)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Public Enemy)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Tribes)

Best Lighting Design
Dorothy Png (Legends Of The Southern Arch; The Theatre Practice)

  • Gabriel Chan (The LKY Musical)
  • James Tan (Public Enemy)
  • Lim Woan Wen (Hotel)
  • Lim Woan Wen (Seed)
 
Best Sound Design
Bani Haykal (untitled women; The Necessary Stage)

  • Darren Ng (Off Centre)
  • Darren Ng (The Spirits Play)
  • Darren Ng (The Struggle: Years Later)
  • Jeffrey Yue (Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral)
  
Best Costume Design
Reckless Ericka (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers; Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)

  • Moe Kassim (Legends Of The Southern Arch)
  • Theresa Chan (Hotel)
  • Tube Gallery by Phisit & Saxit (The Emperor's New Clothes)
  • Yang Derong (Beauty World) 
  
Best Multimedia Design
Brian Gothong Tan (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers; Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)

  • Brian Gothong Tan (Versus)
  • Kelvin Chew (Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral)
  • Loo Zihan and Kelvin Chew (With/Out)
  • Ong Kian Peng (Upstage)

25 March 2016

Recalling Mother

by Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed
Checkpoint Theatre
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Checkpoint Theatre's Recalling Mother, a warm and wistful two-hander about mothers and daughters, is like catching up with an old friend over a cup of coffee.

This fourth staging of the play since 2006 - presented, very aptly, as part of the Esplanade's Studios season themed around The Fiction of Memory - builds upon the endearing formula of the previous productions while bringing new perspectives to the table. The production both draws from its previous iterations and valiantly looks forward; recordings from the 2009 production intersperse the narrative while entirely new segments have been added to refresh the text.

Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Lime Pixels courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Recalling Mother is about two adult daughters (Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed) chatting with each other and telling stories about their mothers, women who both speak a different language from them and who have led very different lives. While previous versions of the play had focused on the the cultural and generational conflicts between parent and child, this staging in particular emphasizes the element of age. 

There are rich and quietly moving anecdotes about dementia and the loneliness of growing old alone. We watch, rapt, as Noorlinah narrates the detailed thoughts going through the mind of Claire's mother - cooking, cleaning, family and the constant pain she feels - as she sits in front of her television set seemingly idle. Elsewhere, we are privy to the ramblings of Noorlinah's mother, intent on recounting an experience of catching fresh squid from the sea to her bemused daughter in the middle of the night.

Both Wong and Noorlinah (who also co-direct) display a remarkable fluidity and energy in their performances, moving between languages and genres with consummate ease. In a heart-wrenching scene, Claire portrays her mother scolding an errant maid in a mixture of Malay and Cantonese before ultimately breaking down when she doesn't seem to get through to her. In another moment, Noorlinah whisks us back to her childhood, recounting her giddy joy in finally finding a father-figure when she and her single mother meet a gentleman caller.
 
Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Lime Pixels courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Too many of us these days take our loved ones for granted and never find the time to learn their stories and secrets. Recalling Mother reminds us that the most satisfying moments in life are sometimes the simplest ones: a quiet smile of contentment between mother and daughter as they share a meal or speak on the phone, by equal measure indulgent and irritated at each other's quirks. The subtle set and lighting design by Petrina Dawn Tan, stylish costumes by Laichan that capture the gulf between modern and traditional and measured pace of the production come together beautifully into an organic whole.

Checkpoint Theatre has always excelled at laying bare quiet, unguarded moments of humanity and Recalling Mother is no exception. One leaves the theatre not with the feeling that a chapter has been closed but, rather, that a new conversation is just about to begin. 

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

19 March 2016

Ophelia

by Michelle Tan and Natalie Hennedige
Cake Theatrical Productions
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Cake Theatrical Productions' latest outing is an interesting feminist take on Shakespeare's great tragedy. Co-playwrights Michelle Tan and Natalie Hennedige give us a meta-theatrical reconstruction of the play which allows us to see things through the eyes of Ophelia, its often-overlooked heroine. Indeed, it is in some ways reminiscent of Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, shedding light on a character we rarely get to engage with.

In a nod to the play-within-a-play construct of Hamlet, the narrative is framed as a rehearsal of the actual play featuring Hamlet as an auteur and Ophelia as an actor. Jo Kukathas's Ophelia, who remains onstage throughout, kicks things off by making dense monologues about plunging into water, alluding to her character's tragic end by drowning. Indeed, the production makes many cheeky references to the idea of swimming: Ophelia dons a swimming cap, Thomas Pang's Hamlet emerges in a pair of goggles and the only notable piece of furniture on stage is a lifeguard's chair, perched above a raised platform.

Photo Credit: Cake Theatrical Productions

This is a mature Ophelia swirling with thoughts and desires, one who is deliberately contrasted with Hamlet, who is presented as a cocky, younger man who enjoys nothing more than having himself in the spotlight and dictating orders to others. The actors frequently break the fourth wall and two members of the crew appear several times to wield props and create effects.

Pang, who has taken the local stage by storm since his debut in Tribes just a year ago, is captivating in his physicality and displays a chameleon-like ability to snap between the comically absurd and intensely dramatic. In a memorable sequence, he orders a bemused stage hand to spray his bare torso with water and launches into Hamlet's "too, too sullied flesh" soliloquy, writhing sensuously. Stage veteran Kukathas is also in top form, filling her scenes with a vigour and passion that keeps one's eyes riveted on her.

There is a crackling power to the exchanges between the pair with Hamlet always getting the upper hand despite Ophelia's attempts to assert her presence. In a role-reversal sequence, Hamlet washes clothes in a frilly dress while Ophelia takes on the guise of the soldier, riding valiantly into war. When she returns home, triumphant from battle, she is cruelly derided by him. In another scene, Ophelia tries to recite the iconic "To be or not to be" soliloquy but is unable to: those words remain Hamlet's and Hamlet's alone. She remains, always, in the shadows - a fact underscored by her dull shapeless clothes in contrast to his gratuitous displays of flash and flesh.

Photo Credit: Jake Yam/Lime Pixels, Esplanade

Over and over again, the play drives home the point that Ophelia is ultimately a pawn in the world of men. Despite her zest, energy and inner vitality (so brilliantly embodied by Kukathas), she is continually robbed of her agency and there is ultimately no escaping her watery end. The lighting design by Andy Lim and sound design by Philip Tan augment Hennedige's sharply executed production which transitions smoothly between comedy and tragedy and lightness and heaviness.

Cake have crafted an intelligent and gripping retelling of the Hamlet story that gives us the chance to consider its themes afresh. Ophelia may not be able to avoid her destiny but we are finally able to see her as a vivid creature in her own light and it is a vision that is both rich and sobering. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

12 March 2016

King and Country

(Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V)
by William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Hong Kong Arts Festival
Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts

This trilogy of plays staged by the RSC last year (together with Richard II) under the banner King and Country is doing a tour of China and Hong Kong - the first time the RSC has done a major touring production of Shakespearean history in China. Much like Trevor Nunn's superb revival of The Wars of the Roses last autumn, Gregory Doran's series of productions gains tremendously by being performed by the same ensemble cast, allowing for a greater immediacy and sense of continuity as we see the story develop before our eyes.


By omitting Richard II from the mix, the focus of these plays is squarely on the story of King Henry IV's son, the young Prince Hal (Alex Hassel), and his journey from playful lout frequenting the taverns of Eastcheap to wise and dauntless king. Hassel does a fantastic job in charting the transition of the character. In Henry IV, Part I, he revels as the mischievous prince surrounded by his band of roguish companions and gives us an entirely natural performance that is both likeable and compelling.

There is an easy chemistry between Hassel and his chief partner in crime, the irreverent Sir John Falstaff (a scene-stealing Antony Sher) that captures both the easy camaraderie between friends and a quasi-parental relationship that ultimately fades. The scene where Falstaff endeavours to embellish circumstances wherein he was robbed and talks himself up to the 'King' (played by Hal) and is pure comic gold. Indeed, there is a blend of both bumptiousness and pathos in Sher's Falstaff - a man who knows he is a complete good-for-nothing but yet takes foolish pride in being exactly who he is and refusing to mend his ways.

There are equally strong performances by Matthew Needham as young rebel Harry 'Hotspur' Percy with his blind, slightly comic fits of rage and Simon Thorp as the weary King Henry IV, fending of attacks to the throne and his own doubts as to his son's abilities as a capable successor to the throne.

Photo Credit: Kwame Lestrade / RSC Pinterest

Henry IV, Part II takes on a discernibly darker tone that moves away from the casual comedy and banter of its precursor into a more serious examination of age and responsibility. Indeed, the famous monologue where King Henry IV declares "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" is juxtaposed with the image of the sleeping Mistress Quickly (an ebullient if sometimes unintelligible Sarah Parks), allowing us to see how the common folk sleep easily but not the King. The growing distance between Hal and Falstaff is also emphasised by their largely separate tales and  the fact that they only meet twice during the play.

Things are rounded up nicely in Henry V which can be now seen as the culmination of Hal's development: taking on the crown and commanding his men in a war against France. While one may regard the addition of the narrator Chorus (a delicious turn by Oliver Ford Davies) as somewhat incongruous when all three plays are put together, it still emphasises the crucial scale of the war and effectively sets the scene for the climactic Battle of Agincourt where Henry gives his memorable St Crispin's Day speech to his "band of brothers".

Photo Credit: Keith Pattison/RSC

Doran keeps the narrative flowing and his scenes segue into each other smoothly and without rigid breaks, allowing aspects of the story to linger and melt into our consciousness. He is also alive to the many moments of rich comedy; the French Dauphin is played with delicious camp by Robert Gilbert and the courting scene between Henry V and Princess Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) is played has an utterly charming adolescent sheepishness that allows us to see glimpses of the young Hal behind the older and wiser war hero.

On the production front, wooden platforms and slats and the use of projections allow a variety of settings to be easily achieved and the candles lend an atmospheric touch. There is also a particularly good use of original music that lends a powerful chamber atmosphere to the plays. All in all, Doran and the RSC have delivered a truly excellent rendering of these three plays that captures the guts and glory of this unforgettable chapter of English history.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

27 February 2016

The Effect

by Lucy Prebble
PANGDEMONIUM!
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. Only one slight complication — they are both on a clinical trial for antidepressants. Could love just be a side effect?

Lucy Prebble’s witty, humorous and acclaimed play about the limits of science receives a commendable outing in this debut production of PANGDEMONIUM!’s 2016 season. While Prebble endowed the corporate world with the brushstrokes of Greek tragedy in ENRON, she shows herself to be equally adept at exploring the quieter confines of human emotion.


The Effect is an earnest, moving four-hander about individuals struggling to deal with one of the most basic of emotions: Love. At the same time, it is a spirited critique of the modern world of medicine. Can mental issues such as depression be treated simply by a convenient array of drugs or are these caused by external factors beyond the realm of science? Should we, as a character declares, create a “Viagra for the heart”?

The entire action plays out at a medical facility where paid volunteers have agreed to put themselves through a four-week course for a new drug. They include bubbly psychology student Connie (Nikki Muller) and laid-back Irish lad Tristan (Linden Furnell) who find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other.

Comparative newcomers Muller and Furnell, both of whom have appeared in previous PANGDEMONIUM! productions, turn in one of their strongest performances to date with a chemistry that truly sets the stage ablaze. In a standout scene, they sneak off to an unoccupied building at night and banter about their lives with such charming, joyful abandon that one instantly sees how they end up falling for each other.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!
Where I was slightly less convinced was the parallel storyline about the two doctors: Psychiatrist Dr Lorna James (Tan Kheng Hua), who is revealed to have had a long battle with depression herself, and suave medical supervisor Dr Toby Sealey (Adrian Pang) with whom she shared a past. It’s obvious that they are intended to act as a foil for the younger couple, but this unfortunately does not always come across.

Tan’s peremptory, reined-in demeanour makes her character difficult to penetrate. When she finally unravels, this seems almost perfunctory. A speech where she reverently examines a human brain and tears it to shreds does not deliver the quiet jolt of emotion one would expect. While Pang lends good support as the confident medical maestro who feels everything can be cured by a pill, his exchanges with Tan lack true conviction.

Tracie Pang delivers another instance of effortless direction that keeps this play funny, moving and constantly engaging. The clean, symmetrical aesthetic of the staging, and impressive lighting and projection design combine to create an experience that is crisp but far from clinical.

Science may be one sophisticated tool, but as The Effect cannily illustrates, it’s sometimes no match for the infinite mysteries of the heart.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 29 February 2016.

17 February 2016

Macbeth

by William Shakespeare
Full Show Lane Studio
Huayi 2016
Esplanade Studio Theatre

This Mandarin production of one of the Bard's most famous tragedies, directed by rising star Huang Ying of China's Full Show Lane Studio and presented as part of the Esplanade's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts, is sharp, slick and surprisingly funny. Some of the side characters have been omitted or combined - Duncan's younger son Donalbain has disappeared and the three Weird Sisters have been rolled into one - but the production remains largely faithful to the text. It's a fresh, breezy rendition that clips along without preamble though one downside is that the richly poetic language is somewhat cast aside in favour of simpler, unadorned prose.

Artistic Director Tadashi Suzuki's world-famous Suzuki method of acting informs the production and the young, energetic cast embrace this with great fidelity, making stylized movements that are focused on the body. It's both physical and graceful, adding a lovely Eastern aesthetic to the action. (Nelson Chia of Singapore's Nine Years Theatre is another adherent of the method).

Photo Credit: Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

One theme that is made absolutely central in this Macbeth is the preoccupation with sleep. The line "Macbeth shall sleep no more" is brought to the very fore:  red eye make-up, of increasing intensity, is seen on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after killing King Duncan, suggesting their own battle with insomnia. The very fact that other characters are displayed prominently sleeping on stage underlies the internal agony that plagues Macbeth as he treads down his treacherous path. Oversized alarm clocks also remind us that time is a foe, working against the interests of those that seek to further their own ends.

The other noteworthy aspect is the addition of the character Hecate. This is probably controversial to a Western audience as the authorship of the character, ruler of the Weird Sisters and a fairy, is generally not regarded as being canonical. Inko imports a delightful sense of otherness to the character and, in a intriguing twist, it is she who ultimately kills Macbeth instead of Macduff in this version, suggesting that the real danger confronting Macbeth all along is a spiritual rather than a physical one.

Tian Chong cuts a suave figure in the title role and while he doesn't quite catch the tragic fall of the character, there is honesty and empathy in his performance. His "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" monologue, delivered after tussling with the ghosts of both his wife and Banquo, is movingly and sincerely rendered. The sexuality of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Zeng Zi Yao) is also nicely realized; this is exactly the type of couple who formulate their most dastardly plans between the sheets.

Photo Credit: Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Interestingly, many of the characters in Huang's version of the play challenge commonly held perceptions. Banquo (Feng Yang) is a hapless yes man who tries to escape in drag, Macduff (played with delicious insouciance by Patricio Antonio Liang) is a swaggering lad sporting sunglasses and a giant lollipop and perhaps most interestingly, Malcolm (Zhang Tian) is a limping slob who is hardly what one would expect to be the heir to the throne. The sudden revelation that he is not in fact crippled lends a dark streak to the character: has good really been restored or is the cycle of violence doomed to start all over again?

While certain directorial touches are noteworthy - a scene transition featuring a rap montage of English lines of the play set to music and an outrageously funny banquet scene with water fights galore - these do not always work. I, for one, found the refrain from Ben E. King's Stand by Me, which is played at climactic moments in the narrative, to be a little too affected.

Overall, Huang and his team have delivered a production that is both playful and revelatory and breathes new life into a well-worn classic. While it may lack the ability to evoke pathos, it is easy of think of productions that have stuck to the basics and fared far worse. Things are indeed looking bright for this young company and one looks forward to seeing more of them in the future.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5