07 May 2015

The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine

by Tan Tarn How
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Who are we as a nation? In our relentless quest for excellence, do we need a soul? How do we go about cultivating this?

Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine, both biting satire and black comedy, seeks to confront these hard questions. The no-holds-barred script had its own battle with censorship when it was submitted for a performance license back in 1991; former media licensing authority, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit, found objectionable content in 36 out of its 67 pages. Fortunately, when the National Arts Council took over, the script was approved uncut and finally staged to critical acclaim in 1993. The play is now hailed as a landmark of Singapore political theatre.

Twenty years down the road, the issues Tan explores in Lady of Soul remain as pertinent as ever. The local arts scene may have become far more diverse and confrontational and the political arena more nuanced but one cannot deny the invisible hand of authority and conformity which still exists in a very real form. One should just look at the ongoing debacle about teenager Amos Yee who made a controversial YouTube video or the decision by the Media Development Authority to close down website The Real Singapore for publishing prohibited content. Have we been conditioned into accepting a pleasant, whitewashed state of affairs that dances to the tune of the powers that be and prevents true freedom of expression?

It's somewhat a pity that this superbly topical script is let down by a rather saggy production by Zizi Azah in the final of five full-length revivals held in conjunction with The Studios' massive Singapore theatre retrospective, fifty. Zizi infuses the play with plenty of colour but despite edits to tighten the pace and update the references, the scenes hang together clumsily and overly hammed-up performances detract from the biting political commentary at its heart.

Lady of Soul centres round earnest, idealistic civil servant Derek (Prem John) who has been put in charge of the Committee for the Creation of a Vibrant Nation. The play mercilessly lampoons government bureaucracy and culture: meaningless stock phrases, the endless string of committees and sub-committees which amount to nothing and ministers who are slavishly devoted to observing form rather than substance in their policies.

Much of the humour derives from Derek's quest to cultivate the nation's "soul", which leads him to meet three characters: a proponent of the arts, Sham (Farez Najid), a communist, Alban (Lian Sutton) and a flighty brothel owner, Lady Soh (Rizman Putra). Various concepts of the "soul" are thrown around by the group, the most raucous being the idea of raw, physical pleasure as exemplified by the titular Ultimate "S" Machine supplied by Lady Soh.

Tan cleverly blends the personal and the political in his writing and the covert homosexual relationship between Derek and another civil servant is hinted at, giving Derek yet another layer of secrets that he feels trapped behind. His anguish at having his report ultimately tossed aside in favour of something along official government lines is an apt metaphor of the silencing of individuality in the face of authority. Zizi's choice of leaving us with the image of a bound, helpless Derek is a powerful and sombre one.

Zizi is alive to the facetiousness and witty allegory in Tan's writing and dredges this to the very surface, giving us plenty of laughs. The cast includes a good mix of well-known and new faces but over-the-top performances make things feel like a comedy sketch show. Stage veteran Gene Sha Rudyn plays the Minister like a gnome on steroids - all flailing hands, bulging eyes and fake laughter. As Derek's two assistants, recent theatre graduates Shafiqah Efandi and Dominique De Marco are energetic and amusing but prove slightly tedious in their transitions. Rizman gets the lion's share of laughs as a feathered, sequinned Lady Soh and plays up the raunchy element of the character to death. The overt bawdiness tends to outstay its welcome though - there's enough in the dialogue not to purely rely on cheap physical gags.

Wong Chee Wai's backdrop of translucent screens effectively sets the stage for a rich explosion of light and colour in the opening sequence which features various silhouetted figures. However, this image is never really used again and seems more of a dramatic flourish than anything. While the minimalist props work well in opening up the acting space, it also gives rise to a jarring emptiness.

Lady of Soul is a play that continues to provoke debate. While one may argue that parts of the play have dated since they were first written and the commentary lacks nuance, it's important to recognize the deeper message that Tan astutely identified all those years ago. We need to find a way to breathe life and soul into our glittering nation but this is something which has to develop organically, without the aid of a machine, checklist or humdrum nationwide campaign.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

06 May 2015

Seventy Shades of Play - Media Release

Here's an edited media release for The Stage Club's upcoming production, Seventy Shades of Play, that will be held to commemorate its 70th anniversary. I'll be appearing in scenes from two of the featured plays.

Please do come and support. It promises to be a very entertaining affair. 



As Singapore celebrates its 50th year of nationhood, its longest running theatre company marks 70 years of continuous performance with a very special show. Intriguingly titled Seventy Shades of Play, this production by The Stage Club runs from 27 to 30 May 2015 at the DBS Arts Centre.

Seventy Shades of Play promises to be very popular night of light entertainment. Comprised of seven captivating scenes from seven plays, the show covers seven decades of performances by The Stage Club and seven centuries of work for theatre by leading English playwrights:

- Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest
- Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
- William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
- Noel Coward's Private Lives
- Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
- Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves
- Keith Waterhouse's Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell  

Directed by four very experienced, Singapore-based theatre directors Elena Scherer, Gavin Low, Nick Perry and Nick Kenny, Seventy Shades of Play is designed to induce serious laughter from its hilarious comic and character acting, along with a number of musical interludes.

The cast includes many established acting and singing talents, including Nick Cheadle, Hunter Wood, Jane Grafton, Foofie Gunawardena, Nicola Kong, Nikki Hewett, Jasmine Buckingham, Erick Guansing, Steve Clark, Nicola Perry, Naeem Kapadia, Kyra Boyer, Vivienne Wong – and some relative newcomers to the Singapore stage – Soh Wee Ping, Damien Ng, Dave Beck, Grace Daria, Paul Heath, David Grant, Dhun Alan, Glenn Gonzales, Tomomi Kikuchi and Shawn Smith.

Lead director of the show, Elena Scherer, who has also just taken on the additional role of President of The Stage Club, said the celebratory revue is so named to mark 70 years of theatre performances for Singapore audiences. The show incorporates scenes from plays which have been performed at least once in each of the seven decades since the Club was established in 1945.

Tickets are priced at $37 for the Wednesday night performance and $42 for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday night performances. There are concessions for students and seniors as well as a 10% discount for purchases of four or more tickets at the same time. Tickets are available through SISTIC here.

*Here's a link to the full text of the preview article published in The Straits Times Life! on 12 May 2015.

03 May 2015

The Tempest

by William Shakespeare
Singapore Repertory Theatre
Fort Canning Park, Singapore

The SRT tends to rely on spectacle to draw in the crowds for its annual Shakespeare in the Park series. Over the years, we've seen yachts, helicopters, multi-level sets and staggering audio-visuals grace the outdoor stage at Fort Canning Park. Yet, all these theatrics have somehow sidelined the importance of language and good, old-fashioned acting. I'm therefore delighted to see a return to substance in this year's production of The Tempest directed by Braham Murray, easily one of the strongest editions in the series yet. Here, finally, is a Shakespeare production that eschews gimmicks in favour of the primacy of the written text.

Murray, former artistic director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, delivers a highly competent classic production that captures the enigma of this play that resists the clear labels of "comedy" and "tragedy". Murray's production also appears inspired in more ways than one by Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project version, seen in Singapore in 2010; the image of Prospero as a man learned in the art of magic is manifested not only in the pile of books placed prominently in a corner of the stage but in the very set itself: a towering, fourteen-metre-high open book stunningly designed by Simon Higlett.

Murray makes a wise choice in cutting the opening scene, catapulting us straight into the action. We are immediately drawn into the storm conjured up by Prospero (Simon Robson), the rightful Duke of Milan, who aims to exact revenge on the men who usurped his rightful position and conspired to banish him from his realm, resulting in him being marooned on an island for the past twelve years with his daughter. The raging tempest is presented simply and breathtakingly with a giant, shimmering blue cloth thrown from the top of the set, engulfing the men’s ship.

Robson turns in a nuanced, compelling performance as Prospero and his delivery of the verse is by turns majestic and menacing. Unlike the rather self-indulgent, librarian-like figure played by Stephen Dillane in the Mendes production, Robson's Prospero comes across as a truly formidable wizard, standing centrestage with tousled hair and wild, swirling cloak. His final soliloquy is one of the best I have seen yet; he walks right into the audience as he beseeches us to set him free with our applause and one feels, more keenly than ever, the voice of Shakespeare breaking through in this, his final play. Where Robson falters is in catching Prospero's transition from an angry sorcerer bent on revenge to a man who learns to forgive those who have wronged him; this subtle but important change in demeanour is never fleshed out.

There are some excellent performances by the talented cast. Terence Wilton and Ian Shaw are superb as Gonzalo and Alonso respectively. Daniel Jenkins and Shane Mardjuki make a fantastic double act as drunken steward Stephano and jester Trinculo in a comic subplot – indeed, it is refreshing seeing Jenkins flex his comic muscles on stage after a string of rather serious parts. As young couple Miranda and Ferdinand, Julie Wee and Timothy Wan make a cute and likeable pairing but could have displayed far more chemistry. Wee's occasionally too-high pitch and Wan's wavering accent also prove distracting.

Theo Ogundipe – tall, swarthy and boasting a rich, orotund voice – brings an impressive physicality to Caliban, the island native enslaved by Prospero. But while he excelled in the physical comedy with Stephano and Trinculo, he never quite managed to evoke in me a true sense of pity for his predicament. The colonial implications of the relationship are by no means new, though one wonders if these would have gained even more currency by portraying Caliban as an Asian, perhaps a Malay "native", which would anchor the play in the local milieu. Seeing as the spirits of the island seem to have an Asian feel with long red hair and white gowns (vaguely resembling pontianak) this might not have been entirely out of place.

I was a little bemused by the choice of Ann Lek as Ariel, who appears to be a cross between a K-pop star and martial arts heroine in her crinkly silver suit with trailing sleeves. One of the problems of having people who can actually speak Shakespeare well is that it throws less experienced actors into sharp relief, and unfortunately Lek, while impressive in her singing abilities and altogether serviceable in her delivery, compares badly to Robson's Prospero. I would also have liked to see the relationship of Prospero and Ariel being explored in more depth.

Murray keeps the pace of the production tight and snappy but more thought should have been put into orchestrating the action onstage and ensuring a balance between movement and stillness. The problem with the scale of this stage is that it can sometimes engulf actors. A scene where Prospero spies on Miranda and Ferdinand from an elevated pigeonhole loses some of its impact because he is physically so far away. Scenes with the ensemble of fairies feel rather piecemeal and it might have been better to keep them constantly onstage as a fluttering, otherworldly omnipresence.

All in all, this latest theatrical adventure by the SRT has much to recommend itself. While The Tempest is by no means a play that immediately captivates with fully fleshed-out characters and intrigue-ridden plot, it is a pleasure to see a play performed by a strong, evenly matched cast that does justice to the weight and rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse. It is a little ironic that this, one of our best local Shakespeare productions to date, also happens to be the least "local" of the lot: virtually the entire production team and most of the lead actors hail from abroad. We obviously have some way to go in cultivating a truly indigenous Shakespeare experience but kudos to the SRT for bringing the very best of world talents to our island and allowing us to soak it all in under the stars.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot. See original post here.

**For a review of Trevor Nunn's production of The Tempest, starring Ralph Fiennes, see here.

Playwrights Galore (2015)

I've been doing this exercise every May for the past five years and it's always nice to see a growing list of the plays and playwrights who most occupy my theatre days.

Here's an updated list of all playwrights from whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Huzir Sulaiman.

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

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!!!
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-Best Of
-Poor Thing
-Pioneer (Girls) Generation

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

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

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

Irfan Kasban (4)
-94:05 (x2)
-Genap 40

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

Tom Stoppard (4)
-Rock 'n' Roll
-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
-Turn by Turn We Turn

David Mamet (3)
-Glengarry Glen Ross

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

Peter Shaffer (3)
-Black Comedy
-White Lies

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

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

30 April 2015

Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

by Kuo Pao Kun
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

The Esplanade's annual Studios season is a platform for contemporary, often experimental works that seek to challenge audiences with their themes and multi-disciplinary reach. This year, however, in conjunction with the country's fiftieth birthday, the team has put together a sprawling retrospective of Singaporean theatre, featuring full-length revivals and dramatised readings from fifty significant local plays. In keeping with the theme of showcasing and celebrating these classics of Singapore theatre history, we've seen solid, faithful productions of Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill, Huzir Sulaiman's The Weight of Silk on Skin, Haresh Sharma's Off Centre and Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine, each helmed by a director who has not been associated with the original production.

Then we have Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. To many theatre practitioners and students, this is probably one of the most significant of the five plays given a full-length restaging in the season. Kuo's status as one of the pioneers of Singapore theatre and the reputation of Descendants, one of his most well-loved and iconic plays, clearly sets a high bar. It's therefore to one's considerable chagrin that this production, directed by Jeff Chen, proves to be the most self-indulgent, irreverent and, dare I say it, experimental of the season - a brazen satire of the original play, almost.

Chen's introduces two distinct layers to the play which chronicles the vast and varied travels of 15th century Chinese maritime adventurer Zheng He. The entire text is pre-recorded by a team of esteemed theatre practitioners and played for us in full. Hearing the lines beautifully rendered by individuals such as T. Sasitharan, Ivan Heng, Karen Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal breathes fresh life into the play and truly captures our rich, multicultural society. The audio recording is augmented by a series of largely wordless scenes performed by a separate ensemble of actors (Nora Samosir, Timothy Nga, Jean Ng, Najib Soiman and Koh Wan Ching) who seek to riff on the themes of the play through little scenes that range from the macabre to the downright bawdy.

There's nothing wrong in adopting such an approach if the wordless interpretations had provided a deeper insight into the text. Instead, Chen latches on to the most obvious and literal image in the play - castration - and beats this to death through a mélange of tedious physical theatre. Limbs of mannikins are used to suggest bizarre sexual positions, images of quivering body parts are flashed on screens in unnerving close-up. A multitude of  colourful balloons are twisted into a shape resembling the penis and then gratuitously burst. A punching bag is repeatedly raised and lowered with a sickening thud amidst varying descriptions of castration.

What might have been a powerful visual symbol therefore descends into a tedious, tasteless mess that bears little resemblance to the spirit of Kuo's words. Indeed, the idea of castration in Descendants has a far more powerful resonance in the metaphorical sense, suggesting the idea of Singaporeans being culturally dislocated in a bland, modern world. The overt literalism introduced by Chen reduces the play and its powerful political commentary into farce. One is also left scratching one's head about the set, originally designed by Wong Chee Wai for courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men in 2013 and subsequently appropriated by Chen for his production LIFT: Love Is Flower The later that year. If using the same set for a third time is meant to have a deeper message, it must have escaped me.

It's ultimately the tone of the production that gets on one's nerves. There are some excellent segments in the production itself and idea of layering the pre-recorded audio text with a separate visual one would have worked brilliantly had it been executed in a more thoughtful way. The fact remains that one is likely to leave this production with images of penis-shaped balloons and naughty mannikin-sex seared in one's mind. Kuo's beautiful and haunting words are all but lost. More's the pity.  

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5