26 November 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Sholay

by Shiv Tandan
Checkpoint Theatre
Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts 2015
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's been four years since Shiv Tandan's The Good, the Bad and the Sholay, first staged as an NUS student production back in 2011, delighted audiences and this superb revival by Checkpoint Theatre - which also marks the company's debut at The Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam - could not have been more highly anticipated; it is completely sold out.

Scenes from Bollywood's iconic 1975 film Sholay, about best friends and petty criminals Jai and Veeru who arrive at a village and take down feared bandit Gabbar Singh, are spliced with the endearing, personal story of Raghav, a boy from from small town Ambala, Haryana who makes his way to Singapore to study engineering at NUS.

The production, co-directed by Huzir Sulaiman and Tandan, follows much in the vein of the original with a clean staging that sees an ensemble of eight actors on a single, curved platform. They inhabit a variety of roles with relish and display some truly impressive ensemble work, recreating overbearing family gatherings, a tonga clattering along the road and village kids racing their bikes down the streets screaming with glee. While not all the actors prove entirely equal to the colourful Indian characters and steady stream of Hindi dialogue that peppers the text, they give off a riveting, energetic performance (complete with sound effects) that is impossible to fault.

Thomas Pang, who made an astonishing debut in Tribes earlier this year, embodies the central role of Raghav and maniacal villain Gabbar with gusto and proves a thoroughly engaging presence on stage. There is also great work by Julie Wee as a motor-mouthed Basanti, Kubhaer T. Jethwani as the lovelorn Veeru and Ghafir Akbar as Raghav's gadget-obsessed younger brother. The actors perform multiple songs from Sholay a capella ("Holi Ke Din" is a runaway crowd favourite) and it is a testament to the tight direction and pacing that one barely feels the two hours go by.

At its heart, Tandan's play is about finding oneself, be it through the larger-than-life heroes of the film world or by immersing oneself in a different culture and there is great empathy in the writing alongside moments of side-splitting comedy. Anecdotes about frequent power cuts in India and raucous Diwali festivities unfold alongside more sobering accounts of homesickness and personal anguish. In a moving sequence, Raghav describes how the Indian community at NUS was the most fractured on campus with numerous divisions and sub-divisions emerging between the students along linguistic and social lines.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo Credit: Maanavi Panwar

The costumes - a cheeky hybrid of Indian and Western  elements - also hint at the cultural dislocation that students like Raghav endure and this is made even more apparent with the multi-racial cast who immerse themselves, with joyous abandon, into the most Indian of situations. There is a wistfulness that pervades the script about days long gone and the full-blooded drama of Jai and Veeru form a nice counterpoint to the world of "lukewarm emotions and virtual realities" that Raghav and his generation find themselves in.

Huzir and Shiv are alive to the old-fashioned nature of storytelling that animates the play and by coaxing fantastic performances from their actors and eschewing gaudy sets and design elements, they truly allow the narrative to shine. There is a lovely homage to the world of cinema with scene descriptions being read aloud, jump cuts and slow motion sequences and the scenes blend crisply into each other. In one of the play's funniest moments, rousing friendship anthem 'Yeh Dosti' from Sholay segues, without warning, into Wonder Girls' hit single 'Nobody' as the wide-eyed Raghav arrives in Singapore, dazzled by the cleanliness and "traffic so disciplined it was like a video game".

The Good, the Bad and the Sholay is a wild, infectious and ultimately heartwarming gaze into the world of heroes and villains and about finding one's own story in this messy game we call life. "Dishkyaaoon" is a word we hear frequently in the narrative, approximating the sound of a gun going off in Bollywood films. In Checkpoint's luminous revival, it is also the sound of a theatre company at the height of its powers, leaving smoke trailing gloriously in its wake. 

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

13 November 2015

The Spirits Play

by Kuo Pao Kun
The Finger Players
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Kuo Pao Kun's classic play about a group of spirits inhabiting a void between life and death while debating the brutalities of war emerges somewhat muted in this revival by The Finger Players, the sixth staging of the play since its debut in 1998.
I had been looking forward to director Oliver Chong's interpretation of Spirits following his critically acclaimed monodrama Roots and searing take on Haresh Sharma's Off Centre earlier this year. However, Chong's characteristically sparse and cadenced directorial style fails to shine through in this production despite the overall aesthetic richness.

Spirits revolves round a series of conversations between five wandering Japanese spirits: a General, Man, Mother, Girl and Poet. Through a series of anecdotes, they trade views about the war they all went through (implied to be the Second World War) and its devastating effects on both individuals and society as a whole. On one side of the spectrum we have the pacifist Poet, who shuns violence and portrays the pains of his people through his words. On the other is the bumptious General who feels entirely justified in leading his men to carry out acts of wanton destruction for the greater good. In between we hear stories of the Mother and Girl - women whose lives are tried and trampled by men - and the Man - a soldier who endures the ordeal of war out of obedience even if he mentally revolts against it. The image one gets is of a collective mental horror, the various narrative threads weaving themselves into a painful tapestry of human strife.

There have been various interpretations of the play over the years, many seeking to lift it from its Japanese context and to universalise the experience of wartime atrocity and casual inhumanity of man against man. Indeed, the continued resonance of its theme cannot be ignored: I caught this play barely hours before the acts of terrorism in Paris that sent shockwaves through the world, making this play's discussion of violence as urgent as ever.
Chong sticks closely to the original text and his contributions are largely aesthetic in nature. One notable addition is having three female actors draped in black as a lurking presence onstage. They set a dark tone from the outset by hovering over the effigy of a man suspended from a noose while eerily echoing the words of the other spirits. They also play a vital role in contributing to the play's masterful use of puppetry and shadow work, doubling up as skilled stagehands. References in the text to aeroplanes and a giant mythical bird are brought to life by arresting projections that flit across the walls as the actors speak.  

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Lim Woan Wen's lighting powerfully augments the text, transforming the plain black box space into a kaleidoscope of quivering colours that is by turns majestic and menacing. Equally noteworthy is the work by sound artist and music composer Darren Ng who adds to the ethereal atmosphere with his evocative soundscapes. In a striking moment towards the end, the Poet plaintively sings a folk song while debris rains, snow-like, all around him. It's a moving reminder of beauty that exists even in the midst of senseless bloodshed.

One of the corollaries of Chong's aesthetic flourishes is that it makes this relatively tight piece feel fairly ponderous. The actors tend to speak their lines with a languid, almost plodding earnestness and the extended opening and closing sequences which largely mirror each other make the play feel repetitive. The tone is just a touch too emotional and this weighs down the plot.
On a final, purely technical note, the surtitling in this production proves a disappointment. Appearing on a tiny screen at the top of the theatre, the words are faint and difficult to follow unless one happens to be seated at a precise angle. There also seems to be a slight disconnect between the conversational Mandarin spoken by the actors and the formal, occasionally florid English translations displayed on the screen. It's something for the production team to consider if they are keen to accommodate as many audience members as possible as this can detract from one's enjoyment of the play.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

30 October 2015

Kafka on the Shore

based on the novel by Haruki Murakami
adapted for the stage by Frank Galati
Ninagawa Company
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Theatre luminary Yukio Ninagawa, whose riveting samurai drama Musashi was seen in Singapore two years ago, is back with an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's hugely popular 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. While the famed director could not attend the run in person due to his poor health, he delivers an endearing, exquisitely staged production that will enthrall fans of the book and lovers of theatre alike.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Kafka is a pastiche of two stories that unfold in parallel. Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home to escape a chilling prophecy and takes refuge in a library presided over by the mysterious Miss Saeki and her gender-bending assistant Oshima. Nakata, a sweet and simple-minded old man who spends his days searching for lost cats, goes on a series of adventures across the country when things take a wrong turn.

These twin plots are presented as vignettes in transparent boxes that glide across the stage. Ninagawa describes being influenced by the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the sensation one gets is of pages of a book springing luxuriously to life; trees, buses, bookshelves and vending machines appear in quick succession. This visual coup also allows the storylines to cleverly bleed into each other. A scene where Kafka reads aloud from a book about the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is poignantly juxtaposed with the image of serial cat-killer Johnnie Walker as he prepares his tools to rob the lives of these helpless creatures. In another sequence, a snatch of Miss Saeki's haunting song 'Kafka on the Shore' is overheard by Nakata seemingly at random, causing him to declare that he needs to search for an entrance stone.

Photo Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Equally inspired is the personification of the voice in Kafka's head - the Boy Called Crow - as a edgy, persuasive young man dressed in black.  It's strongly hinted that this subconscious part of Kafka is the very embodiment of the young man Miss Saeki had been in love with during her youth who perished in a student skirmish. When Kafka and Saeki make love, Crow gazes at them from the periphery like a spectral presence, almost projecting his own desire on this woman he is unable to be with.

Ninagawa has assembled a strong cast led by award-winning actress Rie Miyazawa as the poised and enigmatic Miss Saeki, Nino Furuhata as plucky teenager Kafka and Katsumi Kiba as the immensely likeable Nakata. A scene of Nakata speaking to various cats, played by actors in cat costumes who affect playful, uproarious antics, is a runaway crowd favourite. There are equally engaging turns by Masato Shinkawa as swaggering villain Johnnie Walker and Masakatsu Toriyama as prescient pimp Colonel Sanders, men who wear their pop culture images with tongues firmly in cheek.

The constantly changing set is a veritable sight to behold and the army of stage hands tirelessly running around for three hours to keep everything moving smoothly deserve plaudits for their first rate work. We may be dazzled by fish spectacularly raining across the stage one moment while in another we are confronted by a fridge containing severed cat heads or the garish neon lights of a love hotel. This effortless admixture of the surreal and sordid gives the narrative its thrust and captures the nuanced beauty of Murakami's prose.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

The other pillar of Ninagawa's production is the superlative lighting design. Effects like lightning, rain and the dappled sunlight of a forest are conjured up with aplomb, sometimes on a completely barren stage, creating truly stunning visual tableaus. There is a sense of symmetry and grandeur in the overall aesthetic that elevates but never overwhelms the acting.

For a book written in Japanese, translated into English, adapted into a play in English and finally translated back into Japanese, one hardly feels that any injustice has been done to the plot and playwright Frank Galati has crafted a text that remains extremely faithful to the book while allowing sharper contrasts and contours to emerge. One cannot deny that Galati is, at times, almost plodding in his fidelity to the plot. The play can easily be trimmed in length and suffers from uneven pacing; after a period of stately, awe-inspiring exposition, the second half seems to canter towards the end.

Ultimately, Ninagawa has crafted a production that both intrigues and inspires and which perfectly recreates the quirky, meandering and deeply empathetic world of Murakami. This is a breathtakingly beautiful evening: the work of a master of the pen being brought to life by a master of the stage.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

04 October 2015

The Wars of the Roses

(Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III)
based on William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts I-III and Richard III
adapted by John Barton in collaboration with Peter Hall
Rose Theatre, Kingston

John Barton and Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses  is a truly epic theatrical event, presenting over sixty years of troubled English history on stage in an electrifying performance. It condenses the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI into two plays (titled Henry VI and Edward IV) and combines this with Richard III, the fiery climax of the fifteenth-century battle between the houses of York and Lancaster - symbolised by a white rose and red rose respectively. 

This mammoth Shakespearean pastiche, demanding of actor and audience alike has not been revived since it was first staged by the RSC in 1963. Veteran director Trevor Nunn rises magnificently to the task of resurrecting this story in his crisp, compelling production, playing for a limited six weeks at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

One has to acknowledge the tremendous work put in by John Barton in condensing, transposing and supplementing the original text into these tailored theatrical delights. The action, particularly in Henry VI, truly flies off the page. There is a tendency for the original Henry VI plays to drag due to the lengthy exposition and complex web of characters and it is a testament to Barton's skilful adaptation that one is able to follow the plot so easily and remain riveted.
A major benefit of seeing these three plays in a trilogy day is the sense of history literally shaping up before one's eyes. We see Margaret of Anjou as a beautiful French princess who marries Henry VI despite being in love with another man. Over the years, she grows into a steely warrior queen with a man she does not respect, witnesses the death of her only son in battle and gets banished from the country. This makes her appearance in Richard III as a caustic hag far more poignant: we have seen all she has been through. Likewise, we trace the rise of that most dastardly of rulers, Richard III. He first appears in Edward IV as an overlooked third son of the Duke of York, a handicapped boy who is swift of sword and fiery of tongue. We are almost taken by surprise when he bursts squarely into the action, becoming the Machiavellian monster who inveigles his way to the throne.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet

This element of continuity in the storytelling is aided by having the same actors play these characters. Watching these plays in succession is akin to devouring a Shakespearean 'box set' and helps to establish recurring themes and plot developments. We gain an immediate context that would simply not be there if the plays are seen in isolation. One is alive, more than ever, to the continuing cycle of violence that is carried on through the generations and the ease by which people are swayed by a charismatic leader, only for this to end in disaster. Richard III, in particular, gains tremendously in texture from this staging: we finally understand all the references to past events that are being made.

The set by John Napier and Mark Friend emphasizes war and pageantry, its imposing three-tiered platform handsomely adorned with candles and coats of arms. Paul Pyant's lighting makes for beautiful tableaus; the tightly choreographed fight sequences feature flashes of strobe lighting while the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc is suggested by a powerful burst of red. Nunn utilises the space very well to achieve both intimacy and spectacle: actors snake onto the stage from the wings of the theatre on more than one occasion, giving the action a thrilling, three-dimensional energy. Unlike his recent productions such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which suffered from a somewhat languid pace, the action hurtles on with a breathless vitality.  

There is great work by the large ensemble cast who effortlessly juggle a variety of roles. Alex Waldmann is excellent as a twitchy, pacifist Henry VI who never quite feels comfortable in his royal role. Alexander Hanson  turns in beautifully restrained performance as the Duke of York and wrenches the soul with his grief when confronted with the death of his youngest son. Joely Richardson is striking as Queen Margaret, powerfully conveying the transition from youthful vigour to aged bitterness. And Robert Sheehan, in a terrific Shakespeare debut, gives off an explosive performance as Richard III, quite possibly stealing the show with his bouts of hobbling mania.

Photo Credit: Mark Douet

It's only natural that in a marathon theatre event such as this - stretching for nearly twelve hours when seen over the course of a day - there will be some unevenness. One is assaulted by so much action and plot movement in the first half of Henry VI that the rest of the play feels strangely dry. Edward IV starts slow but builds steadily to a thrilling climax. Richard III emerges somewhat weaker than the first two plays as it is weighed down by actual Shakespearean verse unlike the hugely edited, prose-driven earlier plays and because energy levels amongst the cast, by this point, have dipped.

Yet, magic in the theatre sometimes derives from sheer ambition. It is in the power of a story compellingly told before a rapt audience. It is in the thrill of emerging, dazed and wondrous, from an onslaught of power, politics and passion. And for this, Nunn's Wars of the Roses is a theatrical feat that is unlikely to be forgotten for many years to come. One hopes it would not be another half century before this tale is told again.

The Crystalwords score: 5/5

02 October 2015

Three Days in the Country

based on A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev
in a new version by Patrick Marber
National Theatre, London (Lyttleton)

Turgenev's comedy of manners, A Month in the Country, gets a fresh spin in this jaunty new adaptation written and directed by Patrick Marber. The action - as the title suggests - plays out over a much shorter timeframe than the original and is clothed in rich comedy. The end result is a play that proves endlessly entertaining but which perhaps elides some of the deeper tones one tends to find in Russian theatre.

The plot remains largely the same. Natalya, the bored wife of an affluent landowner, finds her life thrown into disarray when she falls for her son's strapping new tutor, Belyaev. When she discovers that her teenage ward Vera is also smitten by the tutor, she concocts a plan to get her out of the way, setting the stage for a frenzy of emotions as the summer days unfold in the family's country estate.

Marber is probably best known for his searing 1990s plays about urban life such as Closer and Dealer's Choice which confronted themes like love, sex and betrayal while maintaining a strong comic stamp. He uses this gift for comedy to great effect here, bringing a delicious hilarity and heft to Turgenev's play. His production is also blessed with economy: the punchy, streamlined text and tight scenes keep audiences enthralled.

Amanda Drew brings a skittish sauciness to Natalya, who wilfully teases her admirers with coy words yet manages to convey a sense of domestic tragedy at being mired in a world she has no control over. Her emotional collapse at the end, following the departure of Belyaev, evokes a sense of pity in us for this young woman who had merely been looking for some colour in her life. There are commendable performances by Royce Pierreson as the rakishly political tutor, Cherrelle Skeete as a sprightly maid and Lily Sacofsky as the sweet but headstrong Vera.

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

The marquee names in this cast are Mark Gatiss and John Simm and they do indeed deliver. Gatiss's  turn as  ineffectual country doctor Shipgelsky - the self-declared "maestro of misdiagnosis" - is one of the highlights of this production. In a scene that has the audience weeping with laughter, he decides to propose to a prissy, middle-aged family acquaintance, throwing out his back in the process and moving on all fours like a crazed reptile. Simm's Ratikin, by contrast, channels suave sophistication. He catches beautifully the pain of a man whose attentions are casually ignored, turning him  bitter and cynical when he realizes that he will never hold a place in Natalya's heart.

Mark Thompson's set is a wash of bright colours that evokes a pastoral idyll and is nicely complemented by Neil Austin's lighting. One however feels that this abstract design sits uneasily with the otherwise faithful period setting and naturalistic treatment of the play; a bright red door hangs mysteriously in the air in the first half and actors who leave the action sit in a row of chairs upstage, watching the others.

Marber's production makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening but ultimately emerges as little more than a breezy summer comedy. There is an attempt to inject pathos in its closing moments but on the whole, Marber's version of the play - one that is richly anticipatory of great works of Russian theatre by writers like Chekhov in the coming decades - does not quite plumb the depths of emotion one would expect. The quiet despair of domestic life and bitterness of the human condition fade away in favour of  sharp, punchy scenes that are guaranteed to delight. It may not take us very far but this is one sojourn in the country we are more than happy to join.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

30 September 2015

Photograph 51

by Anna Ziegler
Noel Coward Theatre, London

Michael Grandage kicks off another West End season with American playwright Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51, a compelling portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin whose vital work led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It's a stunning production that marks the much anticipated return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage after 17 years.

The play explores the final years of Franklin's life, beginning with her return from Paris in early 1951 to her untimely death due to ovarian cancer. We see her as the illustrious academic relegated to the shadows in the cloistered world of King's College London, presided over by bumptious molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins. Nonetheless, she perseveres in taking X-ray photographs of DNA molecules, meticulously performing all her calculations by hand and trying to refine the images she obtains.  When Wilkins shares the titular photograph taken by her with rival scientists at Cambridge -  Francis Crick and James Watson - they manage to successfully unlock its double helix structure. All three men eventually earn the Nobel Prize for their efforts.

Photo Credit: Mark Benner

Kidman's performance as Franklin anchors the production. She catches perfectly the quiet ambition of a woman driven to make her mark in the world of science, a clubby, male-dominated milieu that casually excludes her from lunch and conversation. Kidman's Franklin is restrained but riveting; one is rapt as she gazes with undisguised wonder at the photograph that hints at the meaning of life or reveals her simple desire to learn more about the world around her. She also sensitively articulates Franklin's grapple with intimacy. In a moving scene, her aloofness when having dinner with a visiting American scientist belies the fact that she secretly longs to have a man by her side.
Grandage's taut, elegiac production moves along very smoothly and boasts some terrific performances. Stephen Campbell Moore shines with a deeply empathetic turn as the socially awkward Wilkins, a man who battles with his own feelings for Franklin until it is too late. Indeed, the play itself is structured as a fragment of Wilkins' memory and there is an undercurrent of melancholy about missed opportunities that infuses the narrative.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

There is very good work by Edward Bennett as Crick, the chummy yet cunning Cambridge scientist keen to find out as much as he can about Franklin's work. Will Attenborough, last seen onstage in Another Country, makes an energetic impression as Watson despite a somewhat unconvincing American accent. And Joshua Silver brings the right note of self-deprecating humour as overlooked PhD student Jay Gosling.

Christopher Oram's set conveys the traditional yet grimy world of post-war London, its majestic, vaulted arches covered with soot. This heaviness is beautifully balanced with an illuminated floor that nods to the world of technology and photography; suggesting the light of scientific discovery in this most drab of environments.

One would perhaps be keen to learn a little more about Franklin's personal life and the revelation of her cancer at the end feels a little abrupt. Because the play is so focused on her experience, some of the supporting characters seem thinly written: the competitive academic, the friendly American. Yet, Photograph 51 ultimately remains a vindication of Franklin's invaluable contributions to the world of science. While she may have succumbed to her condition well before her time, her work was that crucial building block that led to this remarkable breakthrough. And for that, she deserves to be richly remembered.
The Crystalwords score: 4/5


by Euripedes
in a new version by Rachel Cusk
Almeida Theatre, London

Rupert Goold brings his acclaimed Greek season at the Almeida to a close with a blazing new version of Medea by Rachel Cusk, featuring his wife Kate Fleetwood in the title role. Medea, one of the most well-known and widely performed of the ancient Greek tragedies, is principally associated with the vicious revenge a woman exacts on her unfaithful husband, culminating in the cold-blooded murder of her own sons to cause him ultimate pain. Cusk's vital contribution is in recasting this story as one of devastating marital breakdown instead of pure bloodshed. 

This is a Medea for the twenty-first century, a struggling writer whose life is unravelling because her actor-husband, Jason (Justin Salinger), has left her for another woman. Her sons hate living with her, the posh neighbours are endlessly gossipping and even her parents do not offer any comfort for her predicament. 

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Cusk is a writer who has been famously vocal about her own experiences with motherhood and marital woes and it's easy to see how this feeds into her version of the text, which bubbles with vicious confrontations between Medea and Jason about money and property. The traditional female chorus is memorably re-imagined as a gaggle of uppity yummy mummies whose lives revolve around yoga, power lunches and domestic bliss and one is acutely aware of the pain and isolation Medea feels in a life that has closed in around her. 

Working with her husband for the first time since the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth, Fleetwood makes a striking Medea who is by turns ferocious and heart-wrenching. She totters around onstage with a savage air and arrests us in moments of quiet abstraction. Yet, while transplanting the character into a familiar milieu may make the tale more urgent, I remain unconvinced by the full extent of its tragedy. Most of the action plays out like a domestic soap opera complete with acrimonious screaming over the phone. 

Photo Credit: Donald cooper/Photostage

A key aspect of Medea is how she systematically manipulates those around her - Jason, Creon and Aegeus - and this simply does not come across in Cusk's version of the text which remains, for the most part, rooted in the realm of heated family drama. Most crucially, the climax is muted when we learn, through an enigmatic Messenger, that Medea's sons have overdosed on painkillers. The character is thus robbed of her defining violence; the closest this Medea comes to wielding a knife is contemplatively fingering one in the safety of her kitchen.

Rupert Goold's brisk, 90-minute production is visually powerful and gains from a striking lighting design. The backdrop turns into a wide semicircle which glows with red, incandescent energy. This lends a primeval feel to the action that is echoed by Medea herself wearing grey robes and the ensemble breaking out into a crazed, ritualistic dance.

There are solid performances all round but ultimately, this radical take on one of the most fascinating female characters in the Greek theatre canon loses something by omitting the play's characteristic brutality. This may be a Medea for our times but it's missing some of its soul. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

19 September 2015

It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery, Dusk

by Jean Tay
Drama Box
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015
SOTA Studio Theatre, Singapore

This is the third and final instalment of Drama Box's evocative It Won't be Too Long series as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. The trilogy explores concepts of space in modern Singapore and dramatizes the conflict between a pragmatic, capitalist society and the worlds of history and cultural identity.

The first part, The Lesson, was a free, interactive performance that gave audiences the chance to vote on the location of a fictitious MRT station and which landmark or public space had to make way for this development. This complex issue of balancing out public and private concerns in the name of progress is fleshed out in The Cemetery which zooms in on the particular case study of Bukit Brown Cemetery that gripped our headlines a few years ago.

There's no denying that the story of Bukit Brown has rich dramatic potential. This vast, expansive landmark — the largest Chinese cemetery outside China and a veritable green lung in the heart of Singapore — is to be bisected by a highway and will have large sections of its area redeveloped to make way for public housing. The remains of thousands of pioneering Chinese immigrants who are buried there will have to make way to for the pressures of an ever-expanding metropolis. The rich biodiversity of the area is also under threat due to the impending construction.

The Cemetery plays out in two distinct chapters: Dawn, a site-specific, wordless piece of physical theatre in the lush environs of Bukit Brown itself  and Dusk, a piece of verbatim theatre delivered in a black-box venue. Dusk, the only part I managed to catch, is the more fully-realized of the two and effectively brings together the themes explored in all three instalments of the trilogy.

Director Kok Heng Leun and playwright Jean Tay have crafted a powerful narrative from the voices of the people involved in the Bukit Brown saga, ranging from volunteer guides (Brownies), heritage activists, descendants of the individuals buried in the cemetery and even eccentric tomb keepers. These are pitted against Tan Chuan-Jin, former Minister of State for National Development and Manpower and the sole, monolithic face of governmental authority. The multitude of characters are inhabited by Karen Tan, Timothy Nga and Jo Tan who turn in spirited performances and bring this poignant debate to life as they walk round the rectangular space, beautifully lit by Lim Woan Wen.

Photo Credit: Kevin Lee

Tay's ear for the rhythms and cadences of authentic Singapore dialogue - seen to delightful effect in plays such as Boom - allows us to instantly identify with these characters. It's a testament to the writing and dramaturgy of the piece that there is no clear black and white amongst the two camps: the pragmatic concerns of the authorities in forging ahead with the redevelopment are not without merit while the lack of unity and decisive action amongst the lobbyists prove somewhat disappointing. Newspaper clippings from the early decades of the twentieth century are alternated with media releases on the recent controversy, reminding us that this contested space, where the dead must make way for the living, is by no means a new issue. Nonetheless, one cannot shake off a sense of melancholy when the battle is ultimately lost and yet another vital slice of our cultural heritage is destined to be scraped away.

Throughout the dialogue, an ensemble of six performers wordlessly enact the battle of Bukit Brown, their actions both a reaction to and echo of the words being uttered. They perform calisthenics, collapse on the floor and writhe and wrestle with their bodies. Over the course of the play, they trample all over the chalk-drawn markings on the floor which suggest the outline of the cemetery. It's easy to dismiss this as being a slightly unnecessary physical flourish when the real words are all one needs to engage with this story. I later learnt that the ensemble performs the exact same movements in the Dawn segment, almost suggestive of the spirits of Bukit Brown coming to life from the surroundings and making communion with the world of the living. It's only when viewed for a second time, accompanied by the actual voices, that these abstract movements take on a richer hue. I still found the action slightly distracting at times but its overall aesthetic power is not lost on the audience.

Dusk wraps up with a short, explosive number from local band The Observatory who boast a musical style that can best be summed up with the phrase 'wall of sound'. It's both an effective way of jolting us out of our reverie about the fate of Bukit Brown and a vindication of the real, vital soul that continues to thrive despite the attenuation of the physical space.

With this series of performances, Drama Box have crafted a stirring and elegiac tribute to our shared national heritage, one which reminds us of the tremendous costs involved in our relentless march to modernity.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

12 September 2015

Six Characters in Search of an Author

by Luigi Pirandello
translated and adapted by François Regnault
Théâtre de la Ville
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2015
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

There's no easy way to sum up Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. It's a classic of absurdist theatre: a layered, richly metatheatrical play that challenges the traditional notions of author, actor and audience. For a play written back in 1921, this is a truly groundbreaking work.

This sleek adaptation by François Regnault is brilliantly directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, Artistic Director of the Théâtre de la Ville, as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. For a play originally written in Italian, it's incredible how fresh and organic this new French translation feels.

Photo Credit: JL Fernandez

The play begins with a group of actors preparing for a rehearsal of a Pirandello play at the hands of an exacting Director. They are interrupted by the appearance of the titular six characters in mourning garb: a family comprising the Father, the Mother, the Son, the Step-Daughter, the Adolescent and the Little Girl. The Father explains that they are unfinished characters whose author is nowhere to be found and would like their story to be completed. The Director is so compelled by their tale that he eventually decides to stage it using his actors.

What follows is a memorable sequence where the characters re-enact a deeply traumatising scene where the Father had apparently seduced the Step-Daughter in a shop owned by an enigmatic Madame Pace. The actors then try to recreate this scene by imitating the characters. However, this is not deemed to be good enough by the characters and a tense confrontation ensues. What is reality, the play asks us? Is it that of the characters who are, to all intents and purposes, the very embodiment of the emotions being portrayed? Or are both versions of the story - by the characters and the actors - necessarily suspect because they are clearly a act of performance before us, the 'real' audience? What, fundamentally, constitutes dramatic truth?

Demarcy-Mota has his heart in the right place by giving us a version of the play that is an exquisite tapestry of both lightness and weight, confidently blending slapstick comedy with tender drama. In his hands, Six Characters emerges as both a blazing satire of the world of theatre and its intrinsically constructed nature and a deeper exploration of what real emotions mean.

Part of the success of this production is that there is a uniformly strong cast. Hugues Quester cuts an impressive figure as the solemn, imposing Father and is ably supported by Valérie Dashwood's fiery Step-Daughter and Céline Carrère's delightfully kooky Madame Pace who speaks in bizarre hybrid of French and Italian. Alain Libolt endows the Director with the right mix of megalomania and fastidiousness. Even small parts, like Pascal Vuillemot's cheeky Carpenter, are beautifully played.

Photo Credit: JL Fernandez

The visual treatment in particular is breathtaking and there is commendable work by set and lighting designer Yves Collet. A clump of inverted trees descends magnificently on the stage in the final scene set in a garden. Light and shadows are used beautifully; one of the enduring images is the final tableau where the characters appear to fade away as silhouettes behind a screen while the Step-Daughter hovers closer and closer, ultimately breaking this boundary and 'crossing over' to our side. We, like the actors, are left wondering what exactly is a dream and what is reality. 

One cannot deny that aspects of Pirandello's text prove somewhat unsatisfactory. For all its intellectual richness and density, the play does not succeed in truly arresting our emotions. One hardly has time to empathise with the brooding Adolescent and his sudden suicide feels overly dramatic. Harping on and on about the Step-Daughter's supposed seduction seems to sideline other stories that may be just as compelling. The Characters, for all their insistence on presenting true, unvarnished emotions, still emerge as stereotypes to some extent: the worried Mother, the angry Son, the sweet Little Girl. 

Nonetheless, one cannot think of a better way of presenting this flawed and complex tumble of ideas for an audience and keeping it utterly engaging. An admirable effort from François Regnault and his team at the Théâtre de la Ville and a wonderful, stimulating night out at the theatre.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

08 September 2015


by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe
Capitol Theatre, Singapore

Four hundred years ago, bands of travelling players brought Shakespeare’s great plays to people far and wide. Now, Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, has revived this fine tradition on an unprecedented scale with a tour of Hamlet to all 205 countries in the world. Singapore is the 130th city they have visited since they started this epic journey in April last year.

This version of Hamlet is both compact and charming. An ensemble cast of eight actors perform all roles, periodically rotating their parts to keep things fresh. They also delight us with musical interludes and provide simple yet stirring soundscapes to augment the action.

Naeem Hayat and Ladi Emeruwa alternate the title role. The latter (who performed on the night I attended) gives a solid, articulate turn as the prince of Denmark. His Hamlet wears “the trappings and the suits of woe” with a belligerent tetchiness. Indeed, there is a genuine ferocity in Emeruwa’s Hamlet that never leaves one in doubt of his intention to avenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle, the usurping King Claudius. Madness for him is nothing more than a subterfuge, a grand tool to dissemble and distract. However, Emeruwa lacks the rich and complex spectrum of emotions that plague Hamlet: no intense melancholy, no philosophical peregrinations and self-doubt. When he savagely confronts his mother, Gertrude, we only witness his anger instead of conflicting shades of sadness, disappointment or envy. 

There is strong work by Keith Bartlett as Claudius, who silkily switches from benevolent monarch to ruthless assassin and John Dougall, as court advisor Polonius, is a man of hilariously bumbling circumlocutions. I was less enamoured of Jennifer Leong’s Ophelia who is more whiny schoolgirl than tragic heroine and doesn’t quite evoke the pathos one would expect.

A particular highlight is the play-within-a-play that Hamlet famously uses to “catch the conscience of the King”. Using just a simple curtain, we are treated to both the band of players (who bring the house down with their delightful dumbshow) and Claudius and Gertrude as spectators. In a powerful meta-theatrical moment, Claudius strides through the audience, breaking up the enacted play as if he had been watching it along with us.

Photo Credit: Shakespeare's Globe

The set resembles a makeshift tent and is a nice nod to the itinerant nature of the production, itself performed by a constantly shifting company of actors. It is slightly unfortunate that this is all but swallowed up in the imposing opulence of the Capitol Theatre (a smaller and more intimate venue would have been ideal). The vastness of the space also results in some of the verse getting lost. Unsurprisingly, the broad comedy gets the strongest reactions from the crowd.

There's no way that a production designed to weather a journey across seven continents will ever manage to be definitive. Dromgoole’s Hamlet may not be especially nuanced but this is ultimately a competent and charming version that will rightly be welcomed all over the globe.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 11 September 2015.