29 September 2015


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 rather than 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 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 re-imagined as a gaggle of uppity yummy mummies whose lives revolve around yoga, power lunches and domestic bliss. 

Fleetwood, working with her husband for the first time since the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth, 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 an red, incandescent energy. This lends a primeval feel to the action that is echoed by Medea herself wearing flowing grey robes and the ensemble breaking out into a crazed, ritualistic dance.

There are solid performances by the cast in this streamlined version but ultimately, this radical take on one of the most fascinating female characters in the Greek canon loses something by omitting the play's characteristic violence. A Medea for our times perhaps, but one without 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 like 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 after all their complaints proves 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 live on 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.

Photo Credit: Shakespeare's Globe

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.

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 is no way that a production that is 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.

04 September 2015


by Peter Souter
Singapore Repertory Theatre
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

Hello/Goodbye is the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) first romantic comedy in nearly 15 years. Apparently, they had been waiting for a good one to come along. If only they had taken their time.

The premise of this play is about as thin as its title. Two strangers — ditzy, wild child Juliet (Denise Tan) and geeky toy collector Alex (Shane Mardjuki) — arrive at a rental flat laden with boxes, each thinking they have the place to themselves. Neither wants to leave; they end up trading barbs and before you can blink, something is cooking on the kitchen counter that is not food.

What lifts English playwright Peter Souter’s script is a sharply observed second act, set 10 years later. The same couple, now at a very different place in their lives, find themselves once more in the same room surrounded by boxes.

There is a wisp of a promise here about exploring human romance at either end of the spectrum, but one can hardly be persuaded that there is any passion in this pairing. How they could possibly find each other attractive is mind-boggling. The naturally sassy Tan practically talks Mardjuki off the stage, even in the second half, where she makes a conscious attempt to project a matured look and rein in her character.

Mardjuki, in turn, plays Alex with all the personality of a cardboard box and not a hint of latent sexual energy. When they kiss, one feels genuinely surprised.

Photo Credit: SRT

Director Lisa Spirling does little to draw the audience into the play. Both acts feel static, repetitive and there is little use of visual cues or variations to propel the narrative. It is difficult to buy into the idea of a whole decade having passed in the second act when there is no difference in the way the characters emotionally relate to each other.

The end result is that we struggle to care for these individuals. There are flashes of empathy and heartwarming touches in the writing (including a lovely surprise in a wooden chest), but these are mostly swept aside in a torrent of frivolous banter. The play is not helped by the introduction of entirely superfluous secondary characters who weigh the plot down. A polished ex-boyfriend (David Howard) and a leggy young woman (Amanda Tee) take turns to intrude on the action, neither making much of an impression apart from looking supremely awkward.

The setting is likewise rather confusing. The script is peppered with unmistakably British slang words and yet, jarring references to weekends in Sentosa and Mama Lemon dishwashing liquid are snuck in. The moving boxes, displayed prominently on stage, bear a Bedok address.

It is rather lamentable that an entirely unremarkable play such as this — with poor chemistry, unwieldy writing and uninspired direction — appears as a mainstage SRT production. This is, at best, light and frivolous evening entertainment.

Say your hellos, say your goodbyes and move swiftly on.

The Crystalwords score: 2/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 6 September 2015.