07 June 2015

Tribes

by Nina Raine
PANGDEMONIUM!
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

It's been a while since PANGDEMONIUM! have delivered a play that truly makes an impact. Their glittering 2013 season saw two critically acclaimed productions - Rabbit Hole and Next to Normal - back-to-back, both Pulitzer Prize winners confronting dark and difficult issues. Despite strong production values and solid acting, I've felt that their last couple of productions have been slightly marred by the choice of script. With this excellent production of Tribes by British playwright Nina Raine, they have returned to the zenith of fine theatre making in Singapore.


Tribes premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2010 and chronicles the lives of a dysfunctional family living in Cambridge, England. Father Christopher (Adrian Pang) is an acerbic academic obsessing about language, mother Beth (Sue Tordoff) is attempting to write a mystery novel, son Daniel (Gavin Yap) is a sarcastic young man working on his thesis and daughter Ruth (Frances Lee) is a fledging opera singer hopeless in relationships. At the centre of this bickering, noisy family is youngest child Billy, who is deaf. He has grown up with his family members largely ignoring his disability and has managed to get by through lip-reading.

It is a credit to Raine that Tribes is no token story about a boy battling a world without sound and ultimately finding himself. The fundamental theme that emerges is the importance of communication and how all of us are simply looking for a group of people, a tribe, to achieve that vital human connection. When Billy reveals to his family that he has just met a wonderful young woman called Sylvia (Ethel Yap), who has grown up in a deaf family and is herself slowly losing her sense of hearing, old allegiances are threatened in the face of this newcomer and Billy gains a new lease of life when he finds himself very much the centre of attention rather than being left on the sidelines.

Tracie Pang and her creative team handle the topic of deafness with great fidelity. Thomas Pang and Ethel Yap have spent the past few months learning sign language with experts in order to authentically portray their characters and inhabit their world. A conscious attempt has been made to reach out to the deaf community in the play's publicity drive and three sign language interpreters have even been brought in for selected performances to allow the hearing impaired to enjoy the play.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

The cast, a superb ensemble of six, turn in compelling performances and are thoroughly engaging in their scenes. Veteran actors Adrian Pang and Sue Tordoff convey the tepid undercurrents of a marriage between two middle-aged people with riotous honesty. Gavin Yap and Frances Lee, last seen together in PANGDEMONIUM's Fat Pig, make a delightful pair of squabbling siblings whose weapons of choice are the words they use to puncture each other's egos. Yap in particular makes an admirable transition as his confident, witty façade cracks to reveal a desperate shell of a man who is enslaved by the voices in his head.

The show, however, is carried by Thomas Pang in his stunning professional stage debut as Billy. Pang joins the ranks of actors such as Seong Hui Xuan, Eden Ang, Mina Kaye and Frances Lee who have been nurtured by PANGDEMONIUM! and have emerged as fantastic young actors in the entertainment scene today. Pang displays that rare ability to convey powerful emotions without saying very much and what he does say makes everyone stop to listen to him. The scenes in sign language between him and Yap's character feel entirely organic and his emotionally-wrenching outburst in the second half lacerates the soul.

Ethel Yap likewise makes a very strong impression as Sylvia and succeeds not only in portraying someone who cannot hear what they sound like but the unimaginably painful transition from a world of hearing to one of complete silence. She impresses with her fluent signing and one truly feels for her withered self-confidence as she reveals her pains of turning into a handicapped person whom people look at askance.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

Tracie Pang's taut direction drives the play and each scene is handled with her characteristic sensitivity and attention to detail. The entire opening sequence, where loud, overlapping conversations zigzag across the room with increasing intensity, converges on the image of Billy, who feels so utterly alone though he is in a room surrounded by people. Music is beautifully integrated between the scenes in a manner that reminds one of the rich aural transitions in Gruesome Playground Injuries and the use of surtitles capturing words both spoken and sometimes unspoken is heartfelt and hilarious.

Wong Chee Wai impresses once again with his large, fully-realized set that looks like it stepped right out of a lifestyle magazine. However, there are some spaces here that hardly seem to be utilised. Save for the central dining table where most of the action happens, the sitting room, kitchen and staircase areas are rarely used and one feels that the very breadth and scope of the space sometimes engulfs the powerful emotions being explored. Raine's writing also dips slightly in the second half of the play where she throws in one plot point after another without a satisfactory resolution. I didn't quite see the need to delve into Billy being investigated at work, barely a scene after he takes the monumental step of getting a job in the first place.

But these remain minor cavils in an otherwise delightful and thoroughly affecting piece of theatre about the limitations of language and the sound of silence. With Tribes, PANGDEMONIUM! reminds us that when learning to understand one another, actions speak so much louder than words.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

01 June 2015

Goodbye Flying Inkpot

Today we bid goodbye to a veritable institution in Singapore's arts landscape: The Flying Inkpot Theatre & Dance. It's been an absolute pleasure writing for them over the past four years and contributing over 50 theatre reviews to the site.

Check out the wrap articles published today in both ST Life! and TODAY about the Inkpot's amazing 19-year journey. Very pleased to be interviewed by Mayo Martin for the TODAY article (extract below).

Selected members of The Flying Inkpot team: (clockwise from left) Kenneth Kwok, Karin Lai, Jocelyn Chng, Naeem Kapadia, Selina Chong and Matthew Lyon. Photo Credit: Jason Ho.
*****

“Among The Flying Inkpot’s most recent batch of writers are Naeem Kapadia and Karin Lai. The pair, who also contribute to TODAY, were theatre bloggers before the website gave them the opportunity to expose their writing on a more established platform.

The former had worked and studied in the United Kingdom before joining the website upon his return in 2011. “It sounded like a great platform for normal working people to write creatively about the arts scene. Inkpot has definitely helped me to fine tune my own writing about the Singapore theatre scene, which I was not very familiar with previously. It’s also been nice meeting theatre practitioners in Singapore and learning more about the theatre ecosystem and the various parties who come together to put up a production,” said Kapadia, who had contributed 50 reviews in a span of four years.

Lai said that joining The Flying Inkpot had also given her an audience. “One thing it did was to create possibilities for dialogue. I (previously) didn’t have an audience for my thoughts. Over time, friends and friends of friends that I met would have read something I wrote up about a production and I could engage in conversations with them about it. The Inkpot helped give me an audience and I am very grateful to it for that.”

Both said they will continue writing about theatre, but they also recognise how the arts (and arts writing) landscape has changed.

“The Inkpot has always stood apart from the mass media as its more serious, considered, older cousin,” said Kapadia. “One of the dangers of today’s social media-obsessed generation is that every theatre company, practitioner or reader is simply looking for that juicy, bite-sized blurb about a play. The days of good, old-fashioned reviews seem to be dying out and I sincerely hope that won’t happen.”

Lai pointed out how the arts criticism scene in Singapore is changing rapidly, citing how “lifestyle” blogs and companies now also offer reviews, which are seen as mere “content” to draw page views. With The Flying Inkpot’s strictly non-commercial stance, they were not beholden to any interest, resulting in a “culture of brutal honesty”.

At the same time, she wondered if changes in performing arts scene has had some effect. “In some ways, the increased competition between companies for audiences and the advent of social media has made the Inkpot’s unique culture harder and harder to sustain,” she said. Echoing Kapadia’s point, she said there was a tendency of some companies to expect faster reviews and to simply look for “the quotable one-liner”. “The kind of considered and yes, more academic, review that Inkpot was known for has been drowned out by the need to generate ‘buzz’ — to get good messages about your production out there, quickly and consistently. I have my doubts about how good developments like these are for theatre criticism in Singapore, but I can understand the commercial pressures that have led to their development even as I regret them.””

- Mayo Martin, TODAY, 1 June 2015

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. 

******* 

SEVENTY SHADES OF PLAY
 

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.