Crystalwords Theatre Highlights 2014

Greetings! 2014 has whizzed by so quickly and it's time for my annual theatre round-up.

Looking back over the past twelve months, it's been a fairly eventful year for Singapore theatre: lots more new scripts, plenty of revivals of acclaimed past productions and some interesting showstoppers. I would say it's been a good year overall but not a great one. Some very memorable productions have graced our stage but there's still room for improvement.

The usual preliminaries:

(a) This list is written in a purely personal capacity and reflects all the theatre productions I have watched for the year. For the first time this year, I have restricted this list purely to productions in Singapore (whether by local companies or touring foreign companies) to provide as accurate a snapshot of the Singapore theatre scene as I can. Revivals by the same theatre company have not been included unless I did not watch the original production.

(b) I rate all my productions, basing my score on acting, directing, script, production values and the overall experience. My average production score for 2014 is 3.3/5 which is slightly below last year's average of 3.4/5 and 2012's average of 3.5/5. Not bad by any stretch but it could have been slightly better.

(c) As in previous years, I've refrained from the standard 'top ten' lists and done my theatre round-up in Academy Awards style.


Best Actor - Ramesh Panicker, The Merchant of Venice
This year's Shakespeare in Park offering marks the return to stage of Ramesh Panicker after a break of five years and he does a terrific job as moneylender Shylock in a clever artistic move that nods towards the Indian chettiars of Singapore’s colonial past. Panicker turns in a performance that is calm, cutting and poignant and there is tremendous eloquence in his delivery that gives the character gravitas. His strong stage presence and richly cadenced verse is a delight to hear.

Best Actress - Mina Kaye, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
PANGDEMONIUM!’s second production this year was all about a shy young girl who is revealed to be a singing sensation and this production truly proves to be a star vehicle for Mina Kaye in the title role. Kaye conveys the jittery diffidence of the almost mute Little Voice with tremendous heart and stuns the crowd with her vocal prowess when she morphs into a diva tossing back song upon song with panache. This is a stirring, soulful and robustly empathetic performance and one cannot wait to see more of her on the stage.

Best Supporting Actor - Perry Snowdon, The Merchant of Venice
This is probably the hardest category for me to decide this year and ultimately it was the breezy, debonair eloquence of Perry Snowdon as Bassanio in Merchant that lingered in my mind long after the production ended. He proves the perfect counterpoint to Julie Wee’s Portia and brings both foppish charm to his romantic endeavours and genuine anguish when faced with the predicament befalling his beloved friend Antonio.

Best Supporting Actress - Neo Swee Lin, The Way We Go
This wonderful performance by Neo Swee Lin in Joel Tan’s new play reminds one how skilled she is an actress; she truly inhabits the character of middle-aged convent school teacher Violet with all her heart and one can sense in her the apprehension of a woman getting married well past her prime and someone genuinely wants the best for her ailing friend. Neo’s scenes with Lydia Look’s Agatha are the beating heart of this play about the complex ties of love and companionship that animate us at different stages of life.

Best Script - Dick Lee, Rising Son
Best known for his catchy, popular musicals, singer-songwriter Dick Lee makes a very decent return to the world of serious theatre in this historical drama, the first part of a family trilogy that is to be staged by the SRT over the course of the next three years. Eschewing overt violence and wartime grimness, Rising Son skillfully explores the unusual friendship that developed during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore between Lee’s father Sunny, the latter's younger sister Ruby and a Japanese army lawyer who lives next door to the siblings. While the narrative occasionally feels a little tame, it is refreshing to be offered an alternative narrative of the war as a time for the quiet blossoming of human relationships amidst all the adversity.

Best Set Design - Wong Chee Wai, The House of Bernarda Alba / Red
Wong Chee Wai has done great work in set design this year and his work in these two very different productions deserves to be commended. In W!ld Rice’s unique take on The House of Bernarda Alba, he frames the stage with the shuttered windows of a traditional Peranakan house and an immense front door, giving us a constant reminder of the cloistered, oppressive setting and bringing a visual splendor that is echoed in the other production elements. In Blank Space Theatre’s Red, a play about Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, he plays with light to create a perfect reproduction of an airy, high-ceilinged New York studio loft, complete with paint-splattered wooden floor and painting paraphernalia scattered around.

Best Costume Design - Ivan Heng, The House of Bernarda Alba
Ivan Heng reveals his fantastic attention to detail as costume designer in this lush, visually stunning Peranakan take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s classic play. He dresses his all-female cast in a chic assortment of kebayas and accessories (all the way down to handmade beaded slippers sourced from Penang), emphasizing the subtle differences between the characters through different styles, shades and textures and creating a powerful visual palette to counterpoint the high drama.

Best Ensemble - Poor Thing, The Necessary Stage
This thoroughly gripping and unique production by The Necessary Stage bitterly embraces the world of social media and explores the irrational rage that Singaporeans seem to have when dealing with each other. It's bolstered by riveting performances by the ensemble comprising Siti Khalijah, Joshua Lim, Dwayne Lau and Sharda Harrison. The four actors revel in their respective roles and bandy about race, class, sexuality and religion like cruel weapons, giving rise to a raw, visceral onslaught of emotions.

Best Director - Robert Wilson, Peter Pan
One of the highlights of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts was Robert Wilson’s dark, dreamy and thoroughly whimsical take on Peter Pan performed by the Berliner Ensemble. It manages to be both creepy and cheerful (a catchphrase is “to die would be an awfully great adventure”), cheekily unmasks the conventions of the theatre and wraps everything up with the hauntingly beautiful music of freak folk duo CocoRosie. Rarely have I watched a performance where everything comes together so well to transport audiences on an unforgettable journey alongside the boy who never grew up.

Best Overall Production - Mies Julie, Singapore Repertory Theatre
Yael Farber’s explosive production is by no means an easy play to sit through. This acclaimed take on Strindberg’s Miss Julie probes whether society has really changed in contemporary South Africa, even after the demise of its strict policy of racial segregation. The production revels in its sheer physicality and the two lead actors are mesmerising: Hilda Cronje’s animal passion as Julie is matched by Bongile Mantsa’s silent, masculine intensity as family servant John. The disquieting live music, stark set and dusky lighting work well to create a sense of simmering unease that lingers throughout the play. This is a sizzling, savage production that breathes fresh life into a well-worn classic.


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