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Review: Second Link

August 22, 2006

Second Link

Wild Rice

National Drama Centre

You walk into the theatre and are greeted by a sparse set. A fluorescently lit square floor, cleaved into same-sized squares. In the absence of all other decorative frills, one assumes that the director has chosen to let nothing detract from the quality of the selected text (excerpts from pieces by Singaporeans in the first half, and by Malaysians in the second), and the quality of the actors.

The actors discharged their duties admirably – consistently good performance by both the Singaporean and Malaysian actors, who had to contend with being both strong physically, to fill the sparse stage, and vocally, to animate the texts. Particularly good was the Singaporean Malay actor, whose beautiful voice lent such a strong vitality to the texts.

However, the texts were an entirely different matter. To be honest, the first half was quite nearly unbearable, because of the uninteresting and unarresting quality of the Singaporean texts. One would have preferred a selection which illustrated something about Singapore – yet the selection was flat, at best. More disturbing was the fact that many pieces were bursting with triteness – two lesbians who decide to strike it out on their own after being married to men for so long could make for particularly touching drama. The pathos, however, quickly disappears when they are made to say things such as ‘I rue the day I met you…’, to which the reply comes ‘I never rue any day that I loved you’. This is sphincter-clenching cliche at its very worst. Which is not to say, of course, that all the texts were bad – the excerpt from Elangovan’s Talaq, portraying an abused Muslim woman, banned the first time around, was quite tantalising.

Much better was the second half. The Malaysian texts were much better selected. Aside from the texts of Malaysian writers, excerpts from the Sejarah Melayu, Hikyat Abdullah and the story of Sang Kancil was included, to provide a historical-mythological perspective to the issues discussed. Consider, for example, the excerpt from the Sejarah Melayu, which portrayed the story of Bukit Merah – condemnation of corrupt government. Compare this with Mark Teh’s Daulat, a humorously satirical piece that pokes fun at Malaysian and Singaporean politics. And in general the Malaysian texts were much more textually appealing. One got the sense that the featured Malaysian writers were really trying to struggle with the language, which brought a vividness to the text. There was a degree of subtlety that could not really be found in that of the Singaporeans.

This was intensely disappointing, as the performance became rather lopsided. So much better in the second half, with the Singaporeans handling Malaysian texts, than in the first half, with the Malaysians handling the Singaporean texts. This was not helped by the somewhat lacklustre and obvious staging of the texts in the first half. Distracting, rather than illuminating, was the use of multimedia. When the actors say ‘merlion’, ‘gold’, ‘food’, one assumes that the audience can use their own cognitive abilities to recognise what these are. Having the slides portray pictures of the foresaid items not only does not help, but detracts from the quality of the work. In addition, the employment of physical techniques was obvious and rather unsubtle, as in the case of the story of Nuwa, who has a head of a woman but the body of a snake. In this case, the actors formed an a slithery human chain to illustrate the snakiness of Nuwa.

The staging of the second half was more delicate, and more delicious. Although there was the occasional miss (the crocodiles in the Sang Kancil story were portrayed with chomping arm actions), there was a degree of simplicity and faithfulness to the text that seemed to be missing from the Singaporean staging. In ‘Flowers in the Sky’, for example, the juxtaposition of the Muslim prayer against the Buddhist ‘OM’ was haunting. Furthermore, the format of the presentation itself was far more interesting – it was a ‘Malaysian Roulette’ where audience members were invited to join in the tikam-tikam selection of the pieces, ensuring a degree of freshness of presentation as the actors had to contend with jumping from piece to piece in no particular, preordained order.

Which on balance amounted to a rather interesting end to the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival. However, the piece seems to reinforce the nagging suspicion that I have, that Singaporean art won’t be evolving in a particularly beautiful or challenging direction until the artists realise that style must accompany substance, and that a greater deal of subtlety should be in order.

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