Archive for the ‘art’ Category


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.


Review: National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I

August 12, 2006

National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I

National Drama Centre

You walk into the Black Box at the Drama Centre and you’re greeted by a bespectacled, nerdy Chinese kid who tells you, in Mandarin, that she’s going for her national language class. She asks you to translate for the rest of the audience – you have to, or else she doesn’t leave you alone. Then she moves on to the other side, and gets another audience member to do the same. Thus begins National Language Class, a piece about a Chua Mia Tee painting of the same name – the director and the actors have, in this collaborative piece, tried to imagine what this class must have been like. The audience is privy to this exercise in mythmaking, which takes on the flavour of mythmaking at the national level, since Chua is known as, above all, a PAP painter and faithful renderer of national history.

A Malay man walks in. The lesson begins. The audience is invited to join in – ‘assalaamualaikum’, ‘waalaikumsalaam’. Therein lie the seeds of discomfort – why does he teach the religious greetings, rather than the more neutral ‘selamat malam’? Then the requisite ‘Siapa nama kamu?’ ‘Nama saya…’ the audience intones. ‘Dimana awak tinggal?’ Then the naming of the objects in the room ‘pelaja’, ‘kerusi’, ‘tingkap’, ‘buku’, ‘kaca mata’, ‘papan hitam’. With all these words and their Chinese equivalents, so begins the power-play of the two languages. The Malay teacher creates his own narrative – ‘This is national language class. In class there are 9 students. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Here is the blackboard. Here is a round table. Here is a square table. Here is the teacher. Here is the student. She is sitting on a chair. She is wearing spectacles. She is looking at her book…’ The Chinese student gets up, walks around the class and translates everything into Mandarin (presumably a daydream sequence). The teacher coughs. She sits again, embarrassed. Translation after translation, until both fall silent and mime the narrative. The play ends with the Chinese student repeating, in Malay, ‘this is national language class’, and the Malay teacher attempting to translate the items into Chinese. We go full circle.

The silences were particularly instructive. In the absence of words and spoken language, what dominated? How do languages operate? How do we communicate? In that respect, I found National Language Class to be a particularly insightful and intelligent commentary on the human ability to acquire language – the Chinese student finds joy in making a new Malay sound, she tries them on for size, tries to get things right. She translates them into the familiar Chinese, and smiles. In the silences, in the audience’s minds the narrative repeats itself, in whatever language the audience member is most comfortable in. I found myself repeating, in my head, in English, ‘student’, ‘chair’, ‘spectacles’, ‘window’, ‘book’, blackboard’.

Yet the politics of the piece was oppressive. Contextualising it, one could conceivably see it as a policy to linguistically colonise the numerous Chinese – one Malay teacher on so many students. The Chinese students walk in on the teacher praying. The actors try to hijack the narrative for themselves in their respective languages. Where both cannot succeed, an uneasy truce of silence ensues – wovon mann nicht sprechen kann… And yet the play ends with a sort-of hopefulness. The Malay teacher attempts to learn Mandarin, the Chinese student introduces the class in Malay. Or could this be an acceptance of realities, realpolitik at its most insidious, masquerading as linguistic harmony – the Chinese learning because it is in the national syllabus, the Malay learning because of the dominance of the Chinese?

National Language Class succeeds because of its nuances, its subtlety. For a piece about translation, meaning, and narrative, it succeeds because it can itself be translated, a new meaning placed upon it, a narrative imposed. The audience takes away what they will, but coming away with a heightened understanding of, not only language politics, but on a deeper level, how languages operate, and how instructive silences can be.

Utama: Every Name in History Is I was not quite so subtle. Taking the form of a lecture in .ppt form, with a short-film interlude, Utama was aggressively intellectualising and, to its credit, made no bones about it and drew attention to its own intellectualising. Utama incorporated modernist, postmodernist, and Platonic philosophy, Singaporean and Roman mythology, and international ancient history, to come up with a complex and interesting argument that was about so many things at once – about the search for origins and how this was impossible (‘Names and origins multiply, as time washes away all certainty’), about how all origins are the same because we impose our own meaning upon it, about the repeated colonisation of Singapore…

Yet to its credit the lecture never really took itself too seriously. In the short film, his mascots – Utama, the lion, Diana goddess of the hunt, et al – take a trip down to the Merlion at the Esplanade, riding resplendently on trishaws, posing for photographs with tourists. It inflated itself so much only to deflate itself again. However, one increasingly got the nagging feeling that the entire lecture was some gigantic practical joke on the audience played by the creator of the piece, Ho Tzu Nyen. The delicate ‘paintings’ that he created for his exhibition about his theories? No more than photoshopped pictures of his actors. He reveals it – but to what effect? It all felt like some pseudo-Joycean nyeh-nyeh-nyeh, which in my opinion was funny for the moment, but left a rather empty and unsatisfying aftertaste. In short, while it was amusing, it was not quite enriching, and I certainly could have lived without the experience.

National Language Class/Utama: Every Name in History Is I cannot be considered, even in its loosest sense, a doublebill. Themes of repetition, mythmaking, national identity, even language, were supposed to bind the two, yet one did not feel as if both could be considered to be truly linked, except in the most arbitrary and tenuous sense. It was not difficult to see which of the two was more rewarding – although one walked out of the theatre asking oneself suspiciously, ‘Did I mind paying 30 dollars for a short play and a PowerPoint Presentation?’


Review: Mothers at the Edge

August 11, 2006

Mothers at the Edge

Suchen Christine Lim

Theatreworks 72-13  Mohammad Sultan Road

Suchen Christine Lim sits at her desk. Around her chairs have been arranged in a semi-circle. Gently she is prompted – the show’s about to start. She gets up and sits in front of the desk, and tells the audience that she’s going to tell them a story, like the old story-tellers in Chinatown – except that she won’t be passing around a coin-box for her fees.

And tell a story she does – she tells two, in fact. The first, Morning After, told from the perspective of a woman whose mother is complaining that her son (the woman’s brother) has decided to marry someone who already has two children from a previous marriage, and whose son David has just recently come out to her. The second, Two Mothers, told from the perspective of a woman who was adopted by two mah-jies (in olden Singapore, maids in a household) who have decided to live together.

The stories work because the atmosphere is so intimate. The narrative voice works actively with Lim’s voice to draw you in, as do Lim’s eyes – twinkly, deeply crinkled with age and wisdom, sparkly with all sorts of mischief. She modulates soothingly, her voice dipping there, only to rise again, full of power. The audience hushes, and listens attentively. She really is the story-teller from old Chinatown, a consummate performer. At the end of it you really do believe that she’s a woman whose son has come out to her, whose brother has decided to marry another woman with two kids, and who has been raised by two women (even though the two short stories are not interconnected). It took me a while to realise that these stories were fictional.

Such is Lim’s magic. She doesn’t tell you ‘give gays more rights!’, even though this is a session organised for Singapore’s gay pride month. Instead, she shows you a lovely vignette, a tantalising reminder that gay men and women are members of families too – in one story she is mother to one, in the next she is daughter to two. And never does she lose sight of the intensely personal – what the characters are feeling, how conflicted they are. what makes them human. These stories are not quite original in plot. What makes them original is the way they are told, with a certain dignity and pathos that pricks to the quick.

More memorable was the second story, Two Mothers. Raised by a same-sex couple (one hesitates to call them lesbian, since the ideological concept of lesbianism is a relatively recent invention, and Lim realises this herself), two mah-jies who live together in a sort of familial bliss, the narrator encounters another when she goes to  secondary school and is invited to tea with her classmates’ parents, both teachers, both female, one Chinese, one Indian. They have, together, adopted two children, one Chinese, one Indian. ‘Some families are born, other families are made,’ says Ms Nazareth, the Indian teacher in a lovely and humorous turn of phrase, ‘others are cooked. We selected our own ingredients.’ A minister enunciates his concept of what a family is: ‘a man, his wife, and their children.’ Her classmate and daughter of the teachers asks, child-like, about families with a grandmother, an unmarried uncle and grandchildren, all linked by a daughter/sister/mother (respectively) who has passed away – are they a family too? When the narrator later grows up and, like Lim, has is a Fellow at the University of Iowa, she meets a lesbian couple who have two children, who are half-sisters – they have the same father, a close friend of the couple. She, denies the existence of her parents for the third time (first as a kid, then as a teenager, now as an adult), compares herself to St Peter before the cock crowed. Now, as she finally comes to terms and enunciates her deep love and respect for her parents, she, like St Peter, gains a freedom and a joy so deep. It is a fitting ending – like her parents who give offerings to the gods when she graduates with a Ba(Hons), she now devotes paper offerings to her parents for their love and care.

Morning After was slightly less memorable, since the context was stock – a mother’s feelings after her son has come out to her. But Lim does an admirable job of portraying it. Juxtaposing her own son’s coming out with her brother telling her mother that he is going to marry a woman who already has two children, Lim shows the difference between the narrator and her mother – the narrator doesn’t wail and moan, and doesn’t wallow in self pity. With delicious cruelty and hard-handedness, the narrator decides to cut her mother’s complaining short by telling the mother that her grandson is gay. You get the sense that this is a real, flawed, and all-too-human being, struggling to come to terms with her son’s identity.

Which, all in all, makes for an enjoyable evening. The stories themselves are not original – but the storytelling is, and Lim’s light, lovely touch, which reminds us that gay people have a family, a history, and therefore a place in society, will be read with enjoyment not only by gay men and women, and not only by Singaporeans, and not only now, but in the future too, when the politics has faded and all that remains is the resonance of the text.


Review: Homesick

August 7, 2006


Alfian Sa’at

The Drama Centre, 4 August 2006

Engaging but not thoroughly satisfying, Homesick, one of the stronger performances to be staged in recent years, has piqued but not completely gratified.

Homesick portrays the story of the Koh family, reunited unwillingly after several years of living apart when the patriarch, the never seen but ubiquitous Koh père, falls ill and is suspected of SARS. Slapped with a Home Quarantine Order, they are forced to come to terms with the threat of disease, with themselves, and with the nation.

Disease becomes a central metaphor – unsubtly but effectively put across. Homesick is thus an appropriate title – who is homesick? Or who is home, sick? Or who is sick of home? Daphne, the daughter who moves to Berlin to become a freelance activist, points out that SARS, being able to cross borders, is nature’s democratising ironic twist, a response to labour not being able to cross borders as effectively as capital. The Chinese Study Mama with whom the Koh patriarch has an affair is, at first, suspected of SARS, when in fact she is suffering from morning sickness.

Which all makes for a very well-made play with several delicious morsels of irony and many stings in the tail. There is a certain Ibsenesque feel to the entire piece, with its realistic, linear-time point-of-view, and its reliance on dramatic irony and oblique suggestion to maintain dramatic thrust. Furthermore, there are extremely interesting symmetries which serve to remind how interconnected families as dysfunctional as the Kohs can be. For example, Patrick, the youngest in the family and about to commence his national service liability, decides not to return to Singapore, even if it means giving up coming back to Singapore forever, and never seeing his mother Patricia again. In a clever twist, his father’s affair with his mistress results in an unforeseen conception, which then results in Patricia’s decision to divorce her husband and to move to the USA to join her daughter Marianne, and son-in-law Manoj, which frees Patrick up to choose not to do his national service. Both Patricia (at the time of the birth of Patrick) and the mistress had been ligated at the time of their respective conceptions. Accidents do happen, with fortuitous results.

Homesick is a very ambitious play indeed, with the broadest of scopes. This means, however, that certain themes are not fully explored. At times, one feels as if the entire play were like Daphne, the activist with the agenda du jour. The play hops from issue to issue, never penetrating as deeply as one would hope. Some of the themes touched on include national identity, national symbols, familial ties, Singaporean society, racism, the malaises that infect Singapore.

At times one felt as if Sa’at were really putting his talent to the test – there is a great deal of acidic and acerbic wit (except for that old recycled joke about the police ‘finding blood in her alcohol’ – plainly and inexcusably unoriginal). At other times, feels like a political-philosophical essay, and the audience subject to a lesson in postmodern philosophy. Ligation, the play helpfully informs, is patriarchy in all its arrogance – to demonstrate matriarchy or an equality of the sexes necessitates a vasectomy. The national symbol is ironic because it is ‘anatomically’ and ‘physiologically unsound’. Arthur, middle child, claims that there is no such thing as a Singaporean, that ‘Singaporeans don’t exist’, or that a Singaporean is a person who spends all his time trying to think of what a Singaporean means. The superinfector is, like ‘stayer’, ‘quitter’ and ‘heartlander’, a constrictive label that one buys into. Too much psychobabble and too little time.

By far the most unsubtle and the most jarring – Daphne’s revelation that she moved away from Singapore because she felt that she was ‘living one man’s dream’. Surely the audience thinks that she is speaking of her father, with discomforting overtones of Lee Kwan Yew. However, she goes on to state that this one man is indeed LKY – seemingly irrelevant and completely ruining the potential subtlety (and therefore beauty) of the moment. Sa’at’s general handling of the political edge of the play seems to have been not too well balanced with the personal, leading to a (strangely enough) agitprop texture that may not have enduring appeal, when the politics have changed and all that remains is the text. Similarly, when one thinks of an enduring and beautiful Sa’at poem, one thinks not of the strident Ginsburgesque ‘Singapore you are not my country’ but rather, the haunting ‘Portrait of a Sentenced Library’.

The play suffers a bit from being too top-heavy, in my opinion, as this makes the emotional segments a bit less effective. Neo Swee Lin, however, as mother Patricia, holds her own as the emotional centre of the play. Chermaine Ang as the Chinese Study Mama mistress is convincingly temptress and victim, and portrays her character sympathetically. Remesh Panicker as Manoj has mazing diction. Others are not as adept. Lim Kay Siu as son Herbert is not as focussed as he can and should be, and does not scale the heights of performance that one is wont to expect from him. And will someone please tell Hansel Tan (playing youngest son Patrick) that walking around tensed up with his face screwed up does not constitute acting? Please, you have marginally pretty face and a nicely shaped body. Use it better!

Jonathan Lim’s direction is a bit problematic, in my opinion.. Lim Kay Siu’s overpowering Received Pronunciation seems to have, like the SARS virus from a superinfector, communicates to the rest of the cast members. Even Neo Swee Lin, supposedly a bibik, fluctuates from a neutral Singaporean to a strong Singaporean to a decidedly English to a very Melayu.  Hansel Tan as Patrick does not speak as if from Australia, his adopted country, and lapses into an accent suspiciously like Lim Kay Siu’s. In addition, the set is functional but boring. The characters changing on stage in the half-light is not interesting nor does it serve any other purpose, therefore on stage at one time it seems as if there is too much going on. And in my opinion, most irritating and pointless is Lim Kay Siu’s extra-effete portrayal of ‘English Reserve’, which to the directors mind seems to involve a lot of limp-wristed yelling and tooting.

That being said, Homesick is all in all an enjoyable experience. Not the best of Sa’at’s work, and not fully realised because of the unrisky and uneventful direction. However, Homesick ultimately delivers because it is an interesting (but obvious) discussion about what family is and can be, and about what it means to be Singaporean. A good start to the inaugural Singapore Theatre Festival.