Leaping from Page to Stage
Richard Lord watches theatre groups bring words to life and life to words
By Richard Lord
Turning books into films is such standard practice by now that it's almost expected with any bestseller. In fact, many books are now sold as books with a film deal already worked into the package.
But transforming a book into a stage play, that’s a much rarer thing. There are good reasons for that too: film and books happen to be much closer forms than are theatre and print. Control of focus and point of view, ability to manipulate time, and audience involvement are all more similar between cinema and printed text than between theatre and literature. The challenges to effect such a metamorphosis and not bore an audience scares off a lot of theatre-makers, which is why we see relatively few stage adaptations of books.
However, two of the more impressive recent Singapore theatre productions were, in fact, adaptations of books, and a third even more impressive show resulted from a hefty borrowing from two well-known books to forge its tale.
To help celebrate the centennial of American Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s birth, i-theatre mounted a new adaptation of Steinbeck’s perennially popular novella, Of Mice and Men. While The Grapes of Wrath remains Steinbeck’s most famous work, Of Mice and Men is arguably the Steinbeck work that gets read and appreciated the most. (Like listening to Richard's Wagner, the less Steinbeck you read at one sitting, the more you're going to enjoy it.)
Mice and Men travels a short distance over very familiar Steinbeck territory - Depression-era California farming communities and the hidden richness of the lives of ordinary men and women who made up these communities. The original book, and this piece of theatre, focus on two of these ordinary people, George and Lenny. the more engaging of the two is Lenny, a huge, awesomely strong man-child whose physical prowess is yoked to the mind of a 6-year old. George, no mental giant himself, is still significantly more intelligent than his inseparable companion Lenny. He’s also the closest thing to family that Lenny has, and he’s fulfilling a vow to look after the soft-headed man by leading him to the place of their dreams - a stretch of land all to themselves, where they can raise all their own food, earn a little extra for what they can’t grow themselves, and not be dependent on any abusive bosses for earning a living.
In short, George and Lenny are just pursuing their small-bore version of the American Dream. It would all seem simple enough, but Steinbeck skillfully uses this pursuit to fulfill his own agenda - to write the tragedy of small, ordinary people. His achievement is how he’s able to do this in a compelling way, a way that allows us to travel the dark, rocky road to disaster with George and Lenny and feel for them almost every lurch of the way.
The achievement of British playwright Roger Parsley is how he’s able to adapt this moving literary work for the stage. Of course, Parsley is required to streamline a lot of the material to fit it into that “two hours traffic upon the stage” block. He also conflates a few characters to get a more focused dramatic effect. All in all, Parsley's work commands a good deal of praise and respect for how he's done both.
The i-theatre company also deserves a round of praise for the way they handled Parsley’s material. The set was impressive, as was the lighting, and the musical score, played live by the local group Universal Blues Band, who also composed it, set the 1930’s hardscrabble tone of the tale beautifully.
The acting in the i-theatre ensemble was a bit uneven, however, with several minor performances a trifle shaky. (Plus, there was a plethora of Deep South accents for this, a play set in California. They shouldn’t all be Oakies or the like, especially since much of the idiom here is obviously other than American Southern.)
But the success of a theatrical production of this work stands or falls on the performances delivered by its George and Lenny - and on that score, this one clearly succeeds. Paul Falzon is quite commendable in the role of George, even if during the earlier scenes, he does tend to operate within a narrow range of tones. Falzon could have given us a slightly more textured George, suggesting some of the pitch that came out so effectively later. Still, at those moments when called upon to reach deeply into this character and contribute to the tragic element here, Falzon rises to the occasion in a most compelling manner.
Still, even at his best moments, Falzon finished a clear second to Juwanda Hassim, who was simply brilliant as Lenny. Hassim creates a gripping version of this bumbling giant, free of malice but still a menace, an innocent who wins our hearts and continues to hold them until the moment when events force him into breaking them. What Steinbeck is telling us is that Lenny’s kind of almost prelapsarian innocence cannot survive in the vicious Depression-soaked world he’s been cast into. But we are still touched deeply when we see how it's this very innocence which leads to Lenny’s destruction.
Kudos must also go to Brian Seward for his fine, sensitive direction which brings this work to life splendidly. Except for the decision to fit most of the cast with strong US Southern accents, Seward did almost everything right while guiding his cast and crew to a marvelous production.
A short story would seem to be the easiest literary form to work into a play, the novel somewhat more difficult. Now, poems - they would seem to be a forbidding area for would-be theatre-makers. Can you imagine a stage version of The Prelude, The Cantos, Howl, even “Prufrock” or “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”?
Nevertheless, back in early February, we were treated to a strong theatrical experience - The Belly of the Carp, which was Roger Jenkins’ stage adaptation of his own 1996 book of poems, From The Belly of the Carp. Jenkins also directed this the latest stage rendition of his Singapore-Literature-Prize-winning book.
Admittedly, this volume always packed a good deal of dramatic potential, being a series of dramatic monologues giving voice to the famous, the little-known, or the totally unknown (usually fictional) in Singapore’s history. In fact, most of these poems actually work much better in dramatic presentation than being read from the page. No great surprise there, as Roger Jenkins was already a highly seasoned theatre practitioner when he wrote this volume, and it’s not too difficult to surmise that as he was writing the poems, he was already thinking of putting the richest pieces on stage.
But let’s concentrate here on how well Jenkins and his talented cast have sliced and stitched to make this a most enjoyable evening of theatre. The programme offers quick sketches of various personages, real and imagined, for whom the Singapore River has played an important role. (The “belly of the carp”, we are to learn, is Boat Quay.) Starting with the unavoidable Sir Stamford Raffles and ending with a modern-day angler who plies his trade or hobby at night, then sits back to watch modern, high-rise Singapore re-emerge from the dark, this show provides a beautifully minimalist history of this island.
Jenkins and company look at a broad collection of personalities who have contributed to the history of Singapore since Raffles first declared it the property of the British crown. We meet coolies, thieves fortune-hunters, civil servants, domestic servants, dhobies and nightsoil (i.e. excrement) collectors. We get informed and enlightened about how this Singapore was built by the various hands involved in the process: sailors, boat builders, samsui women (female construction site workers), seamstresses, shopkeepers, prostitutes, dance hall girls, gardeners, peons, real estate speculators. Even a few tourists wander in, take a quick look and gulp, before moving off to another scheduled destination.
The trip is exhilarating, and at the end we feel that we have seen so much of the history of this place and wish we could see even more. It’s true that the work as a whole still exhibits a structure which at times seems a little disjointed or too convenient, so the whole stands as a collection of individual gems rather than an integrated work with a clear thrust. But taking the show on its own terms, this objection seems a little beside the point. What Belly does, it does very well, and we should appreciate it for that. Not that every piece in the program is a flawless gem (there are a number of caricatures, such as our tourists, and a few sketches are just too sketchy), but there is much more true value than dross here.
Author-director Jenkins was served beautifully by his highly talented ensemble cast, who handled their multiple roles in a very admirable way. If I had to single out one or two from the cast of six for special praise, I’d choose - no, let’s give them all equal praise, as it's a truly collective achievement we saw here. So, kudos to Wendy Kweh, Lim Yu-Beng, Tony Quek, Gene Sha Rudyn, Catherine Sng and Karen Tan. Whether they were providing a little flesh and blood to historical names figures usually cast in chalky plaster or giving voice to someone whose voice has never really been heard, these actors were all stars for a few minutes, and a little later for several minutes more. Working closely with Jenkins, these performers put real heart into the belly of this carp.
Probably the most impressive production over the first few months of the season involved a play which also called on strong literary antecedents. Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare takes as its topic the bubonic plague which ravaged London in 1665. Wallace, an American, dips liberally into Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Samuel Pepys Diary to source background, imagery and language, but puts it all together with original material to come up with a totally gripping piece of theatre.
The topic of the plague, one of history’s most vicious biological killers, might seem too large to tackle in two concentrated hours of theatre, but playwright Wallace employs a device which isolates the disease and lets her concentrate on what it does to its victims - both those who ultimately survive and those who don’t.
Wallace’s device is essentially the same one Jean-Paul Sartre used in his play Huis Clos (alternately translated as No Exit and In Camera). In his play, the devout atheist Sartre crafted his own version of an Existentialist Hell - three people forced together for all eternity in a distastefully decorated room. Sartre’s infernal trio soon discover that Hell can consist of nothing more than “other people”. In One Flea Spare, Naomi Wallace assembles four diverse individuals in a set of rooms, quarantined by the plague and condemned to each other’s fears, vanities and obsessions. They then proceed to forge their own kind of Hell, with little hints of possible redemption which may or may not materialise.
This accidental quartet is composed of a wealthy London merchant and his pitifully proper wife, a well-worn sailor, and a 12-year old maidservant. Trapped by the clamp of a quarantine in the home of the wealthy couple, these four can do little but strip off all deceptions, pretensions and useless defenses which their society had forced on them before it either fled to the country or died in the streets.
There’s also a fifth personage to this plague chronicle, Kabe, a crude but cunning exemplar of London’s 17th century proletariat, now employed as watchman and guard. Kabe’s job is to make sure that the quarantined stay in their locked premises until they receive the all-clear sign that will allow them to resume what now passes for normal life in plague-torn London. But Kabe also serves as a kind of one-man tragic chorus, crying out the ways of the fates and the uselessness of opposing them. He also offers crude but painfully apt observations on life, death and suffering, as well as on social inequalities and injustices. As the least physically threatened character in the play, Kabe had the mobility and the temerity to bark out truths the others would like to avoid. He rarely passes up the chance to do so.
Having set up this ensemble, Wallace then stirs this potent brew to comes up with a stunningly powerful play. While Belly of the Carp may have proceeded from a book of poems, the most impressive poetic text in recent theatre is to be found here in One Flea Spare. The language is rich, overwrought but fittingly so: anything less than overwrought would be too little here, as the characters probe questions of life and death that most people never dare. These four sad wretches use language to bludgeon each other or to scourge themselves, then to blaspheme God for His seeming cruelty or abandonment. But they also use it to soothe, comfort, heal each other as well as to beg God for deliverance from the horrible pestilence.
Christian imagery abounds, often twisted and turned around in brilliant ways to new, profane purposes. A good example of this occurs when Mrs. Snelgrave, the merchant's wife, doubts the wound that sailor Bunce claims is festering in his side. In an echo of the doubting apostle Thomas, she insists on sticking her fingers in Bunce's wound. This action quickly takes on an intense sexual charge, as this long sexually frustrated woman switches male-female roles with the highly sexual man: the woman penetrating the man, the man receiving her penetration as a sign of intimacy. But this act, like most other attempts at intimacy in One Flea Spare, is doomed to quickly fail.
Sexuality, repressed or released in ugly ways, is rampant throughout much of this play which looks at how social mores break down in the face of the devastations of the plague. All of it is handled brilliantly, as the story swirls and shutters along the path towards its bitter conclusion.
The play's great strengths help to cloak its several key flaws . The main flaw is the flagging of vision that occurs just as the play should really lift off. In fact, I’d say One Flea Spare just misses greatness because it never uses its explosive material to rise to statements about life or death larger than those that readily suggest themselves. Indeed, the second act seems to lose purpose for a while as the play continues with variations on a theme rather than a movement to ever greater insights.
Okay, even if it’s not an unabashedly great play, it’s a pretty damn good one, and the luna-id treatment of this material was excellent. It is, in fact, the best show I’ve ever seen luna-id put up. From Sebastian Zeng's set and costume design to Bradley Peter Bowyer's lighting plot and Daren Ng's music and sound, production values were first-rate.
But the direction and acting stand out above all these other aspects, as should be. Christian Huber, luna-id's artistic director, has put this work together in a highly commendable manner. Whereas the staging of luna-id's last two shows, with their varied locations, did cause a bit of a problem, here Huber devises a perfect forum for the show. The use of space intensifies the sense of cramped confinement at the same time it allows characters to move about effectively when they need to. Also, Huber and his set designer manage to remove any threat of boring visuals by means of a wall which can swings in a number of directions. This wall, framing the one window onto the street, gives us the sense of a development in the circumstances of this quartet of the damned.
Huber was more than amply assisted by his cast, whose performances ran from good to excellent. The two stand-outs were Janice Koh as Morse, the young maidservant, and Rehaan Engineer as Bunce. Koh was thoroughly believable as a girl less than half her own age, at least in part because the rage in Morse's soul gives her a frightening maturity. Koh captured all these elements beautifully in the best performance I've ever seen her give. Engineer's performance was craftier, more balanced, more insidious - in other words as superbly fitting his character as was Koh's Morse.
The roles of Mr and Mrs Snelgrave did not serve up quite the challenges these above roles did, but Michael Corbridge and Christina Sergeant were nonetheless quite strong as the doomed couple. And in the minor role of Kabe, Mark Waite was also excellent, sending chills down our spines as we think that this is supposed to be the voice of health and the future.
This script, this acting, this production are what theatre should be and should make us proud that such shows are being mounted locally.