Young Person's Guide to the Apocalypse
Is there any hope for our children's future?
By Richard Lord
I’m writing this opening paragraph on Children’s Day, when every stripe of official spokesperson keeps reminding us of the not terribly original notion that ‘children are our future’. In a more compelling way, two noteworthy productions over the last few months showed the truth of this proposition by focusing on young people in extremis. One presented that future in the hands of our children in a reassuring, the other in a terrifying way.
The first up was Brokenville, a dark fairy tale for our time fitted out with a bright ending. As staged by itheatre, Brokenville is set in a scarred landscape of rubble, a survivor locale after some unnamed but devastating war. Not only is the war unnamed, but this particular conflict was so devastating that almost all the characters have forgotten their own names. One has even forgotten the word for “music”, though she is drawn by a lullaby’s reassuring tones. (This is one reason why I call Brokenville a fairy tale: while these people cannot recall their own names, they very soon display a rather fertile imagination with an accompanying robust vocabulary as the play proceeds. We’re clearly not in a mode of applying realistic measures to this world.)
The itheatre staging of this opus by British playwright Philip Ridley was a bit static in the early going, but as the story-telling revved up, the staging too quickly became energetic and persuasive. The production remained visually interesting from there on with the stage traffic still serving the story-telling rather than dominating it.
The actors all proved convincing in their roles, helping to make the tale engaging. That’s not to say, however, that the acting was uniformly strong. The best performances came from Caleb Goh as Quiff, an egotistical pretty boy who attains some much needed humanity in the act of telling these stories; Amber Simon as a sensitive young woman who helps propel matters along at various points; and Daren Tan as Tattoo, a wannabe bully who learns humility and the importance of warm feelings. But special praise goes to Lilly McConnell as the little girl whose fear and hurt sets off the rounds of story-telling. This was a production for young people, which served up just the sort of fare these folks can use in forming their perspectives on life. Appropriate praise goes to director Brian Seward and his talented team, especially set designer Eve Tan for her evocative, post-apocalyptic landscape.
Well over on the dark side of the human spirit, the Toy Factory Ensemble recently mounted the Singapore premiere of the cause celèbre play Fireface, and in so doing, managed to put together a mildly laudable show out of a mostly bad play.
Indeed, the original script by young German playwright Marius von Marienburg can be taken as an object lesson in how to make a rather bad play by throwing together a bundle of strong elements. Sound confusing? All too fitting then, as that’s the best one-word synopsis of this work.
Another one-word synopsis for Fireface would be intense, which this play very much happens to be; in fact, too damn intense for its own good. The play trains its obsessive focus on a financially comfortable working class family of four. The composition follows the old ideal: father and mother, daughter and son. The decomposition occurring within this family unit is anything but ideal.
It’s almost misleading to call this family dysfunctional, as that implies there was a certain degree of functioning that this unit has now deviated from. But the family portrayed here is from the opening moments so thoroughly out of joint that it’s doubtful it ever really functioned.
Father is a beer-guzzling working stiff who fills his spare time by devouring newspaper accounts of grisly murders. Mother, meanwhile, takes out her myriad frustrations with her life on her own children. (She’s particularly fond of washing her lower regions in full view of the youngsters.)
Not surprisingly, the daughter feels altogether trapped in this stultifying environment, while at the same time she searches out ways to express her burgeoning sexuality. The son, confused by his own delayed stumbling into full adolescence and the very onus of existence, turns to arson as a kind of redemptive ritual. In this way, the son seeks his own escape from the fate of being locked in this home. Early on, the mother says, “We’re a family”, and the son tellingly replies, “Maybe you are, but I’m not.”
Out of this background, von Marienburg constructs a bubbling, bursting farrago of incest, physical and mental brutality, filth, parricide, arson, and horrific transcendence. Not a bad bundle to make serious drama out of. The elements were there: it could have been a truly powerful play. Instead, Fireface ends up more of a dramatic mugging, using its strengths to mostly negative ends.
The theme of the play bears marked resemblance to the work of Swiss playwright Max Frisch, in particular The Firebugs. But in structure and focus, Fireface suggests that von Marienburg has been influenced by the earlier works of Germany’s leading contemporary playwright, Franz Xaver Kroetz, especially plays such as Staller’s Farmyard. However, between Staller’s (1972, also von Marienburg‘s year of birth) and Fireface have come some of Fassbinder’s darkest films, British playwrights Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, the ascendance of Joseph Beuys, MTV and gangsta rap. Von Marienburg now apparently feels he has to keep on flailing away at every psychological defense the audience can put up. Accordingly, he boldly pushes every shock button in sight, ultimately stretching well past his talent’s limit.
With this assault, von Marienburg invokes a tradition that is long established in German drama and poetry: no-holds-barred nihilism. The origins of this style in Teutonic writing actually stretch back to von Marienburg’s spiritual great-grandfathers in the immediate post-WWI era. But those playwrights and poets of the Weimar Republic did this sort of thing so much better than Herr von M., most likely because they had first earned the right to trade in such nihilism.
The horrors and betrayals of that “war to end all wars” which most of these writers had experienced first-hand gave birth to German Expressionism. The Expressionists started to question the very value of human life after the value of life had been so debased by Europe’s honored military and political leaders during that conflict.
Von Marienburg’s nihilism, by contrast, seems largely derivative, almost a spewing tantrum by a rather talented young writer who now needs large doses of discipline. In Fireface, we’re confronted with sinister but poetic passages and powerful scenes interspersed with inconsequential if not incomprehensible dialogue and raw sections that seem more like early drafts than integrated parts of a finished product.
Most of the poetic passages belong to the two children in the family, in particular Kurt, the son. His paeans to pyromania and his musings about the world and life in general contain some very good writing, but unfortunately von Marienburg is not able to sustain this or balance it off against suitable presentations of the mundane world he’s opposing. The daughter, Ada, delivers some strong speeches of her own, and her exchanges with her brother generally spark with conviction. Some good, eerie images emerge from these exchanges, as in Kurt’s somber monologues.
But it’s not all solemnity in Fireface. The play also contains a good packing of humour. But like so much else in this play, the humour is ugly, contemptuous and blunt. Nonetheless, it often works, quickly, like a direct blow to our uglier sides. When von Marienburg prods us to laugh, we are reminded of the Hobbesian explanation of laughter: that is a nasty cry of triumph over those we find inferior to ourselves. Indeed, all the laughs provoked here are largely Hobbesian: nasty, brutish and short.
But the overriding problem with Fireface is that there is only one fully developed character, Kurt. Sister Ada is nowhere as fully realized as Kurt, while the parents and Ada’s short-term boyfriend are little more than cartoon figures propped up in the plot to give Kurt and Ada something to bounce off of or swerve to avoid.
In tackling this material, Beatrice Chia and her five-person cast decided to pull out most of the stops, to push the envelope as far as they could reach. With this play, it was almost certainly the right strategy, as a subdued treatment of this material would simply not have worked. I guess if you’re going to do Fireface, you’ve got to go for the jugular.
This was one production where the Toy Factory’s cramped Smith Street playing space actually worked to a show’s advantage. The claustrophobic atmosphere served to underscore the sense of being trapped in this ugly, brutal world. And Goh Boon Teck’s set, which featured a tree festooned with strings of knotted wires and small light bulbs, added to the effect of starkly emphasising the dark elements of the play. The immediate associations tend towards something like a modern update of the traditional German fairy tale, here with an electrified forest setting.
The acting also suited the script’s demeanour, with the two parents and the boyfriend being played at cartoon-like intensity. In fact, a number of times Chia even encouraged her cast to use Loony Toon phrasing. (Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Wile E. Coyote are all given their homage.)
The cast did a good job at bringing this off. Christian Huber, better known here as a skilled director, gave a fittingly gruff performance as the clueless father of this failed family. Huber’s snarls are comical, his smiles ugly, his carriage bear-like, and it all works well.
Karen Tan further demonstrated the breadth and scope of her acting talents here, spewing out a performance unlike anything else we’ve seen her offer over the last year and a half. Her mother was by no stretch of the imagination a best performance ( the material and cut of the character defy top-notch performance quality), but it is still impressive in its own right.
Kevin Murphy was quite competent as the boyfriend, though there are levels of depth and danger to this character that Murphy did not even begin to explore.
Patricia Toh’s performance as the daughter showed the promise of an impressive talent that the performer herself has not yet gained full rein over. At moments, Toh rushed her lines, hit the wrong pitch, or failed to articulate. But for the most part, her Ada was strong, energised with flashes of wild inspiration and danger, producing a number of magic moments along the way.
Still, the evening’s best performance belonged, fittingly, to Ian Tan as Kurt. Tan moved admirably around all the contours of the role, ultimately delivering a Kurt who was both appealing and appalling. This Kurt is a well-modulated model of what can be made of the part.
At the end of the evening, I felt like I had just undergone a physical drubbing. Presumably, this was just the effect intended by both the author and the Toy Factory team. So by that measure, this was a successful show. I just wish that this Apocalypse Now could have offered a few more balms for its bruisings - if only by structuring the whole bundle a little more cogently.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003