Thinking Global, Acting Local
Singapore shows up at the Singapore Arts Fest
By Richard Lord
While several of those “bold, daring” foreign companies scheduled to appear at this year’s Singapore Arts Festival pulled out unceremoniously in the face of the SARS threat, two of Singapore’s long established resident companies stepped up to provide Festival audiences with interesting works that took up the slack and filled the appetite for daring - if not totally successful - work.
The Necessary Stage’s entry at this year’s Festival was entitled Revelations. Such a title is about three sizes too large for this show, as the little that was revealed here, was of minor import. Moreover, the programme promised us “This multi-sensory epic will be nothing less than prophetic.” Be careful of those programmes: the show itself was much, much less than prophetic.
Even so, Revelations did accomplish a number of very nice small things; all this side of prophecy, however. In three of the more recent productions by TNS (BOTE, godeatgod and WWW), the company had gone for sensory overload, throwing everything they could at the audience. In Revelations, the Necessarians very wisely took a 180° turn, opting for a refreshing minimalism that serves them so much better.
The production values for this show were rather splendid. Vincent Lim’s set, spare but visually appealing and effective, was enhanced by Suven Chan’s subtle lighting plot, which added texture to every scene. (At one point, even suggesting the movement of water during a discusssion of travel.) Kenneth Paul Tan’s music was also a lovely adjunct to the rest of the show.
As for the script itself, instead of dialogue that took wild swipes and punches at the audience’s settled sensibilities, the text here (by TNS two resident playwrights, Harish Sharma and Chong Tze Chien) often (though not often enough) sculpted a spare poetry out of conversation and rumination. This was not the kind of poetry spun from overt lyricism, but the skilful weaving of poetry from everyday speech and speech contrapuntals from various corners of Singaporean life.
The evening began rather promisingly with a scene between a young Singaporean who has (temporarily?) returned from his studies in New York and the lad’s grandmother. The latter, according to her own testimony has “never taken a plane, train, not even a bus by myself.” The old woman, now near death, would very much like her grandson to again make his home in Singapore, but the young man strongly resists this suggestion. He also starts probing into the cause of his parents’ sudden death when he was quite young - in what may have been a car accident, or perhaps a suicide pact. The probings, the evasions and the reclaiming of bonds all weave an intriguing quilt of hazardous emotions.
This opening scene was delivered entirely in Teochew Chinese dialect, of which I understood perhaps all of two words. Overhead projections provided translations, but the tortured relationship acted out between the two characters needed no translation. The thorny emotions - from pain to ebbing solace - were clearly expressed in the faces and bodies of the two actors, Goh Guat Kian and Nick Shen. This vignette was a beautiful little piece of theatre, and delivered a strong start for Revelations.
The show then stepped into an enigmatic but still engaging sphere where the parents of a young girl (a younger version of the grandmother perhaps?) come to tell the girl, wrapped in sleep, that they must leave this life and move on to the next. The play then starts ambling through a series of emotional landscapes that also serve as physical settings - losing us in the audience along the way.
Both the strengths and the weaknesses of this show exhibited typical Necessary Stage traits. When the writers pursued small truths and original insights (that opening scene, for instance, or a relationship between a married woman and a younger one) the results were fine. Strong writing briefly (all too briefly) illuminating snippets of relationships or such simple human emotions as fear and longing produced many beautiful interludes. But then the show would take another turn and suddenly we’d be left unfulfilled.
The various little gems that sparkled throughout the evening were finally too clouded by the darkness, the opacity of the many other elements thrown into the Revelations concoction. Connections between characters, between scenes are often forced or simply not there. As the evening proceeded, whenever the play did start to again build up some power, it soon let that power sputter away.
A good example of the show’s problems surfaced midway through in a scene where the recurrent figure of the Mother (played throughout by veteran Singaporean actress Nora Samosir) comes on and delivers a monologue. At first, she has our attention, owing to Samosir’s compelling delivery. But then her speech spins off in a number of seemingly random directions and she loses us, regains us with another burst of strong delivery and interesting lines, only to lose us again a short time later.
All the longer speeches (and none of them were really that long, they just seemed that way) share this problem. Playwrights Sharma and Chong scavenge both Eastern and Western cultures to come up with scraps that once fit into powerful narratives. But removed from that context, they lose much of their power. What was original in Revelations was often good, but the two writers apparently thought they could strengthen the overall production by borrowing from Sanskrit classics, the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Greek tragedy. But thrown all together, it confused the issues rather than strengthening the whole. Maybe those borrowed fragments could have worked, if inserted more judiciously. Sadly, this part of the theatre-maker’s craft was largely missing here.
Ultimately, the biggest flaw in Revelations lay in its faulty structure. It goes without saying that in 2003 it’s not necessary to yoke a theatrical production to anything like a traditional linear narrative. But when you discard traditional narratives forms, as TNS does here - again - you need to devise another kind of structure to support what you are building, what you plan to offer the audience.
However, what the playwrights, and the directors, ignored here is precisely that need. Once you abandon that traditional narrative form, an even greater burden is thrust upon you to find the structure which holds everything together, pulls everything along. This was most clear as the evening drew to a close. The most appropriate wrap-up came when actor Sean Tobin, admirable throughout, briefly reprises an earlier (overwrought) duologue yoking Stamford Raffles’ adventures in the Straits region to the life and death of stars (the astronomical, not the entertainment industry’s). This would have made a perfect ending to the work, but it was followed by a long, convoluted monologue from one of the other key recurrent characters, Boon, the archetypal prodigal son (played effectively by Rodney Olivero), and then a short, strong exchange between Samosir and fellow veteran Lim Kay Tong in a Jason and Medea knockoff. Oh sure, that closing bit was - as I said - strong but, hell’s bells, it was entirely out of place here.
Now that I have started handing out accolades to the cast, let me continue. In a rather challenging part, Nora Samosir was as good as I have ever seen her; Serena Ho showed she is steadily developing into a very fine actress of remarkable breadth and focus; Rodney Olivero and Sean Tobin were admirable in all their appearances (indeed, so good together in certain homoerotic moments that many in the audience refused to believe that neither is, in fact, gay); Lim Kay Tong showed polish and force in his one true, brief chance at full acting, while Kumar was convincing in his own limited role, one with nary a laugh attached to it. (Though some in the audience would not take a serious Kumar and insisted on laughing at some things that simply weren’t funny or intended to be.) The one acting disappointment was Noorlinah Mohammed, who happened to be the strongest performer in the TNS farrago acronymed BOTE. Here, Mohammed’s voice was so soft it was occasionally difficult to catch all her lines, and there were scenes when she did not provide the power the moment asked for.
To sum it all up, I found Revelations a frustrating evening precisely because it had many good things going for it: in the writing, the staging, the acting. All in all, it seemed like interesting snippets from a number of fair to good plays, all thrown haphazardly together. Even in a Post-Modernist climate, that’s not enough, it’s just not. And let’s hope this does not come as any revelation to the TNS team.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note here that in my acting guise, I filled one of the major roles in last December’s TNS production, WWW. Since then, I have had no professional or personal contact with the central Necessary Stage folks, and I have striven to keep this critique as professionally objective as could be.)
The other Singapore theatrical institution represented at this year’s Arts Festival was TheatreWorks. If the TNS show was misnamed Revelations, TheatreWorks’s offering, The Global Soul: The Buddha Project, could just as well have been called “Explorations”. What this work explores is the interior landscape of the human being along with the physical space of the globe we inhabit and frequently traverse, and the way the two reflect and influence each other. Travel was the dominant trope in this work, though the physical travel discussed was almost always metaphor for travel within, a process of self-exploration.
The show’s title was taken from a book by the British-born Indian travel writer Pico Iyer, and both the programme notes and the pre-show publicity assert that Iyer’s musings influenced some of the themes of this work. Quite frankly, Iyer does a much, much better job of treating this subject matter. Nor, to turn our attention to the second half of the title, was there much to learn about the Buddha or the deeper reaches of his message here.
Unlike TNS’s Revelations, with its mix of monologues and dialogue, The Global Soul contained no dialogue whatsoever, though there were some scant moments of interaction between members of the six-person cast, all rendered via physical movements or gestures.
The round of monologues and songs that made up The Global Soul were often engrossing and invariably well-delivered by the talented, multicultural cast. But the speeches came in a rich palette of languages, including French as well as English, with one tale in Swedish, another in German, and Mandarin and Korean as well as Thai infusing various sections. I daresay there were few people in the audience conversant with all these tongues, so we can assume that verbal communication was not the prime agenda of this Global Soul.
So what was the prime agenda? Apparently, another exploration of the hybrid brand of performance in which TheatreWorks has been specializing in recent years. Now, explorations can be boring until they’ve actually found something valuable, but the vat of skills The Global Soul drew from allowed this show to largely avoid boredom.
Indeed, though suffering from most of the same structural shortcomings as Revelations, The Global Soul managed to be engrossing almost from beginning to end. But this was primarily because the show, actually a set of performance collages, was closer to dance theatre than to traditional spoken, interacted theatre.
Script devisor-director Ong Keng Sen put the emphasis on physical movements along with the look and stage personalities of his actors. His multicultural cast, drawn from a native African, a Swede, a Korean, PRC Chinese, and a Thai impressed significantly with their look, the architecture of their bodies and faces, how they moved their bodies, how they used facial gestures to add text and texture to their bits. Every sequence of The Global Soul had the look and feel of being carefully choreographed, and the speeches were usually ancillary to the mode of delivery, the movements that accompanied that delivery.
Moving through the stark landscape of Justin Hill’s sparse, coldly functional set (often made all the more cold by the lighting), the six actors performed their bits in the rhythms of long, slow meditation. (Ah, there’s the Buddhist element! Or maybe not.) Indeed, many of the speeches, especially those delivered in French by Sophiatou Kossoko, were more like incantations, as were the operatic songs brilliantly trilled by Zeng JingPing and Kang Kwon Soon.
But as the evening moved on, I kept anticipating a sudden jump into a different rhythm, a varied mode of theatre. I was hoping the various speeches and songs would intersect, that some of the characters would at least acknowledge the existence of some of the others, and that some kind of dialogue would ensue. Or maybe this strategy was Ong Keng Sen’s way of expressing Pico Iyer’s observation from his Global Soul that:
“in the modern world, which I take to be an International Empire, the sense of home is not just divided, but scattered across the planet, and in the absence of any center at all, people find themselves at sea. Our ads sing of Planet Reebok and Planet Hollywood--even my monthly telephone bill in Japan speaks of "One World One Company"--yet none of us necessarily feels united on a deeper level.”
Be that as it may, no dialogue ever did ensue here. As a result, an atmosphere of narcissism built up: the speeches on the body, on travel, on love all seemed like began to seem like exercises in self-absorption. And the problem with self-absorption is that it leaves others (for instance, people in the audience feeling somehow excluded). Truth is, the show left me with a kind of chill in the soul. Part way through, I found myself itching for some of the interaction we got in Revelations. But if in Revelations, this interaction was usually truncated, in The Global Soul, it was virtually non-existent. With The Global Soul, I was more impressed than moved, more admiring than engaged. Its achievement was clear: what it failed to achieve was to fill in all the blanks, and those blanks held a good deal, I believe.
Anyway, kudos to a talented cast, kudos and thanks to Ong Keng Sen for bringing them together and then guiding them through a number of beautiful abstract tableaux. But, ironically, what this Global Soul needed was an extra infusion of soul.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003