Beyond the Cuckoo Clock
Two local theatre productions highlight the Singapore Dürrenmatt Festival
By Richard Lord
Undoubtedly the most famous speech in the classic 1950 film The Third Man was delivered by Harry Lime (memorably portrayed by Orson Welles). A totally amoral criminal, Lime defends his climbing in and out of bed with political fiends of both the right and the left with this bit of sophistry: "You know what the fellow said: In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
In addition to being wildly inaccurate historically, this speech is also grossly unfair to Switzerland’s cultural output which, while not as impressive as Italy’s, is deserving of much more praise than Harry Lime affords it. In fact, around the time Lime was supposedly delivering his speech, a young Swiss writer who would soon emerge as a significant literary figure was having his first major play produced.From there, Friendrich Dürrenmatt went on to become the dominant Swiss literary force in the second half of the 20th century. His potent plays, novels and essays first shook up the German-speaking scene, then the world cultural arena. Dürrenmatt was a politically and socially committed writer who knew that a popular writer had to entertain as well as preach if you wanted to get your message across most effectively. So his output included many popular works and genres (crime novels, detective stories, satirical essays) that drew a large audience of devoted fans.
His works were usually set in or around his native land and dealt with issues confronting the Swiss in the 20th century. He understood that Switzerland’s vaunted neutrality had been both a blessing and a curse for the country and its people and he worked from this perspective to deal with themes that could touch people all across the globe.
While his hallmark was a probing, critical intelligence, DŸrrenmatt also realised that he was not much different from his readers or even those to whom he directed his critical gaze. For instance, in his own postscript to his play The Visit, he admitted that the tale “is told by someone who feels himself at no great remove from those involved, and …is not so sure he would have acted differently.” Here was a guy determined to pursue the truth as he saw it no matter whose toes he would step on along the way - even his own.
In a tribute to this figure, the Swiss Embassy in Singapore and a host of corporate and philanthropic partners put together a month-long festival entitled ‘Dürrenmatt - A Swiss Citizen of the World’ this past October. There were films, talks, readings, but the headliners of the celebration were two theatrical productions by two of the Lion City’s best theatre troupes.
The more grandiose of the two Dürrenmatt productions to grace this festival was his signature piece, Der Besuch der Alten Dame. This actually translates as “The Visit of the Old Lady” but is usually entitled simply The Visit in its English-language renditions. However, this Wild Rice version, exuberantly localised, was dubbed The Visit of the Tai-Tai.
While a fellow critic at one of Singapore’s daily newspapers bemoaned the fact that this 1956 play had been uprooted from Central Europe then grafted onto Asian soil, I would argue that such a move is eminently justifiable. Look, The Visit has inspired a spate of localised adaptations, including the prize-winning Senegalese film Hyènes, which was also featured in Singapore’s Dürrenmatt festival. Moreover, Dürrenmatt himself, in writing about this work, stressed that in his view, “a play is acted in the theatre according to the limits and possibilities of the stage; it is not confined within the garb of some special style.” I take that to mean “make it real to your audience; if that means localising, go for it.”
The Wild Rice version does offer an occasional nod to the play’s postwar European roots. For instance, when taking their oath to pursue justice, the townsfolk extend their arms in the standard Nazi salute. What’s more, the train conductor who announces the eagerly awaited visitor who will alter the town’s fate sports a Hitlerian moustache. While the first bit added a note of alarming irony, the moustache seemed rather incongruous in this particular production, especially as the conductor played only a minor role in the piece - and that as conductor, not Führer.
Dürrenmatt himself called The Visit a “tragedy-comedy”, though a better label might be the one pinned on early Pinter plays: comedy of menace. The menace here is the central female character, her entourage and the seeds of betrayal she plants in her hometown. The comedy comes from how these seeds find hospitable ground, then sprout.
Claire Zachanassian, now the richest woman in the world, arrives back home in Saitang (‘shit pail’ in Mandarin) with Husband No. 6 in tow. She will soon dump him and move on quickly to No. 7. But we later discover that through this whole chain of husbands (and who knows how many lovers), it is one man back in this godforsaken whistle-stop of a town who has remained Claire’s prime obsession.
Early on, Claire reveals the mission statement by which she lives and operates: “The world made me into a whore; now I’ve made the world into a brothel.” A multiple survivor (of plane and car crashes), Claire now sees herself as indestructible. Which, of course, only makes her that much more dangerous - to herself and others.
Shortly after her arrival, Claire graciously announces that she is ready to bestow upon Saitang a huge grant which would make every resident of this impoverished backwater suddenly rich. (Though it would be just a minute scratch from her own overpowering fortune.) Her largesse has a frightening condition attached to it, however: that man who betrayed and disgraced her when they were both young and wildly in love must first be killed.
The spinout from there is mainly to see how long it will take the various residents of the town to discard any scruples they may have and acquiesce to the murder of the man who had until then been so popular he was poised to become the next mayor. The caving in of just about everyone (including, in a certain manner, the victim himself) is predictable but handled in a masterful way by Dürrenmatt. This Swiss craftsman manages to portray greed as a dark, primal force such as those that propelled Classic tragedy. Especially for these characters now locked into poverty but aware of a more illustrious past, the urge to leap out of penury right into wealth becomes the engine of Fate - for both the town itself and one of its citizens.
In the end, the target of Claire’s revenge, Anthony Seow, dies of “heart failure”. It could very well be said that the town’s flattering image of itself also dies of “heart failure”, shortly before Anthony’s demise.
Dürrenmatt originally crafted this plot as an allegory for the recent history of his own cultural milieu (Central Europe in the 1950’s). Concerning the upcoming murder, one of the characters says, “We’ll have a sudden attack of amnesia.” To be sure, this line carried much more resonance in a postwar Europe where millions had conveniently forgotten their service to or collaboration with triumphal Fascism. Yet, even today, it holds much relevance in a world where collective amnesia is often a prime feature of politics, business, entertainment and personal relationships.
Dürrenmatt had definitely struck something timeless and beyond borders in this work. The Wild Rice team realised this truth and went on to prove it with their localised version of the tale of love scorned and its wrath.
Most of the elements of this localisation worked organically in the finished product. Some of them were just quick touch-ups: amongst Madam Zachanassian’s holdings is the largest chain of go-go bars in Bangkok. A lion dance is presented to celebrate the lady’s arrival. Upon that arrival, the conductor does a quick shill for the town, saying many things here are “uniquely Saitang”, unmistakably a sardonic reference to the Singapore Tourist Board’s current slogan.
Meanwhile, the town’s priest is named Fr. Justin Kang, an all too obvious play on a notorious embezzler in the Singapore archdiocese, Fr. Joachim Kang, caught and sentenced early last year for embezzling over $5.1 million in church funds. In fact, with the exception of Madame Zachanassian (which is, anyway, her name by her first marriage), all the names have been localised.
Wild Rice’s Visit was co-directed by company Artistic Director Ivan Heng along with a doyen of Malaysian theatre, Krishin Jit. Their staging was energetic, muscular and imaginative throughout, recalling some of the best Wild Rice productions from the past.
This Heng-Jit Visit often used clever theatrical devices to underscore theme or character: for instance, early on we witnessed a steady circle of cast members portraying Claire’s attendant entourage toting bag after bag, suggesting the large number of things she arrives with. This cavalcade of luggage and people lugging served as a strong visual metaphor for wealth, power and the ability to put one’s imprint on a new environment. All of which are, of course, hallmarks of Claire Zachanassian’s style.
Hella Chan’s impressive, all-purpose set featured corrugated metal shacking flanked by a series of grey doors and houses along with plastic sheeting to establish a clear sense of the town and its dilapidated state without undue fuss or bluster. It served the production well, through all its many and diverse scene changes, interior and exterior.
One small quibble about the tech though: Early on, there was some trouble with voice levels from the miking. (And this was on the last day of the run.) This was, however, corrected rather quickly and we were able to enjoy the rest of the show as it deserved to be enjoyed.
As with the luna-id production of The Physicists, this Wild Rice take on The Visit profited richly from the broad strength of its cast. In fact, there was no real weak link at all in this cast, and some very strong performances in key roles.
The cast strength was most obvious right there at the centre with their Anthony Seow and the eponymous Tai-Tai herself. As Anthony, Lim Kay Siu was at the edge of bigger-than-life, which is his wont. In a show like this, you want someone pushing the envelope as far as it will go in this role, and Kay Siu proved exemplary. All the emotions, all the evasions, all the self-deceptions were brought out splendidly in Kay Siu’s command of words and body language. There was never any danger that this Anthony Seow would slip into the crowd around him - except at the moment of his murder.
A perfect foil for Kay Siu was the show’s co-director Ivan Heng as the avenging angel herself. Ivan’s Claire flaunted her bright scarlet tresses with a crop of grey right up front and a wardrobe most local divas would die for. Heng lavished his gifts for high theatrics on this role. (Claire shifting gears with her prosthetic leg in order to change direction was worthy of some of our classic comedians.) He consistently poured the proper mix of vitriol and droll humour into the Tai-Tai’s spiked one-liners.
More importantly, Heng made this Tai-Tai a frightening terror who could still grab a bundle of laughs and even a few dribbles of sympathy at just the right moments. (Those right moments included her accounts of the unjust treatment she received from her town when they drove her out, or exchanging memories of young love with the man she is about to have murdered. )
With Kay Siu and Heng both in high form in the principal roles, this Visit had two legs up on a top success, but the others around them were also most laudable.
Tony Quek as the mayor used his face and ample body well, though his enunciation was less than sparkling. Nevertheless, Quek worked to make his articulation as strong as he could, and overall, his achievement was quite accomplished.
Christina Sergeant was even better as Saitang’s sole teacher. Sergeant convincingly moved up and down the emotional scales of this role in, giving the character all the clamped passion and pathos it needed. The only slightly sour notes in an otherwise finely tuned performance came during the scene where the conflicted pedagogue flees from her own conscience into rapid drunkenness.
Other strong support was provided by Gerald Chew as the priest, a jellied tower of moral weakness and ready compromise with Mammon; Jonathan Lim as the town Doctor (too obviously dubbed Dr Quack in this edition - ouch!), an ambling healer who decides to numb his own soul; and Gene Sha Rudyn as the town policeman whose superficiality is filled out with hypocrisy. In smaller roles, Chermaine Ang and Chua En-Lai were notable as Seow’s children, Benjamin Ng as Claire’s butler, and the team of Ace Mah and Juwanda Hassim as her two menacing bodyguards (in fierce ‘Men In Black’ outfits).
Even Ben Matthews, hitherto known as an accomplished stand-up comic and street performer, impressed in his first real acting role, handling all three of Claire’s recent husbands with deft visual humour and a good feel for the text.
The other Dürrenmatt that highlighted this festival was his more overtly political succès d‘estime, The Physicists.
The Physicists was written at the height of Dürrenmatt’s career, in 1961-62, which just happened to coincide with the height of the Cold War. (Think building of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban missile crisis. Many not unreasonable people fretted that the whole planet might go up in smoke within a few hours notice.)
Dürrenmatt pondered this situation and decided to point his finger not at the military or the policy-makers, but at those who placed WMDs at their disposal. If nuclear physicists and their like had not given those naughty boys in the corridors of world power their deadly toys to play their dangerous games with, the world would not have been so imperiled, he concluded. Dürrenmatt then ground out this play after weaving in a tantalizing notion that goes back at least as far as Voltaire: that in a world gone mad, those we stick into our lunatic asylums are the only ones with some claim on sanity. And just to make the texture more engaging, Dürrenmatt worked in a bit of the psychological detective story genre he also excelled at.
And where better to locate a study in psychological detective work than in a mental hospital? The Physicists opens there with the murder of one of the nurses, apparently by one of the patients. We quickly learn that the patient was indeed the murderer; he even readily admits to his crime. Of course; as is typical of the psychological detective genre, this play is not really a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. That why becomes the compelling question of the evening, especially when we learn this murder was the second nurse homicide in recent times - with a third, on-stage killing to follow.
And these crimes could not have been very easy. The first two victims were skilled in martial arts: one was a lady wrestler, the other a district champion of the Judo Association. (Claire Devine as Nurse Victim #3 looks like she could be either.)
But Dürrenmatt again invokes his writ of collective guilt as the police inspector delves into the crimes. As the head doctor at this private sanatorium tells the Inspector, “You or I would be as likely to strangle a nurse.” And in this line, Dürrenmatt is suggesting to the audience that he and we would also be just as likely to kill, given the right conditions.
In fact, our trio of murderers are rather distinguished felons: all three are acclaimed physicists, though one now apparently believes he is Sir Isaac Newton, another fancies himself to be Einstein. The third, a Dr. Möbius, is, we are told, on a par with these two giants of the science. He has earned his place at the hospital by, among other quirks, maintaining that his manuscripts were dictated by King Solomon.
(The latter scientist’s name seems to be Dürrenmatt’s winking reference to the 19th century German mathematician-physicist August Ferdinand Möbius, who developed the Möbius strip. This is a strip twisted in such a way it only has one side, so everything eventually turns in upon itself.)
In the first act, we get three murders; in the second act, we get multiple explanations for these murders. Towards the end of the first act, we began to doubt their insanity. Now it comes out that the brilliant Dr. Möbius is on the verge of coming up with his greatest discovery, which tops Einstein’s unfinished Unified Field Theory. (The real Einstein, that is.) But he has decided to keep this theory locked tightly within the strongbox of his mind. Unfortunately, having fallen in love with Nurse Monika Stettler (who also loves him and wishes to marry), Möbius is forced to kill her in order to protect his retreat behind the safety of sanatorium walls.
We then discover that the other two physicists are really named Alex Jaspar Kilton and Joseph Eisler. They have infiltrated the asylum in order to recruit Möbius for their respective sides in the Cold War struggle for body parts and minds. They had to kill their nurses in order to protect their cover. The logic of superpower politics leads here to the chilling conclusion that these three murders of trusting lovers was morally preferable to serving the cause of potential mass murder on a global scale.
The plot then rapidly rolls on to its final twists: Möbius duly rejects the offers of a cushy job in the labs of one world power or the other. He finds more freedom in the madhouse. As he argues, “It’s the job of the geniuses of today to remain unrecognised.” Somehow, he manages to convince his two colleagues of this doctrine.
Unfortunately, this crusade of conscience is quickly hijacked by the nefarious Dr von Zahnd, who has also managed to commandeer Möbius’ most important discovery, that all-embracing theory. She intends to use it to serve her own cause as she enters the ring of power politics. At close of play, evil is set to triumph over good simply because good ultimately trips over its own binding scruples.
However, with this second act, Dürrenmatt’s stage craft frazzles as he strains to make his complex argument as cogently as possible. While he may have tried his best to keep his harsh message within “the limits and possibilities of the stage”, he was evidently more concerned with making his point strongly than making it skillfully. For these reasons, many steps towards the denouement ring false and, in fact, seem squeezed in. The Physicists finale lacks the organic integrity of The Visit and for that reason, this is not as strong a work as the earlier play, no matter how good its intentions were.
While the Cold War may be over, this play seems even more relevant in today’s world where a) Pakistan’s Adbul Qadeer Khan gets a slap on the wrist and honours shoved into his hands for hawking nuclear know-how to various wannabe members of the Nuclear Club; where b) many feared the Semi-Lunatic Republic of North Korea may be on the verge of turning into a nuclear weapons Wal-mart just to keep itself in business; and let us not forget c) where the current leadership of the U.S., the world’s largest producer and merchant of weaponry, has blithely discarded decades of arms control agreements to develop bigger and better weapons, nuclear and otherwise.
It was thus a good choice that luna-id made in reviving this play for the Dürrenmatt festival. Unlike the Wild Rice team, the luna-id heads saw no compelling reason to localise the script, nor was there any discernible updating of the material. Another good decision there; nothing short of a major overhaul of Act II would make the play much more pertinent than it already is. (Besides, we recently saw a good local take on these themes, Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya.)
The luna-id treatment of this material was of a distinctly high calibre. The piece was directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, who once again displayed her penchant for crafting strong, well-focused characters and making sure the dialogue is delivered to its best advantage. But with this show, Scott-Blackhall also displayed a taste for over-the-top visuals and theatrical effects. This luna-id production opened in comically hectic MTV style. As much of the cast frolicked about, the lights carried on their own frolic. Surprisingly, this visual overture segued nicely into the more sober staging that was to follow.
After the light show, the first act proceeded on a narrow space in front of a painted backdrop representing the clinic. At the end of this act, the walls were knocked down - literally, as one asylum inmate perched at far stage left suddenly leapt into action and started pushing down the walls. Act II then played in the much expanded space.
There was another high-energy overture to Act II where the actors cavorted to the thumping strains of techno music. In this nightmare sequence that opened Act II, the nurses came out wearing something resembling Soviet Army uniforms and the main character showed us swirls of their personalities we had not yet seen. With this opening jolt, director Scott-Blackhall, the cast and the tech team boldly ushered us into the harsh political themes the script was about to explore. It worked.
Not quite as successful, but a rather interesting attempt, was the short scene where the physicists finally attempt an escape of sorts, proceeding along a dark passage. Here the lighting was reduced pretty much to matches lit of stage and carried by the three escapees. A bit more illumination would have made this scene even better.
Scott-Blackhall’s sharp directorial eye did blur at one or two points. The most glaring instance occurred when Möbius strangled his new true-love, Nurse Stettler, in a most novel way: using the cord of his housecoat but applying pressure exclusively to the front of her neck. Nonetheless, within ten seconds, the nurse dutifully dropped dead - apparently out of profound shock that a brilliant physicist would attempt such a boneheaded strangulation.
While Michael Corbridge has displayed his strong acting talents frequently on Singapore’s stages, I cannot remember ever seeing him stronger than he was here. Corbridge wonderfully probed various nooks and crannies of his conflicted character, giving us a Möbius that was solid, sympathetic and engaging from start to finish. When this Möbius smiled, pain creased his eyes and jowls. Every joy the character expressed was cut with the realisation of its potential for betrayal. You could see the doubt and conflict in his face at every moment of decision, as he pulled us along the path of his tormented journey. We went along, largely because we did not want to give up on this man.
Almost a match for Corbridge was Dan Jenkins as Newton/Kilton. Jenkins brought authority charged with dark persuasiveness to the role, but never missed a single comic opportunity in either text or character. One good example of Jenkins’ splendid timing here came when Kilton realises the futility of his political mission and proclaims, “For that, I had to kill a nurse. And learn German.” Jenkins handled this line so deftly, with the second sentence placed at a perfect interval and tone after the first, that the delicious irony of the moment came out in full ripeness.
Jenkins also displayed a gift for subtle visual comedy. For instance, there was one swing where “Newton” was being questioned by the Inspector and reacted by folding himself into a kind of protective womb, affectionately stroking his stuffed toy dog. Jenkins, who often draws hard macho roles, pulled it off marvellously. For a moment, we almost want to believe this poseur and buy into his scam of how dangerous the innocent can be.
Sonny Lim was also exemplary in his own way as Einstein/Eisler. Wisely, Lim did not put forward a personality as strong as Corbridge’s Möbius or Jenkins’ Newton. Three chest-thumping physicists on one stage would have been too much here. With his more low-keyed performance, Lim offered just the right balance to the other two. But when called upon to raise the energy levels as the intrigues heated up in Act Two, Lim was again up to the task.
Sandy Phillips as Dr Von Zahnd was also the best I have ever seen her. Her accent was a frothy blend of German, Swedish and Dutch, but that did not really hurt the performance. The character as written is already something of a caricature (complete with hunchback and gimpy leg, à la Dr Frankenstein’s assistant, Igor), and Phillips sculpted that caricature beautifully. She effected a marvellous sadistic look which came out most chillingly when Dr Von Zahnd smiled. This was a character you wanted to keep your distance from - but not so far away that you would miss a single one of her cunning moves.
Kevin Murphy’s Police Inspector Voss was a little clenched at first, as if the actor was testing the contours of the character. (He also twice referred to the central character as Möbus, with the ‘i’ missing.) Later, Murphy seemed to fit more comfortably into the role and offered decent support to the proceedings. Meanwhile, his assistant, Blocker, was played (by Xi Bang) as a flat caricature.
Serene Chen, however, was strong as the head nurse, sweeping about with a nice puckered look. She carried out her duties as Nurse Boll well throughout. Claire Devine’s Nurse Stettler was likewise quite admirable. Devine added a layer of inner strength to Stettler’s trusting innocence, making her sudden dispatch a jolting surprise.
In brief cameos, Leigh McDonald was excellent - touching with superb comic timing - as Möbius’ ex-wife, Christian Huber cautious but solid as her new clergyman husband.
The tech team for The Physicists had its strong moments, such as the openings of the two acts or the way Fritz Kreisler’s Humoresque floated in on cue right after the murders. But the production values were not perfect: at times, the lighting left actors’ faces in shadow. (And that was not the scene with the matches.)
Although some of the talks at this Dürrenmatt festival fell flat and several of its films bore only a tangential connection to Dürrenmatt, these two centrepiece productions were clearly strong enough to make the entire festival a success. I would wager that Dürrenmatt himself, that farsighted “Swiss citizen of the world”, would have been quite happy seeing what Singapore had made of his two best known plays.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005