Out of the Attic, Onto the Couch
Three small-scale shows look in on father and daughter reunions
By Richard Lord
The traceable history of Western theatre begins with the ancient Greeks, and the pinnacle of Greek theatre was their classical tragedy. The theatre festivals in Athens that reached their high point with the presentation of the tragedies were not merely entertainment for their audiences, or even education. These were religious events, or at least social events, of high import, and attendance at the performances was expected of all respectable Athenian male citizens.
The World-in-Theatre troupe opened its 2005 season with a production which turned to the limited store of surviving Greek tragedies and selected a work by the poet known as the “most modern of the tragedians” - Euripides.
Although Euripides was not that popular in his own lifetime, he has had the most successful after-life: of his roughly 90 tragedies that we know of, 18 or 19 have survived, the highest percentage for any of the great tragedians. (These are, admittedly, back-of-the-scroll estimates by ancient scribes).
The reason for his unpopularity amongst his contemporaries was Euripides’ penchant for altering honoured myths to get across his point. For this very reason, however, his characters come off as more real, more vibrant - certainly more to the tastes of any modern audiences.
Euripides also tinkered with the traditions of staging plays. (One account claims that the original audience stopped the world-premiere performance of Medea when the eponymous heroine appeared on stage with the bodies of her children). The play chosen by WiT, however, was his Elektra, which focuses on the conspiracy by the eponymous heroine and her brother Orestes against their own mother, Clytemnestra, and the latter’s lover, Aegisthus.
This conspiracy does not arise out of childhood abuse or the obvious desire to acquire the wealth and property of their mother, queen of Argos. According to the original myth, the gods made them do it: Clythemnestra and Aegisthus had murdered her husband Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan Wars as a major hero, having led the Greek armies to victory over Troy.
(The whole thing gets much more complicated, but let me just point out that the homicidal pair had their own complex reasons for dispatching the all-conquering hero. Agamemnon had sacrificed his own beloved eldest daughter Iphigenia so that the seas would calm and allow the Greek fleet to sail. He had the lovely Iphigenia sent from her safe home under the pretext of marrying her off to super-hero Achilles. He then spent 20 years away in order to recover Helen, the world’s most beautiful woman and the younger sister Clythemnestra had long been jealous of. And finally, he returned with Cassandra, a Trojan princess as his concubine. A good lawyer of today could have gotten them off with a reduced sentence.)
But this World-in-Theatre production, directed by Subramaniam Velayutham, imaginatively chose to present Euripides work according to another artistic tradition, that of classical Indian dance in the Bharatanatyam style.
This unique approach to staging Euripides is only to be applauded, as it probably brings us closer to the original experience of watching tragedy at one of those biannual festivals in Athens.
For instance, we know that Greek tragedy developed out of ritualised dance performances, and that dance always remained a key element in Attic tragedy. These dances were usually done by the tragic chorus, accompanied by music written for that play.
Also, like the original Greek tragedies, this World-in-Theatre version used elaborate masks, which both allowed performers to play more than one character and expressed the emotions of those characters in a particular scene. (As in the ancient Greek productions, we never got to see the real faces of the actors during the performance.)
A major difference in this WiT rendition involved gender: whereas women were barred from performing in Attic tragedies, here all but two of the seven-member cast were women. (Even Orestes close friend Pylades was played by a lady in this production.)
Another obvious difference between this version and the original was that the Greek actors performed in high boots with elevated soles, whereas the actors here were all barefoot, in the Bharatanatyam tradition.
And here I must confess to my lack of expertise: I have no knowledge of that Bharatanatyam tradition. To be honest, this was only perhaps the second time in my life that I had seen a production using this dance style. However, I attended the show with a quite intelligent Tamil who had some background in classical Indian dance, and he was as impressed as I was by the dancers’ abilities.
I was also taken by the company’s inventive use of masks and costumes. One character sported a mask that looked like a mouse from outer space, with four horns mounted on the crown. The Old Man’s mask had bug-eyes, appropriate to his quasi-country bumpkin characterisation. Meanwhile, the Furies actress wore what looked like a satellite dish on the back of her head.
Pylades sported a comic hat that made him look like a Sancho Panza type. This look was not out of place either, as it suggested the quixotic nature of Orestes’ mission to kill his mother, the powerful queen, surrounded by a band of armed protectors. In the costume sphere, the bipolar Furies were dressed half in red, half in black.
The original music was, of course, also a key part of this production, often serving to underscore the story. For instance, the bass riffed up and down the scale at the account of Aegisthus’ killing. And at a key point in the play where guitarist Rob Deurenberg left the band and moved to the edge of the stage to deliver a strong guitar solo.
This Elektra was an ensemble piece par excellence, so I think it would unfair to single out any one performer for the quality of their overall performance. Let me just name them all, and they say each deserves credit for the success of the piece.
First of all, an appreciative nod to Jaynthi Siva as the title heroine, Elektra; then to Priyalatha Arun as Clytemnestra; and then on to Sonny Lim, who played both Elektra’s peasant husband and the Old Man. Kavitha Krishnan was praiseworthy as the Chorus, as was Malavika Mohanan who handled three roles, including Orestes’ bosom friend Pylades. And let us not forget Haymini Muthusamy ,who portrayed the Furies.
And there is, in fact, one actor-dancer who does merit special mention, Juraimy Abu Bakar as Orestes. Bakar gets this honour because unlike all the other cast members, who have full training in Indian dance, he had no prior training in this dance tradition and had to take a three-month crash course in it for this role. (His background is actually ballet and modern dance.) But Bakar clearly held his own amongst all these talented dancers.
With the way they handled their roles, telling the story engagingly with dance as well as text, one shouldn’t worry that most of the actors came up with a unique pronunciation of Aegisthus or that Clytemnestra pronounced the name of her daughter Iphigenia in a way I had never heard before.
If I had one real quibble about this production, it was the set - or lack thereof. The stage was completely bare; fair enough, the visuals going at the centre of the action were enough for the eye. But the set showed the panelled rear of the Esplanade Recital Studio with four large electric socket panels, which was mildly distracting.
Subramaniam V.’s other major theatrical project in this past quarter again took up the Elektra theme, this time in its Modernist manifestation: Sigmund Freud’s creation of the Elektra complex, what the Father of Modern Psychiatry saw as the female version of his Oedipus complex. (The Elektra complex was the domain Freud assigned to young girls who desired to have sex with their fathers.)
Though this production (probably for sales purposes) calls the play Freud and Dora, the original title was Dora: A Case of Hysteria by Canadian writer Kim Morrissey, first produced in 1987. This was evidently Morrissey’s first completed play and, as such, was an impressive first work. But it still bears clear traces of a first completed work with forced situations and contrivances getting author through the rough spots. (Not to mention a few dangling threads left a the end.)
This play, however, has as much to do with the real historical facts as did last year’s Furthest North, Deepest South. Morrissey is more concerned with pursuing her feminist agenda than giving us an accurate historical account - which probably would have been somewhat boring anyway despite the juicy subject matter at the heart of it.
The framing device for the drama involves Freud addressing a group at a large public lecture. Morrissey cannot miss the delicious and all too appropriate irony that Freud repeatedly addresses the crowd as “Gentlemen”. The account he wants to give is that of a learned man talking to other males. This, we are to know right there at the beginning, is a resolutely male-dominated society. (As Viennese society at the end of the Hapsburg monarchy most certainly was.)
Freud also warns his audience that there will be those who will criticise the accounts he is about to render and the theories attached. This disclaimer comes with a bit of a wink and a nudge from the playwright. By the time her play was first produced (in 1987), Freud’s theories - not to say his person - had been subjected to countless attacks, from critics of both genders and most ideological camps.
But setting her aim for the tale’s comic potential, Morrissey sidesteps what is one of the more damning charges levelled against Freud by his best critics: that the good doctor had actually uncovered widespread sexual abuse of children by a parent or other close adult and then quickly covered this scandal up again by sanitising his conclusions, casting this abuse as mere fantasising and transference by the victims themselves.
Instead, author Morrissey chose to cast Freud as himself a victim of repression who hides his amorous feelings for his young patient. But as Freud presses his constantly unravelling case, Dora starts to push back, holding her own. Ah, but Freud is older and stronger in his social position, so the best poor Dora can expect is a draw with the good doctor.
What we finally get from this play is that the centrepiece of Freudian theories about female sexuality were all about Freud, with little to do with women or any particular woman.
Now, I can readily imagine that with different casting, the play itself would take on a different balance, and that Dora might become a more dominant figure. But in this Esplanade production, anchored by Andrew Mowatt’s strong performance as Freud and a more demure turn by Charlotte Chiew, centre stage belonged to Freud, warts and all, and it was his problems that most engaged us.
What we see here is not Freud the ground-breaking man of science but Freud the tortured poet, looking to construct a persuasive vision of his own inner conflicts. He is, to be precise, a late Romantic poet cautiously embracing Symbolist elements as he builds his visionary monument to his own shadowed desires.
Chiew’s Dora then becomes a rather averse Beatrice, fighting to keep the integrity of her own inner life, even her own physical ailments as the good Doctor Freud strives to hijack them for his own poetic purposes.
This production opened up with Freud coming on stage, taking a quick snort of cocaine (an anachronism; Freud had turned vehemently against cocaine by 1900), and then posing himself for this lecture. Dora and her biological Daddy then waltz on and off stage to the dulcet tones of Delibes “Flower Duet” from Lakme. A nice romantic touch there, though I did wonder why director Subramaniam had not chosen something quintessentially Viennese, like a Strauss waltz. (“Wiener Blut”, or “Viennese Blood” would have been ironically perfect here.)
The action takes place in 1900, when Dora is 18. (Actually, Freud treated Dora for hysteria when she was 14, in 1896.) Daddy chose Dr. Freud for this assignment because Freud had once quasi-successfully treated Daddy for syphilis. You see how perfectly this all falls together?
In trying to get to the psychological source of all Dora’s psychosomatic ailments (at least Freud and Daddy see them as such), old Siggy proceeds with his interrogations like one of those cloyingly clever detectives on the Law and Order series. But the legendary doctor enjoys a more limited success, never drawing a confession from his suspect.
In fact, Dora says she found her first kiss from Herr K. (the object of her transference, in Freud’s view) to be “wet and flabby like an old toad’s kiss”. When K. gets ‘excited’ (read ‘horny’), he spits as he talks - and farts. Small wonder that the poor girl retches when Freud then asks her whether K. popped an erection in her presence.
But though she never confesses to desiring Herr K. sexually, Freud tells his increasingly contrary patient, “The more you deny, the more I confirm.” But, of course; unlike a man of science, a poet needs no proof for a theory, only the raw material. The play’s denouement, with its slight air of tristesse, follows from this like... well, like the untwining of fate in a Greek tragedy.
This production at the Esplanade Theatre Studio (which, sadly, ran for only two performances, both on the same day) was entertaining and engaging, a show well put together on a shoestring budget.
In fact, that limited budget actually allowed Subramaniam and his cast to be more inventive. Recycling the set that had been used last year in the WiT production The Apparatus, they found themselves with an unusual piece of furniture. This piece becomes a special chair with a rise in the middle on which Freud sits, lending a masochist tint to his personality. Yes, he does rather enjoy it.
Before long, he invites Dora to give it a try. When Dora first mounts the chair, it is with reluctance and pain. Freud gives her a helpful push downward. The next time she takes a seat there, in a moment of triumph, a smile of true satisfaction sneaks across her face. In other words: no pain, no gain.
Basically though, Subramaniam’s staging of this material was clean, well-considered and well-paced. Almost everything that transpired on the stage served the story and characters rather than drawing attention from them. Alright, the blocking did seem a bit rigid at times. Most of the action took place in a straight line downstage, often with all three actors toeing that line. I actually expected that the director would explore some of that ample space to the rear of the main layout and by the end wondered why he never did. But this was more of a small cosmetic flaw than a critical miscalculation.
The characterisation in this take on Freud and his theories was fittingly revisionist, but it worked well. This production served up a beardless Freud. Yes, Andrew Mowatt did sport a whisper of a Van Dyke, but nothing suggesting the full, wraparound muff that adorned Freud most of his adult life.
Mowatt also made no attempt to affect a Viennese accent, a decision we can only applaud. The Viennese accent is something that must either be done extremely well or it falls into the realm of travesty, something that would have seriously undermined this intelligent production.
What Mowatt offered us instead was a plummy brand of English, so that his Freud came off as a polished Victorian gentleman of the haut bourgeois persuasion (complete with requisite quotations from French.)
As mentioned, Mowatt proved very strong in this role. He handled the poised text expertly and exhibited a body language that bespoke both confidence and repression. (Just try that one.)
Perhaps most impressive was the use Mowatt made of his face. He could put emphasis on a phrase - or deflate it - with a raised eyebrow. A twist of his jaw, a slight sniff of the nose added a key subtext to the psychological battle he was waging with his patient. This was first-rate work.
Charlotte Chiew had a near-perfect look as Dora: the embodiment of coy innocence champing at the edges of the sweet secrets of sex and betrayal. She, too, could add a subtle comment to a phrase or some action with her facial gestures. If I had one reservation about Chiew’s performance, it would be that she was a little too demure. As the battle with her would-be healer heated up, she could have brought more brio to the fight.
As Dora’s father, Mohan Sachdev came off well as an interestingly Asian version of a fin de siècle Viennese bourgeois. Sachdev impressed less than his two colleagues here, but then again, his role called for much less. He did his job well, all in all.
The set tended towards the minimalist, even though Freud’s actual office was known for being intriguingly overstuffed - in that turn-of the-century Viennese manner favoured by many of the town’s bourgeoisie. But as we now know, this team had to throw together this set from what was left of an entirely different production. They should be applauded for putting on an admirable production with such limited resources.
Jean Tay takes up the issue of a daughter’s troubled relationship with her father in a contemporary Singapore context in her play Everything But The Brain. The daughter in this case is secondary school Physics teacher Elaine Lim, caught in a difficult bond with her 66-year-old father, himself a retired physics professor.
The two have been bound together since Elaine’s mother left when she was just a child.
Father, Lim Chong Boon, has suffered a serious stroke, leaving him somewhat incapacitated. Now Elaine finds herself in that terrible reversal many grownup children have to face: a parent has become like a child, and they must play parent to this parent. (At one tense point, Elaine has to insist that her father wear diapers.)
In this case, it takes Dad almost 11 months to die. During this time, physicist Elaine decides to tests one possible ramification of Einstein’s Relativity Theory. She wants to see if it is in fact possible to outrun time and thus reverse it. If, as some Relativity Theory enthusiasts maintain, she can reverse time, Elaine can return her father to his former state of health and vigour. (Forgetting that he was something of a pain in the ass when at his peak.)
I had seen an earlier chunk of this play about three years ago in a presentation of works-in-progress where it had stood out as one of the two best. Expanding and completing the work has only made it much more interesting and engrossing. Playwright Tay (whose background is in Economics, not Physics) has grabbed onto one way of explaining Einstein’s time-space conundrum - that of three bears travelling on a moving train - and woven it into the two main strands of her play.
These two strands are Elaine’s attempts to restore her father’s vitality and her own attempts to find a meaningful relationship with some man other than her father. The three bears, who appear here as the celebrated Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear, do service in aiding both of these attempts. It would be too complicated to explain here just how they achieve this, so suffice it to say that Tay (aided by director Krishen Jit and the three actors in the bear roles) is by and large successful in her attempts to make this strange conceit work.
Tay is also successful in delineating the difficult relationships Elaine has or is trying to have (the first with her father, the second with the handsome young doctor who is treating her father). Everything But The Brain is filled with touching moments, as well as occasional emotional jolts.
A good example of the latter comes up during a trip to Malacca with her father to visit the estranged mother. (This trip echoes the three-bears-on-a-train metaphor.) When Elaine, partly out of real need and partly out of a childish wish to hurt her father, starts screaming that she wants her mother rather than Chong Boon, the exasperated father slaps her. (He knows that the mother does not want to take on the role of a parent, a fact young Elaine still cannot accept.) This scene then ends with a poignant post-script by Elaine: “We never went to Malacca by train again”.
There is so much strong writing in this play, particularly a long monologue on time by Chong Boon. There is even a bit of dark Jewish humour. To wit: (Father) “I might be dead.” (Daughter) “You should be so lucky.” (Father) “One can hope.” But there are also very touching lines. At one delicate point, Elaine tells us that she used to tell time by the ticking of a clock; now she tells it by her father’s faltering heartbeat.
Playwright Tay was also fortunate to have Krishen Jit as director for this piece. Jit is a director who knows how to bring out the best in a text, letting the words speak for themselves while giving them contour and who also is very skilled at directing physical theatre. Both those talents were needed here, which is why this Action Theatre production was successful in both levels.
Another reason for its success was the finely tuned cast. Pam Oei was quite effective as Elaine, bringing energy, intelligence and emotional range to the part. Gerald Chew was a good foil to Oei as father Chong Boon. Chew caught the small tragedy of a man of science who wants very much to be a good parent, though he does not have the necessary formula for that feat.
However, it should be pointed out that Chew, who is probably in the same age range as Oei herself, was better as the middle-aged Chong Boon than as the older man brought low by his stroke. For instance, his slur in that incarnation could certainly have been better.
The three bears all lent fine support. Of the three, Chermaine Ang was the strongest, bringing a wide-eyed charm and a very believable playfulness to the role of the Baby Bear. As Dr. Sam, Brendon Fernandez was commendable, making his duel role as a neurologist and a charming romantic interest for Elaine quite credible.
The opening piece to this Action Theatre double bill, Between Chinas, was no match whatsoever for Everything But The Brain. This short one-act by Pek Siok Lian looks at two ethnic Chinese who meet by chance in a public park in Hong Kong. James (played by Brendon Fernandez) is a Chinese-American who is just visiting, but has allowed himself to get energised by the issue of having a statue to King George rather than Sun Yat-Sen in this park. Chan (played by Gerald Chew) is just trying to do his Tai Chi exercises in peace, when James draws him into this discussion.
Chan seems rather blasé about the whole thing. As he drolly remarks in assessing the claims of the two men to a statue, “They’re both dead, but George was here first.” As the play progresses, we learn that Chan actually has his own strong sense of Chinese pride, which is of a much different strain from James’.
What playwright Pek is addressing is the issue of how the people of any Diaspora react to their roots and how they sometimes become more stringent in the outward manifestations of pride than those who stayed in the homeland. (Of course, Hong Kong was an unusual case, being a British colony for over 150 years but still attached to the Chinese motherland.)
However, she was not able to bring this out in a way suited to the needs of drama. Both of the characters all too frequently spoke in exposition, and James at one stage declaimed on the greatness of Sun Yat-Sen as he stared downstage and held forth in a kind of commemorative speech. And finally, the resolution here was somewhat unfulfilling, leaving those of us in the audience shrugging our shoulders rather than nodding our heads.
The direction, again by Krishen Jit, was also nowhere near as good as it was in the companion piece. Jit did try to inject as much life into the exposition-laden script as he could, but he was still not able to make it work effectively.
The biggest problem was the use of the show’s music. The pre-show Billie Holiday tunes segued into Bach, played on Chan’s boom box as he did his Tai Chi. This, in turn, gave way to Roman Tam, a Hong Kong idol. But both the Bach and the Tam were played much too loud, so it was often difficult to catch the actors‘ words. This despite the fact that they were miked, in a small theatre, which in itself created problems as it gave an eerie, unreal quality to their delivery.
Gerald Chew was the better of the two actors in this piece. Chew used his face well (with the audio problems, this was a big advantage) and gave his character a layer of complexity that helped the piece a good deal. Brendon Fernandez tried to make his character work on the script’s terms, which was something of a losing battle. With a character who spouts exposition and is given to irritating speeches, you need some other dimension. In this production, that extra dimension was just not there.