A Cake Retrospective
What happens when a director says: let them eat Cake?
By Amos Toh
Audiences left halfway through the performance, the closing applause was hesitant, and seasoned theatregoers later denounced the show as indulgent. Staged as part of the 2008 Singapore Arts Festival, which in recent years has strained to be both avant-garde and crowd pleasing, Cake Theatrical Productions' Temple looked to be another one of its misfires.
This would have been a worrying blow to Cake, which has emerged a bold and consistent force in a theatre scene littered with desultory experimental works, and increasingly reliant on imports and revivals of older productions for their box office potential.
Cake's premiere performance in 2005, Animal Vegetable Mineral, was not without its purposeless theatrics, and surely only time would tell how long it could resist commercial temptations. About a man who turns thirty and decides he must leave everything behind "for a little while", artistic director and playwright Natalie Hennedige attempted to communicate our fears of "intense change" and the tragic consequences of escapism. Abandoning conventional plot structures and characterisation, the Esplanade Theatre Studio was transformed into a bizarre, yet oddly illuminating spectacle of chopped brinjals, chalk drawing and human lizards, fashioning exquisite theatre out of richly symbolic stage pictures. Critics raved about this immediately riveting debut, although one, the Flying Inkpot's Musa Fazal, cautioned against "that self-indulgence all artists are prone to once they invest themselves too much into their art".
What Fazal foreshadowed became the bugbear of Cake's future productions, which, despite their wealth of infinitely imaginative antics and observations, left audiences puzzled and dissatisfied in the wake of solipsistic expressionism. Playwright and critic Ng Yi-Sheng likened Queen Ping, Hennedige's second major production about sexuality and power explored through bloodthirsty games of ping pong, to "eating an entire buffalo…by no means easy, and afterwards, gorged by the sheer viscerality of it all, you might even feel a bit ill." Hennedige's use of hyper-codified language and deliberately obscure sequences to transmit meaning in Cheek, a play inspired by Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, also drew flak for its alienating effect on audiences. Later that year, I complained about Divine Soap's hectic interplay of reality and history, which detracted from Hennedige's otherwise sterling throwback to the ancient art form of Bangsawan, or Malay opera.
Inevitably, there was constant talk of these productions' questionable appeal to "heartlanders" and "the masses": therein lay skepticism of Cake's ability to communicate with Singaporean audiences, who were apparently more resistant to such contemporary offerings.
These concerns, founded on false intellectual categories, foisted a nation's lack of cultural awareness on particular classes, obscuring a more incriminating deficiency. Also, one should not rush to assert a production's value based on its popularity: the rash of Broadway and West End productions, from the stage adaptations of High School Musical and Legally Blonde to feel-good razzmatazz like Mamma Mia! and Avenue Q, only proves that a performance's appeal does not necessarily hinge on its artistic merit, and vice-versa. Moreover, so much controversy has been stirred over Hennedige's bizarre methods that one fails to notice how often they are crowd pleasing. Pop cultural riffs and cheeky political allusions are rife in Cake's stage arrangements, even if they don't follow a logical sequence.
To solve the conundrum of Cake's earlier unevenness, one has to look back at former Life! theatre critic Hong Xinyi and Fazal's reviews of Animal Vegetable Mineral. The former accurately described the production as "an elaboration art installation", which perhaps prompted the latter to wonder, with plays like these, "whether your ticket should get you into two or more performances" since "a single performance is never enough to appreciate the richness of the offering".
If the scenes in Cake's productions hitherto were separately considered, one could discern that each was as vitally gorgeous as the next, offering so much to see, hear and feel. However, when strung together at a relentless pace, they often devolved into a strident mess. In Divine Soap, one minute you were watching a modern theatre troupe rehearse their roles; the next transported you into a palace where a Bangsawan matriarch would fret about an upcoming Malay opera. As if this wasn't chaotic enough, the matriarch would transform abruptly into a frazzled theatre director who screamed "Cut!", a cue for the cast to lapse into a backstage argument. Hennedige's aim to convey the continuities that traditional arts forms share with modern ones was lost in her baffling mishmash of past and present, which instead resulted in one scene leaching the potency of another. Her struggle then, I felt, was to overcome a tendency to cram a surfeit of good moments into a single scene or play, which detracted from her talent and artistic vision. In April last year, her response was shattering.
Conceived as a dreamlike pastiche of recurring human relationships, the deceptively-titled Nothing located a remarkable subtlety that transformed Cake's spectacle into effortless physical poetry on stage. Leavening characteristically discordant scenes with light, comedic ones, Hennedige ensured that audiences recovered from their previous sensory assault, the better to absorb the full impact of the next. These contrasts also provided a more meditative perspective on the characters' struggles with fear, love and longing, enhanced by eclectic interplay of multimedia, light and sound. Finally, the ensemble's collection of tics and twitches, kinks and quirks magnified the actors' dialogue and movement on stage, enabling each moment and scene to be keenly sensed. These changes in mood and atmosphere marked Hennedige's refinement of her craft, which retained all the energy and boldness of her previous work while exercising greater restraint.
Later that year, as part of the Singapore Writers' Festival, y grec concluded Cake's watershed season with a tremendous adaptation of Madeleine Lee and Eleanor Wong's poetry book of the same name. Departing from Hennedige's often flamboyant interpretations of space, sound and colour, this production was markedly different from Cake's previous offerings, featuring neither "twenty different constumes" nor "twenty different wigs". Two characters, played by unflappable duo Karen Tan and Noorlinah Mohamed, traded lines from Lee and Wong's poems on a stage awash in white, open spaces, to a backdrop of claustrophobic soundscapes and a roving multimedia narrative of Greek ruins. It was yet another defining moment in Cake's burgeoning repertoire that illustrated both Hennedige's flexibility as an artist and her commitment to reinvention.
Perhaps it was of no surprise then that Cake's Arts Festival debut was also its most polarising work to date. Fraught with tension and conflict, Temple charted the devolution of seven men and women over seven days, who, in an attempt to save themselves from their problematic lives, seek refuge in an abandoned sports hall. Along with other experimental works, like Ho Tzu Nyen and Fran Borgia's three-night deconstruction of King Lear, and Ong Keng Sen's unusual blend of Chinese music and theatre, Hennedige's latest invigorated debate about theatregoers' receptivity towards avant-garde productions and the artistic qualities of such work.
Critics and theatregoers were ultimately frustrated by the production's lack of signposting, multitude of references and overbearing intensity. However, the less I tried to make sense of plot structures and character relationships, the more I was captivated by Hennedige's language. Biblical references, political allusions and pop culture antidotes bounced off each other in this phantasmagoric spectacle of human fear and weakness, creating a dazzling poetry reminiscent of Louise Glück's grief-stricken lament, "Tell me this is the future, / I won't believe you. / Tell me I'm living, / I won't believe you."
Assimilating groundbreaking techniques with the best qualities of her previous work, Hennedige created, as she professed in an e-mail interview, "something vastly different that was at the same time, essentially Cake material". The largely monochromatic palate, perhaps derived from y grec, effectively conveyed Hennedige's nihilistic worldview; while the actors' taut movement on stage was reminiscent of Nothing's intensely physical characters, communicating a world of excruciating need. Packed with performances that reached for the high notes, this was one of the most emotionally electric productions I had the privilege of watching. What the mercurial director saw as a "leap of faith" had paid off.
It is the urgency in the telling, as well as the art, that keeps a production fresh. That is why Hennedige's work feels so vital, and should be staged for generations to come, as long as they are presented with the ardour that has been burning through her novel interpretations of theatre.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008