Lives Unlived Ignite the Stage
8 November 2008, 8:00p.m. at The Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore
By Amos Toh
Souls lost and doomed enliven the stage in Flare, a collaboration between The Fingers Players and Cake Theatrical Productions that scrutinises the mundanity of our daily existence to reveal a dark vision of the future.
Characters are made to step out of a lifeless couplehood, a loveless marriage and a childhood steeped in disappointment to engage their deepest fantasies and darkest nightmares. A couple finds themselves at the cusp of their dream holiday, a wife wills herself to believe that her idealised husband has returned, and a mother promises her son yet again that her precious racehorse will finally end her losing streak in horse betting.
However, the hopes and aspirations these characters inhabit cannot escape the penetrating ordinariness of their daily lives; as reality shades away, they find themselves still haunted by a restlessness so deep and a longing for something other than what little their lives have to offer.
In the world of Flare, the boundaries of imagination shatter and our fantasies run amok, so that an innocuous dream may often escalate into a terrible force of nature. This is forcefully illustrated in the opening sequence, which uses a potent mix of puppets and humans to convey a haunting myth about a boy who speaks to horses and causes an earthquake that destroys his village.
The wooden puppets, while not physically beautiful, are evocative instruments, which the actors play with consummate skill. Narrator Nora Samosir illustrates the sequence with a landscape of voices, imbuing the puppetry spectacle with a seamless theatricality well-suited to the melodramatic material.
Extrapolating traditional mythology into real life, Chong Tze Chien further illuminates, with startling clarity, our hunger for that one dream we insist will make us happy or bring us peace, and also its devastating consequences. Some of Chong's characters opt to play a cruel game of wait-and-see, fumbling about the stage with a futile sense of expectancy that something life changing might occur.
In one scene, Jean Tay and Peter Sau play a slightly neurotic, but otherwise hopelessly ordinary couple who eat, smile or stare into their television with an exaggerated blankness. Interrupting the stultifying quietness of the couple's lives are Chong's depictions of the husband's little pleasures and dramas, satirically overblown to illustrate the tension between what little the characters delight in, and how little it takes to inspire contentment.
Thus, when a task like buying bread for his wife transforms into a slavish declaration of love, the scene is both deliriously funny to watch and uneasy to laugh at. Chong not only asks, is life so ludicrously dull, but also, in the same breath, who are we to judge?
Chong pursues these difficult and essentially contradictory questions relentlessly and with a clarity that is sometimes astonishing. Fraught with threat, envy and grief, the lives that Flare magnifies and reveals are deeply perplexed and perplexing, containing too much of what we hope to forget and try too often to escape.
In the final, shattering sequence, a mother neglects her family to fulfill her dream of horse racing, willing her towering metal racehorse across one finish line after another. Here is a woman who lives too fiercely for that one dream, and thus fails to live at all. Towards the end, her plea for forgiveness is tainted, and perhaps enlightened by the knowledge that she cannot change.
Goh Guat Kian charts her character's obsession and descent into madness with uncanny grace and intelligence, conveying the tortured darkness of someone who has endured a lifetime of sacrifice in vain.
At the height of the sequence, she kneels on the floor and gazes at her son, her eyes burning with pity and crying out for help, but also obstinate and hopelessly possessed by a will of iron; it is one of the most spellbinding images of tragedy and conflict to have ever stalked the Singapore stage.
Although Flare is less kinetic than director Natalie Hennedige's previous productions, there is nothing relaxed about its white-knuckled intensity. With her splendid grasp of the effective pause, Hennedige allows each scene to transform slowly and gradually, so that we might contemplate each hollow face and every restless moment.
Interspersing Chong's short, emotion-packed lines with anguished silences, the play comes alive with cross currents of thoughts, clashing chords of longing and the steady thrum of time passing. The characters often embark on frantic flights of conversation, only to halt midway in frozen speechlessness, pained by what they know and feel but cannot express.
Hennedige's stage pictures also illustrate lives unlived with a kind of humour that is more mordant than trenchant. In the play's most farcical scene, Ang Hui Bin, as a wife waiting for her husband to return, channels her character's boredom and disaffectedness into a breathless sexual advance. She writhes and thrashes on stage, toying with the mind of a policeman that visits her regularly.
Hennedige draws a sharp contrast between the energetic shamelessness of Ang's character and the deadpan, witless nature of the policeman, transforming a potentially incredulous scenario into an electrifying portrayal of a woman perversely empowered by her sexual and emotional submission. When Ang cries out, "Help me! Help me!", it is both a cry of self-willed helplessness, and a satirical announcement of a woman very much in control.
To be sure, Flare is not perfectly put together; at times, the play circles its themes for too long and becomes repetitive.
However, this production is also unflinching and brutally honest, refusing to solicit sympathy or offer reassuring warmth. It shuns sentimental consolations and easy answers, and is all too aware of the delicate struggle between a life too elaborately structured and one prone to the erratic highs and lows of obsession. There are precious few productions that can match Flare's power and ambition; perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own natures.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 1 Jan 2009