Selected By Cyril Wong
This issue’s Acid Tongue focuses on a hysterically caustic, over-the-top evaluation of this year’s Arts Festival, written by Kwang Han of the A4ria Society. The disbelieving title of this article, ‘let’s go to the ‘what(?)’ festival?’ is unabashedly candid, and sets the attitude that runs through the entire article, which attacks everyone from NAC, the performances, the newspapers, to even the audiences themselves. Here is how it goes:
The arts festival. What is the arts festival? Good question. I’ll give my frank assessment of this year’s programme – I think it’s shit. Who needs an arts festival in a recession? Certainly not those out of jobs, of course the argument is oh it is a cultural investment blah blah blah and the straits times will print ten articles harping about the economic potential of the arts ad nauseam. But frankly speaking, if you are out of job, are you going to pay thirty bucks (the average ticket price) to watch something that is probably outdated, rotten, or something you do not understand… spend it on the next ten plates of mee goreng, you will get better value for money. I will tell you what an arts festival is about. It is about harping ‘Oh what a great frigging cultural capital we are!’ It is about knocking off the consumers with some exotic, East-meets-West crap. It is about paying the so-called ‘international’ acts atrocious amounts of dough to make us Singaporeans feel we are not cultural idiots… about lots of people making lots of money be they local groups that are drinking from the holy NAC cow or the ‘international acts’ laughing all the way to the bank. And on top of that, do not forget, it is to make the corporations sell the image of cultural concern when it’s about that tax deductible claims at the end of the financial year. Why do you think Van Gogh never got sponsored? It was not tax deductible… you can always rely on NAC to be totally out of touch with what is going on at ground zero – which is a lot of shit. i.e. economic recession i.e. less money to feel snobbish i.e. more reality in the faces of ordinarily fakey cultural bourgeois types translates to a drop in ticket sales… Do you really want to spend forty bucks getting Morning Sickness? Do you want to a similar amount looking at a hopelessly inadequate take on Causeway politics when the comments of Dr M are much more amusing? And frankly speaking, OK, I know Philip Glass is great and his disciple no doubt is astonishing but really, do you want to spend money on Four and a Half minutes of silence? Maybe The Straits Times should devote half a blank page of printed space in homage to good ole Philip, but instead they do this interview, how hopelessly conservative and uncreative. And it does show one thing, nobody understands what revolutionary is. The NAC obviously understands that it is something that someone tell you is good and great. And that is usually after when it was great.
The reference to Van Gogh is a nice touch, but the rest of the article is guilty of blustering, coffeeshop-styled rant-and-rave which borders on childishness and irrationality. Despite the crude writing, one could not help nodding to some of the points made in a diatribe which threatens to stumble over itself. And to show that the writer knows his theatre better than anyone behind the arts festival, which gives him the implicit right to bitch, no less, Kwang Han goes on:
Or take that old man Peter Brook... cannot anyone see that the old man’s time is over? ... I mean what did he advocate? A theatre of form rather than a theatre of substance/content. Peter was a director first and foremost and his first concern was to create a spectacle, so he pinched a bit here and a bit there and voila you have the east meets west theatre spectacles of Conference of the Birds, Mahabharata, a compromised version of the French Revolution in The Assassination of Marat/Sade etc… Jean Genet rightly shuddered when he considered what Brook would have done to his great play The Screens before turning Brooks down. Genet did right and stuck to Roger Blin, and who in Singapore has heard of Blin? Probably nobody, because he does not make his actors wear bastardised versions of the kebaya and the kimono... they could have invited Brook over at his prime in the seventies and eighties, but no, they invite him now when he obviously has nothing to say anymore. The old man in his dotage was said to have resorted to staging Beckett’s later short works. Probably he finally realised that he has been blowing smoke up people’s asses all his life and at least he can do something right and pay homage to a real master.
The article goes on with more bashing directed not-so-implicitly at Michael Nyman, a recent, cross-cultural interpretation of Euripides’ Medea, and so on. So far, the article is nonetheless a funny and engrossing read, considering the lack of open and honest criticism of the Festival by the local press. Kwang Han’s ranting moves fiercely on and ends with a final, brutal blow aimed at an established, local theatre-company already notorious for selling-out artistically:
So some composer wins an Academy Award (the NAC is impressed by big prizes) and they bring him over, and there is the umpteenth oriental Balinese/South Asian/East Asian interpretation of some Shakespearean epic. How original can festival fare ever get? And get your local actors and actresses to dress up in some costume party play with seven hundred costume changes, wax sentimental about Joan of Arc who has nothing to do with us, put a few local dancers moving around in a museum, project a few arty videos, and get everyone to move soulfully around, rave about how technological we are getting and there you have it – the Singapore Arts Festival. Of course, it is harped upon that ‘they’ spent seven million dollars on the programme as ‘they’ did last year, as if money spent is the only gauge of how good the festival is. Actually in our case, it probably is. Who are we kidding, there is always dough for irrelevant pointless stuff in Singapore; that is what this country revolves around. And when Action Theatre is part of the main fare for the festival, you know the damn thing is over before it even started.
Was the Arts Fest really that bad? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002