By Richard Lord
Look at London, look at New York. Look at Paris, Sydney, Melbourne or even Rome. All these cities celebrated for their vibrant theatre scenes owe the health of their theatre not just to the big houses and subsidized companies with large-scale productions. It is frequently the grass-roots theatre groups who draw a swarm of attention in these places. It is also these smaller, more adventurous groups who feed the big theatres with talent, ideas, new directions.
The moral is, to have a thriving theatre culture, you need those smaller groups who are exploring various possibilities of the stage, taking chances, going to the edge. In Singapore, one can argue that big-house theatres do not really exist yet, that all local product is by small companies on limited budgets carrying out that valuable artistic exploration. When a big venue like Jubilee Hall, Victoria Theatre or the NUS Cultural Centre theatre is utilized, it is always a one-off event.
But with theatres here, there is small, very small, and extra small. From all three sizes, we get a fair amount of original material, in the form of new plays, ‘devised performances,’ and shenanigans on stage which defy all definition. From the smallest groups, we also see a range of acting talent, some of it which falls off the talent metre, though some is quite good indeed.
In the second quarter of this year, we saw an unusual amount of original content coming on stage. Unfortunately, much of it should not have come before the public, at least not until it had been worked over a good deal more and with a lot more artistic discrimination.
Of course, it is a truism that artists – especially young, developing artists – should suffer for their art. But where is it written that they should also make us, the audience, suffer for their art? And suffer we did this past quarter, for sometimes short, sometimes long stretches, or in one case, during almost the entire excruciating fifty minutes of one show.
The Necessary’s Stage first full production of the 2002 season was Beginning of the End, which also went under the title of BOTE, both an acronym for the longer title and the German word for ‘messenger’ (not ‘message’, as was erroneously reported in other publications).
So what message is this messenger bringing us? Maybe that devised performances such as this (where cast and director working without a text come up with situations around some theme and perform such) is the wave of the future? We hope not. The TNS itself dubs this an experimental piece that parodies life. Well, ‘life’ is a rather large topic, and since much of life itself often functions as self-parody, you can see where the TNS group, for all their talents, might have a little problem getting a proper focus on this subject. Ah - therein lies the flub with BOTE: largely without focus, it lurches or scrambles around from scene to scene, theme to theme, hoping that it will somehow all come together and provide a satisfactory theatre evening. But as this show again proves, hoping rarely works in theatre.
In attempting to parody life, BOTE often tracks its subject to domestic settings, and the more mundane the better. Thus we see a family gathered around a dining table, discussing what they can eat seeing as how the mother reacts strongly to MSG. We see a couple caught in the doldrums of domesticity seeking escape/release through TV and porn films. We see a group of young people recounting stories that go nowhere. We see… well, you get the idea. Or maybe not, since there is not much of an idea there.
In the Fifties and early Sixties, a lot of second and third-rate Absurdist theatre also set their sights on how boring and repetitive, how inconsequential much of domestic life can be. It may all have been a principled reaction to the sugar-coated sitcoms of those days, but these plays mainly proved one important thing: If you want to show how boring life is, you can not do it by making the action on stage boring, as that only produces tedious theatre. We can not walk out on life or decide not to show up for it. But that is exactly what we do with boring theatre. And far too much of BOTE was simply boring.
Though there was a good deal of humour in BOTE, it was almost entirely sophomoric humour. Now, sophomoric humour can be rather entertaining, as it occasionally was here. I confess that I found myself chuckling a number of times during the evening, but this alone does not earn a show high praise. Nor can the shows' co-devisors slip out from getting criticized because from time to time, the dialogue becomes self-referential, and even makes fun of itself, its lack of any real meaning; it is a cute device, but it does not get them off the hook that they have nailed themselves to.
Even the best moments of BOTE reminded me of the stuff I used to see back in high school or the first years of university... Hell, this is the stuff I used to do back in high school and the first years of university. It is not the kind of theatre that The Necessary Stage, one of Singapore’s leading theatre companies, should be putting on, especially as they have cut their production slate back significantly this year.
Finally, BOTE could have been called “Twenty Characters Desperately In Search of An Author.” Had there been one central text to focus on, the whole, even the sophomoric asides, would have come off better. Because the most irritating thing about BOTE is the way it squandered a lot of fine acting talent in the service of poor-quality scenes. For instance, Noorlina Mohamed showed fine acting ability throughout, almost saving a few of the more tedious scenes she fond in. Rodney Oliveiro also showed gust of strong talent, and when Nora Samosir was good here, she was indeed good.
In a number of scenes, Nathalie Hennedidge impressed quite a bit with her penchant for comic acting, and Serena Ho was close behind in showing off strong comic talents. I kept on hoping that some solid material would finally surface, allowing these strong talents to come to full fruition and create something worthwhile, but as I have said, hoping rarely works in theatre.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002