[Theatre Review] A Celebration of Two Countries

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Photo: Wong Horng Yih, Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Another Country

W!ld Rice

27 June 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

25 June–11 July 2015

”If only at one point our hands could clasp,

What rich variety and gesture could be ours.”

~ Dance by Fadzilah Amin

Like any love-hate relationship, Singapore and Malaysia have often come to fisticuffs. But in Another Country, we waved at our cousins, raced across the room, pulled them up, and danced with them.

We danced to the melodies and sentiments excavated from the texts of both countries that span five centuries. Drawing from literature, interviews, and even legal documents, Alfian Sa’at intricately weaves together the text for Sayang Singapura while Leow Puay Tin does the same for Tikam-Tikam: Malaysia@Random 2.

The Malaysian ensemble (Ghafir Akabar, Sharifah Amani, Anne James, Alfred Loh, Iedil Putra) interprets the Singaporean texts and the Singaporean ensemble (Sharida Harrison, Lim Yu-Beng, Gani Karim, Janice Koh, Siti Khalijah Zainal) performs the Malaysian texts.

What emerges is a beautiful testament to the rich cultural resources we share that present a socio-historical account of the concerns that the writers had. This compels the audience to re-look at their own stories from a fresh perspective while listening and learning more about the other side.

The curators must be applauded for picking texts which not only cover events running up to the merger or just after the separation, but also broach uncomfortable topics.

Notable selections from the Malaysian corpus include Tunku Abdul Rahman dreaming of a bad omen which preceded the race riots in Malaysia, Amir Muhammed’s 120 Malay Movies which discusses Singapore marking the start of the national narrative at 1965 and parallels that with the Malaysians not acknowledging their cultural roots from the Hindu empires of old, and the self-reflexive The Myths that Cloak Our Theatre by Krishen Jit which criticises the industry for the lack of community theatre projects and turning theatre into a polished product meant for the middle classes to consume.

The Singapore selection explores political censure, among other topics, by choosing The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ by Eleanor Wong, Fear of Writing by Tan Tarn How, and Gemuk Girls by Haresh Sharma. The most interesting choice of them all is Elangovan’s Talaq which portrays how some Indian-Muslim husbands intentionally misinterpret Islamic principles to justify their infidelity and subjugation of their brides from India. I was surprised that the Media Development Authority allowed this to pass given that they banned the original performance of the English script.  I hope that the audience would be compelled to read the play in full and judge it for themselves.

The possible dialogues sparked off by this production would not have been possible without the brilliant performances by both ensembles. Their talent and versatility are clear for all to see as they are able to smoothly transit between texts that have very different demands and characters. The actors are also able to command the stage during their individual scenes and immediately reintegrate back as an organic whole once that is over. I would not be surprised if this production gets a nomination for best ensemble at the Life! Theatre Awards and it will be such a lovely gift to the Malaysian actors as well.

This project needs to be revisited every decade and updated with new and exciting writing. Apart from the texts we have, future iterations should boldly experiment with performance practices and forms. Who knows? Perhaps we could develop a performance vocabulary unique to both sides of the causeway—our own artistic secret handshake.

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[Book Review] Singapore in the 60s by James Suresh and Syed Ismail

Singapore in the 60s

Singapore in the 60s

James Suresh (author) & Syed Ismail (illustrator)

Training Plus Int’l Pte Ltd (2015)/ 217 pp.

“If there is a subgenre of writing Singapore is becoming alarmingly good in, it is the literature of nostalgia.”

While that comment by Dr Gwee Li Sui was referring to Last Train from Tanjong Pagar,  it is arguably an accurate description of James Suresh’s latest book.

From the sights and sounds of his childhood in Queenstown to descriptions of trades and public amenities available, Singapore in the 60s serves as a comprehensive introduction to what life was like back then. The choice of adopting a conversational style of writing makes the book accessible and engaging—it feels as if one is brought around the neighbourhood by a jolly uncle.

The combination of general facts and personal anecdotes shows why such personal recollections complement official history. It reveals how certain events affected people involved who, at that point in time, do not have complete knowledge of what was happening.

While I may be able to rattle off a couple of reasons why Singapore merged with Malaya, to learn that children were provided with a book to familiarise themselves with the flora and fauna of Malaysia is incredibly illuminating. It makes the historical event much more vivid and I am pleased that this book will be used as a teaching resource in schools.

That said, this book would have benefited from tighter editing. A couple of the sentences are too long and should broken up into shorter sentences. In other cases, the use of punctuation will make it a smoother read.

Illustration

Illustration: Syed Ismail (2015)

Given that this is an illustrated book, the contributions of Syed Ismail must not be overlooked. While his humorous depictions undoubtedly enhances the reader’s enjoyment, his ability to capture the architectural features (see the cover of the book) and a sense of space must be commended.

Additionally, it is clear that Ismail also took the pains to tell his own story with his pictures. Rather than offer a general depiction of Suresh’s descriptions, all his figures are given a unique personality as they react to a certain situation quite differently (see image above). This creates visual interest and readers, especially the older ones, will be rewarded if they took the time to appreciate the illustrations.

Regardless of whether there is a future in nostalgia, Singapore in the 60s promises to be an enjoyable read for the old timers and an educational one for younger readers aged nine and up.

Further Reading

From the Blue Windows by Dr Tan Kok Yang

  • A memoir focusing specifically on Queenstown

Growing Up in Geylang by Lai Tuck Chong

  • A blog which details a childhood in Geylang

[Book Review] A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood

Vintage Classics/ 160 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. I have to admit that I picked up the book after watching the beautiful film version by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth as George. However, as there was quite a gap between watching the film and reading the book, I will only be reviewing the book today.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an English professor, after he found out that his partner, Jim, was killed in an accident. I hesitate to say “a day in the life of” because rather than giving it a full-blown naturalist treatment, Isherwood presents us with a portrait of grief in three facets. George has to deal with everyday happenings, his friend, and his student with memories of Jim looming in the background.

From the first paragraph, one understands why Ford would be compelled to make a film based on the book. Isherwood’s ability to describe a mundane activity—such as George waking up—in such a refreshing way and at a micro level is akin to a camera close-up on a part of the actor’s body. Isherwood’s dexterity in language treats us to writing that is humorous, poignant, and enlightening.

This is complemented by telling it through a third-person perspective which allows us to see the juxtaposition between his inner and outer reality. This mind-body dualism indicates the profound disconnect George has with his life and he copes by merely performing what is expected of him. The thing about grief or depression is that the most difficult thing to handle is not the surge of feelings but the mundane.

The zipping in and out between George’s thoughts and how others react to him sheds light on his sardonic interpretation of things. From feeling that he might as well be a talking head on a tray while lecturing to observing a quarrelsome couple who would die in their “beer-stained bed,” he keeps the happenings of the world at arm’s length. If they are distant, he does not need to deal with them.

This sense of melancholy is amplified by his tendency to indulge in fantasy fuelled by his misanthropy. He imagines punishing everyone in various ways for being part of the hetero-normative culture or being straight-out homophobic. In his anger for what happened, he blames them for causing Jim’s death. And the times that he is alive—the sexual or human longing that he experiences—makes him painfully aware of Jim’s absence which makes it incredibly heart-wrenching.

Of all the interactions George has, the one with his student, Kenny has to be the most interesting. The relationship is of a teacher-student, father-son, and two men in a bar all rolled into one. Kenny represents what George has just lost and a vicarious second chance in life. Isherwood balances ambiguity with tenderness and beautifully explores love, lost and everything in between.

It is easy to sum up this novel as a man grieving about the lost of a loved one. However, it is important that we see it as a gay man grieving for his partner. The openness in the treatment of George’s sexuality has led many critics to tout this novel as laying the foundations for gay liberation in literature.

However, critics like Octavio Gonzalez disagree and argue that there is an ascetic element of self-abnegation in George. By doing so, he offers an alternative to the identity politics of being a synecdoche for gay liberation. I am sympathetic to this view as there is more evidence in the text to support this stand.

Yet, one should also be careful not to read too much into it because the detachment of George could very well be part of a private grieving process. If you’re interested in reading about the debate, I’ve left a citation in the description below.

Thank you for joining me on this encounter. If you’ve read the book or have watched the movie, tell me what you thought about it. If you like what I’m doing, please subscribe and tell your friends. With that, till the next book.

References

Gonzalez, Octavio R. “Isherwood’s Impersonality: Ascetic Self-Divestiture and Queer Relationality in A Single Man.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 59.4 (Winter 2013): 758-89. Print.

Adieu Flying Inkpot: What Now?

Inkpot screengrab

And just like that, one of our cultural institutions in its own right has decided to call it a day.

The theatre and dance arm of The Flying Inkpot has been consistently reviewing and assessing a large section of the arts scene for the past 19 years. In its own quiet way, it amassed a decent following and stands as an alternative source to our newspaper critics and a whole crop of glossy lifestyle websites of more recent vintage. The most unfortunate thing is that only those invested in the arts scene will understand the gravity of this loss.

While Corrie Tan (The Straits Times, Life!), Mayo Martin (Today), and Helmi Yusof (Business Times) will undoubtedly continue their wonderful work, their professional commitments mean that they will not be at the forefront of theatre criticism. One must understand that they are journalist-critics—journalists first, critics second. The focus of the newspapers probably require them to prioritise industry stories over the reviews. To compound the problem, they have to shoulder the lion’s share of the arts beat as they have few colleagues working with them.

As such, their role in criticism is limited to being active writers and providing occasional feedback during industry consultations conducted by the National Arts Council (NAC). They neither have the time nor energy to promote the standing of critics, spark thoughtful discussions about the arts scene (beyond the allotted column inches), and improve the quality of writing (apart from their own).

That is where The Flying Inkpot comes in and its departure has left a gaping hole in the eco-system.

I have been reading Inkpot‘s reviews on and off for years. It started out as getting a second opinion on whether a particular show is good or not. However, having developed a strong interest in theatre criticism over the past two years (hence this blog), The Flying Inkpot has become a benchmark for me. My reviews have to be as good, if not better than what Inkpot puts out. Additionally, it has been an interesting experience to see if the writers there agree with my opinions of a particular show that I have reviewed. Behind the computer screen, I have occasionally let out exclamations of, “Hear! Hear! What’s with all the hype by people on Facebook?” or “Are you serious!? Did you even watch the show?” Indeed, I feel an odd sense of camaraderie just by yelling at my computer screen after reading the reviews.

As the performing arts scene show gratitude for services rendered, a pressing question looms: What is next for theatre criticism? Here are some initial ideas.

Taking Stock

For starters, before we decide our next step, we have to lay the groundwork for current and future critics. In acknowledging the value of the reviews for researchers, practitioners, and aficionados, the editors of Inkpot—Kenneth Kwok and Matthew Lyon—have decided to make the archive available to all even after the website has shut down.  The mainstream media should do the same.

Rather than subject interested individuals to squinting as they scroll through microfilms or settle for heavily watermarked copies online, the NAC should partner with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Esplanade Library to start an online portal which contain all the reviews by our newspaper critics past and present.

NAC should also commission a book which will be a general survey of the history of theatre criticism in Singapore. Drawing from the newspapers and The Flying Inkpot, it will feature some key reviews of various productions over the years. Perhaps it can include an introduction at the start of each section which analyses writing styles of reviewers or interesting insights about theatre history that can be gleaned from these reviews.

If there is enough academic and artistic interest, an academic book can be published which contains various essays about theatre criticism. They can range from in-depth analyses of particular critics to how theatre criticism fits in our local arts eco-system. Practitioners could contribute essays about their views on critics or how they made use of past reviews to inform their research while creating a new production.

Looking Ahead

In the best of all possible worlds, we should work towards having full-fledged critics or at least actor/dancer-critics (some feel that there will be a conflict of interest but I disagree—another post for another day) a reality. Criticism is not just about watching something and voicing one’s opinion. A critic should be as knowledgeable about the performing arts as possible. Ideally, he or she should be reading up on latest trends and research in the day before rushing off to review a show at night. It is a proper career and not something you do when you have some time to spare in the evenings.  

However, even if all relevant parties were to work together on this (and that is a big if), it would take at least 10–15 years to achieve this. What can we do now?

Well, a critic is nothing without readers. Apart from The Art of Review talk organised by the Esplanade Library this year, there was no forum on theatre criticism in recent memory at all. I would like to see discussions comprising both practitioners and critics on the same panel and get views from both sides of the curtain. A public talk will give the audience a chance to weigh in on what they think the role of criticism. It would also benefit the critics as, speaking from my own experience, they hardly get any feedback from their readers and the conversation borders on being insular.

Of course, one might point out that it is a lovely exercise of preaching to the choir. This might be true in some respects but a realistic goal of such public outreach is to encourage those who might be willing to engage at a deeper level rather than “convert” the uninterested. Besides, even within the arts scene—and I will be really pleased if I am wrong—the engagement seems to be between the reviewer and the reviewed; the choir needs some encouragement to expand its repertoire and sing louder.

As for more “concrete” measures, the easiest route to take is to ask all the writers to start their own blogs or, for those who are interested in journalism as well, join The Muse (a rather good arts website). Alternatively, they could join the glossy lifestyle websites and improve the quality of criticism there (I shall not bore you with a list of their inadequacies).

While that is all well and good, a central website is still necessary. If everyone does their own thing, who does a theatre company choose to offer press tickets to? Will they shun critics whose tastes and proclivities do not incline towards the genre or dramaturgy that the company is known for? We cannot all flood The Muse and there is something to Inkpot resolutely standing as an alternative—not necessarily against—to the soundbites galore offered by glossy websites that seem to be spawning exponentially.  

Matthew Lyon is on to something when he mentioned that if Inkpot were to be revived in any way, shape, or form, it will have to expand its scope to include videos, podcasts, and feature articles. However, it would take a generous funding model to sustain this. On top of that, it would require a full-time team which would not be possible for him and fellow editor, Kenneth Kwok, to be in charge of. He does not think corporate sponsorship or advertising might be a good idea as the site should not be beholden to commercial interests and that most companies do not want to be associated with an activity that is generally (and most erroneously) seen as being nasty to people.

I sympathise and somewhat agree with Lyon. But there are a lot of things going on here. In the beginning, this website will still have to be on a voluntary basis for a while but it can steadily progress to a model in which contributors are paid a nominal fee.

While it might probably be true that big corporate sponsors do not want to be associated with the website due to the negative perceptions of what critics do, it might not be true for smaller establishments. Perhaps one should woo restaurants and bars that are near performing venues for advertisements. Why would it matter to them if it is a eulogistic or slamming review as long as the readers—who form a reasonable section of the theatre-going public—glance at their advertisements and learn about their promotions? The only clash of interests here are companies who serve as official caterers or are involved with certain promotional tie-ups with a particular theatre company. Even with them off the list, there are still many companies available.

Aside from that, why do we have to limit ourselves to direct funding/ advertising/ sponsorship? Online advertising revenue has progressed quite a bit. There are “indirect” advertising revenue streams such as Google Adsense in which the website can earn some revenue based on the number of unique views or clicks on the advertisements displayed. If the website starts a YouTube channel, the videos can also be monetised. Hopefully, after a few years, the revenues will be substantial enough to remunerate the contributors.

Speaking of YouTube, the sky is the limit in terms of content. It could be a panel talk-show setting (see Theatre Talk) in which various critics (including those from the newspapers) come together and talk about the shows they have seen, predictions for the Life! Theatre Awards, or just argue with each other over what they have written. It could also be two enthusiastic presenters just bantering away and occasionally inviting artists in for a chat. The setting of the latter format could be in a cafe and perhaps the management could give some advertising dollars too.

Finally, there is absolutely no shame in asking people for donations. In fact, theatre companies could sponsor a couple of tickets and donors who donate a certain amount will be entered into a lucky draw to win them.

Whatever it is, considered and insightful criticism must be kept alive and we are poorer for it if it dies. Adieu Inkpot, it has been a good run and—fingers crossed—we will meet again someday.