[Theatre Review] A Boatload of Artful Ingenuity

Photo: Bernie NgFirst Fleet 《第一舰队
Nine Years Theatre
21 July 2019, 3 p.m.
Far East Organisation Auditorium, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
18‒21 July 2019

Those who are familiar with Nine Years Theatre’s repertoire might be surprised by director-writer Nelson Chia’s decision to write an original Mandarin script inspired by Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker (1987), and the subsequent play based on the novel by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Our Country’s Good (1988).

With both works appearing in the late 1980s to a limited reach, they could hardly be considered classics. However, Chia’s literary script and masterful direction truly makes a case for it to be considered so.

First Fleet revolves around the voyage taken by the first batch of British convicts and their accompanying officers to Australia to set up a penal colony. Governor Arthur Philip (Hang Qian Chou) tasks Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Timothy Wan) to rehearse a play with the convicts as a form of rehabilitation, to the sneering disapproval of Major Robert Ross (Mia Chee). Also wading into the debate are Father Richard Johnson (Jodi Chan), Dr John White (Shu Yi Ching), and Judge David Collins (Neo Hai Bin).

For a country that prides itself on the Magna Carta and how Britannia ruled the waves, First Fleet is a searing indictment on the seeming values and accomplishments that our former colonial masters hold dear.

Throughout the course of the play we see the officers debate the merits of punishment and rehabilitation; find out the backstory of the various convicts, which is a critique of the bluntness and corruptibility of the justice system (one sees poignant parallels to Edith Podesta’s Dark Room); see the potential of theatre espoused within the plot and staging; and receive a valuable acting masterclass.

Chia not only manages to fit all these themes into the show, he boldly exercises some artistic licence to reiterate his stance as an artist, while enhancing the audience’s experience of the show.

He departs from the original text by having the convicts rehearse Moliere’s Tartuffe. This is not merely a cheeky nod to the company’s production in 2015. Rather, this allows Chia to have one of the convicts, Lady Anne Sheldon, ask why they are presenting a French play when they are English—a common query that Chia faces himself whenever he stages a translation of a classic foreign play. In the show, Lieutenant Clark speaks about empathy and the value in the message of the play, regardless of provenance.   

Additionally, the fact Tartuffe is a comedic farce lends itself easily to the actors presenting a highly stylised acting. This is not only paves the way for Lieutenant Clark to coach his actors on naturalistic acting, in which characters act on inner motivations, it also provides comic interludes for the audience to take a breather from the darker themes in the show.

Whether you are viewing the show from port, starboard, bow, or stern, there is a stunning level of attention to every detail in the show.

Photo: The Pond Photography

Undoubtedly, First Fleet is incredibly demanding on the ensemble. Not only do they have to double up as the convicts,—the blind witch, Liz Abraham (Mia Chee); the man who avenged his brother, Henry Mason (Hang Qian Chou); the hangman, William Paterson (Neo Hai Bin); the aristocrat, Lady Anne Sheldon (Jodi Chan); and the maid, Mary Beckman (Shu Yi Ching)—they have to manoeuvre the sails and perform movement sequences as transitions. The nuances in the actors’ body are amazing to watch as they endow the sails and boxes with a certain amount of weight that is actually not there.

Kudos to Chia, in working with Lim Chin Huat (movement coach and set designer), to block movement sequences that adds visual interest and complement Lim’s nautical set design by creating the feeling of a rocking boat. Furthermore, the sudden tilt of the kerosene lamps that were attached to metal poles, and suspended from the top, in conjunction with the movement of the actors’ bodies is nothing short of astounding sorcery.

There is also an additional layer of gestural language in which the actors signal their roles by rubbing their wrists or looking at their palms when they are playing convicts, or clench their fists and clutch their coats when playing the officers.

This is, and I actually mean this literally, layered on by Loo An Ni’s wonderful costumes as the skirts, vests, and capes of the convicts turn into military coats by inverting them. What puzzles me is how she manages to provide a strong structure to the shoulders of the military coats without any obvious bulges indicating the presence of shoulder pads when they are turned to skirts or capes. Sartorial enthusiasts will also appreciate her designs that are vaguely appropriate for the 18th century while having whimsical details that are quite fashion forward, such as the steel grey faux leather shoes with diagonal zips running across them.

Add other details such as Gabriel Chan’s lighting design that carves out the cramped space of the lower deck, and washing the stage with a tinge of light blue to create the expanse and coldness of the upper deck; Ng Jing’s inclusion of a didgeridoo as a base drone in the soundscape, while having percussive elements on top of it to create tension; the slight wave-like effect when the surtitles are flashed on the screen; and the serifed font to differentiate the text of the play that the convicts are rehearsing from the dialogues of the characters—we get an extravaganza of theatrical languages that is diverse as the Tower of Babel.

Rather than descending to utter chaos, Nelson Chia—by some miraculous means or sheer ingenuity—ties them all together and brings us on a theatrical voyage that I have not experienced in years.

Of course, one cannot review this show without speaking about the ending. My colleagues may have expressed surprise and delight, but they have done you, my gentle readers, a disservice for not relaying the full impact of the scene.

Unlike most audience members, I am familiar with the auditorium and went into the show fully aware that the audience is seated on the stage of the auditorium. I half-expected the rest of the auditorium to be revealed as it would be a missed opportunity otherwise. However, as the expected come to pass, and we see the sole kerosene lamp on a seat in the auditorium with constellations projected on the ceilings, it is breathtakingly beautiful. As the convicts go into the auditorium and clamber over the seats, there is something cinematic about that and the seats turn into the rocky terrain of New South Wales in an instant. I had to take a moment to catch my breath even as the lights went up and we are ushered out of the venue.

Fun fact: Had the stars aligned slightly differently, Nelson Chia would have been a naval officer. If Mr Chia promises similar experiences in the future, the Republic of Singapore Navy can definitely do without an officer. In fact, it is in the national interest that they do so. 

Other Reviews

“First Fleet more than another colonisation play” by Ong Sor Fen, The Straits Times Life! (Behind paywall)

航向希望的港口 ——观“第一舰队” by李连辉 , 剧读 (originally published in《联合早报》)
[Title Translation: Towards a Port of Hope—Watching First Fleet] by Li Lian Hui (pinyin transliteration), Lianhe Zaobao

“Doesn’t God dream of forgiving our sins?” by Idelle Yee, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: First Fleet (第一舰队) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Experience Meta-tea-trical Magic with First Fleet” by Cheryl Tan, Popspoken

“剧场与艺术的力量 —— 观《第一舰队》” by 张棋汶 , 剧读 
[Title Translation: The Power of Theatre and Art—Watching First Fleet] by Zhang Qi Wen (pinyin transliteration), Ju Du

“Looking away for clarity: ‘First Fleet’ by Nine Years Theatre” by Nabilah Said, Arts Equator

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