[Theatre Review] Well-Pitched Souvenir

Souvenir brings out the tender friendship between Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon.

Souvenir
Sing’theatre
25 September 2018
KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT
19–29 September 2018

Leigh McDonald’s singing is a torturous mixture of a rusty kettle whistling; frogs being forced to croak as they are placed on a hot pan; and a screeching banshee on speed.

But no one is complaining because she is playing self-styled opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins in Sing’theatre’s latest production, Souvenir.

In this two-hander written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, there is less focus on Jenkins’s infamous croaking, but more on the friendship between Jenkins and her piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Hossan Leong).

McMoon recounts his time with her—from the first meeting all the way till her death shortly after her concert at the Carnegie Hall, which was packed to the rafters.  He also struggles with how best to deal with her; does he tell her the truth or prevent her blissful bubble from bursting?

What starts out as an expedient relationship—McMoon falling behind on his rent—soon develops into a bosom friendship.

Appearances can certainly be deceiving. Despite the simple set and staging (piano, chair, tables, three layers of satin curtains, light change to differentiate the scene and McMoon’s internal monologue), the whole show can easily crumble if the friendship between the two characters are not established gradually but surely.

I am happy to report that by the end of the show, we are cheering for Jenkins and McMoon. This is not out of derisive amusement, but of genuine affection.

McDonald, while clearly having fun on stage, is careful not to portray Jenkins as some crazy old bat. She has a balance of child-like innocence with a sort of confidence that is not merely delusional, but it also comes from her wealth and status.

This proves to be an irresistible mix as we see her swaying to her own recording with her palms facing outwards at shoulder level at one moment, while at another, she assures McMoon that she is going to secure his future.

But where McDonald really shows her acting chops is when Jenkins is hurt on two occasions—when McMoon flares up at her, and when she realises the audience is laughing at her. It is interesting to see how she and Leong navigate the gamut of emotions and negotiates a reconciliation for both characters.

Speaking of Leong, despite struggling to maintain his accent, he is a joy to watch. His constant reactions to Jenkins are pitched perfectly. From the widening of the eyes to gasping for air, or his legs buckling a little on encountering her delusions of grandeur, Leong is a brilliant counterpoint to McDonald. Apart from sending the audience roaring with laughter, the subtle changes of his reactions over time also allows one to see the blossoming of an endearing relationship.

That said, it must be noted that McDonald gets too carried away with being out of tune, especially during the scene of the Carnegie Hall concert. Based on the actual recordings, those unfamiliar with the song can roughly make out the original tune. However, McDonald’s renditions comprise a cacophony of sounds.

Yet, Sing’theatre has undeniably given us a souvenir that is not only entertaining and comforting, but it also sends us out with our hearts singing.

Other Reviews

“Souvenir by Sing’theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Souvenir by Sing’theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Advertisements

[Theatre Review] Easy, Tiger!

Tiger of Malaya is a self-reflexive look at historical framings, identities, and representations.

Tiger of Malaya
Teater Ekamatra
19 September 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
12–23 September 2018

Meta-theatricality has often been used as a device to show the contingency of representation, or a particular issue being explored. But very few productions actually look at the significance of the particular actor involved in the process of representation, much less use theatre to critique a film.

This is where Alfian Sa’at’s latest play is ambitious in its complexity. Yet, director Mohd Fared Jainal, with guidance from Shawn Chua (dramaturg and translator), manages to pull all the strands together in an expansive tapestry, while being unafraid to show the stitching required to do so.

Through critiquing the 1943 Japanese propaganda film, Marai No Tora (Tiger of Malaya), Alfian Sa’at not only teases out how one should look at history, but the significance of the people—taking into account various aspects of their background—involved in the actual historical moment, as well as the retelling of it.

The play revolves around a group of actors (three local and two Japanese) trying to recreate the film which is a glorification of Tani Yutaka—a Japanese who has lived in Malaya before the invasion, but eventually becomes a spy for Japan. His suffering under the British-led system and eventual sacrifice for the Japanese cause is portrayed as a glorification of Japan’s purpose in WWII.

Through this re-creation, the actors balance between a faithful re-creation versus adding one’s commentary, an inevitability when one departs from the original. Such negotiations bring various issues of identity, historical framing, and stereotypes come to the fore.

When the characters suggest a change or simply react to the original, one is made aware of their background and identity, and we get to see how the changes play out. Even things such as how a local character relate to the Japanese character would hit a nerve despite one being aware of the context of the original film. On a couple of occasions, when a character suggested a switch in casting, I found myself eagerly anticipating that switch just to see how different the scene would feel.

Theatre being a safe space to rehearse identities and social dynamics is a terrible cliché that has been intoned to death. However, this is the first time that I truly experienced it in action.

Additionally, I became increasingly sensitive to the reactions of my fellow audience members as their reactions are part of the exploration of relooking at history. For example, the audience was more impressed by the Japanese actors (Yuya Tanaka and Rei Kitagawa) delivering lines in Malay with a believable intonation as opposed to the local actors (Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal, and Rei Poh) saying their lines in Japanese.

This sparked several questions: what pre-conceived notions about the Japanese did the audience have? Is this a matter of being more familiar with the capabilities of our local actors, hence the disparity in reaction? Or could it be that Japanese culture and its products have a wider circulation, making a non-Japanese speaking the language decently less surprising than a Japanese speaking Malay?  

To top it all off, the production avoids being too caught up with its own devices, as it plays with varying levels of self-reflexivity. Just as the audience gets comfortable with the play-within-a-play set-up, the fourth wall is broken as if to remind them that they are complicit in the re-creation.

This is best exemplified when Farez Najid as Adnan declaims various academic treatises on reverse racism being impossible due to extant power dynamics or about the colonial gaze, he points his Japanese compatriots to the Japanese surtitles on the screen.

Alfian also jibes at the local theatre industry by raising stereotypes of Malay theatre and Chinese theatre, as well as a reference to Ong Keng Sen’s brand of intercultural theatre, where characters speak in different languages to each other, but they somehow understand each other. This is not merely a cheap trick to elicit laughter from industry insiders, but a subtle reminder that the representations we are watching are also tied to theatrical genres and conventions. This rebukes the idea of every play or actor starting from a blank canvas and is slowly crafted to tell a story.

Paired with a stellar cast which is versatile, and has a keen sense of comic timing, one not only leaves the show being thoroughly entertained, but also buzzing with a healthy dose of scepticism about how things are represented to us.

Despite how several productions market themselves, it is very rare to find one that truly pushes the envelope. I believe a case can be made for this one.  

Other Reviews

“Teater Ekamatra’s Tiger Of Malaya presents perils of oversimplifying history” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“’Tiger of Malaya’: The Body Remembers What the Archive Cannot” by Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

“Theatre review: Tiger of Malaya’s revisionist view of a WWII film balances comedic satire with historical heft” by Aravin Sandran, Buro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: Tiger of Malaya by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] A Patchwork of Surprise and Abhorrence

Isaac Tan reviews two shows featured in M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play. One is deceptively simple, while the other is literally what the title says it is. 

Immortalx
The Theatre Practice
8 August 2018, 2 p.m.
Practice Space
1–12 August 2018

The Ordinary and the Unspectacular
The Theatre Practice
16 August 2018
Practice Space
16–19 August 2018

In collaboration with M1, The Theatre Practice (TTP) launched M1 Patch! A Theatre Festival of Artful Play which took place during the whole of August at TTP’s facilities. It promises to be a festival of theatrical experimentation in the spirit of play.

Every time when anything is touted as experimental, I get two extreme reactions. The first is apprehension. The show might be self-indulgent—a private game played amongst the creative team. To them, if the audience did not get it, they are simply not working hard enough, or they are not open enough to cast their prejudice aside.

The other reaction is excitement. Could this be something new, powerful, or at least surprising? While I will stop short of saying that I have seen something revolutionary, I will admit to being surprised a few times in my reviewing career.

Immortalx and The Ordinary and the Unspectacular evoke both reactions in me simply because they did not deliver what they promised in the programme notes.

With its 60-minute duration, colourful aesthetics, and students being its target demographic, one expects Immortalx to be a fun romp of what-ifs featuring figures from Chinese mythology.  However, I was surprised that it provokes questions about secularisation, playing god, and what becomes of myths and legends once we appropriate it.

In this imagined world, the gods have lost their powers, some of them have been scattered all over and forced to live mortal lives, while others have vanished. The Jade Emperor (Hao Wei Kai) seems content as he focuses his attention on pursuing his 10th PhD. Ne Zha (Ng Mun Poh), on the other hand, is intent on reclaiming the glory days as he painstakingly teaches the descendants of the immortals various supernatural skills.

The immortal descendants include Mysterious Aw (Windson Liong), son of Dragon King; Ray Girl (Ang Xiao Teng), granddaughter of Thunder God; and Poppy Chang (Frances Lee), granddaughter of Lady of Forgetfulness. 

Things come to a head when Ne Zha invents a machine that could restore the powers of the immortals. This disrupts the balance of nature, thus wreaking havoc on the world. The descendants thus have to curb their teacher before things further spiral out of control. But could they do it?

The central conflict ostensibly seems to be between Ne Zha, who takes his personal convictions to the extreme, and the descendants who doubt about their abilities. While these issues are flashed out quite clearly, I am more interested in various other issues that seem to be suggested by the show.

 The immortals lost most of their powers because of the increasingly secularisation of society. What roles do these figures have in our society today? What does that make us? Have we succeeded the immortals with our technological progress?

The last point could not be more ironically apparent with Ne Zha’s machine that created an imbalance in the natural order as all sorts of disasters, including the Orchard Road floods, occur.

Furthermore, the reference to the Monkey King being captured and placed in the zoo for the entertainment of mortals raises questions of how we appropriate these myths and legends. The Monkey King is very much with us through all sorts of media. But our experience of him is very different from that of our ancestors, who believe that his spirit truly exists. Are these mythological figures merely meant for our entertainment, and are merely kept alive because they vaguely belong to something called culture?

With these thoughts percolating in my mind throughout the show, imagine my surprise when the programme notes only mentioned human self-doubt and the need for balance.

Throw in a riotous performance from an excellent cast and the action taking place at various corners in the theatre-in-the-round set-up, it is a fun ride.

If an earlier review of the original staging is anything to go by, kudos should go to the creative team, headed by director Kuo Jian Hong, for revamping the show quite thoroughly.

Contrary to my colleague’s opinion that there are [n]o divine epiphanies,” I did not expect to get so much out of an hour’s performance.

In contrast, the gobbledygook that is the English programme notes for The Ordinary and the Unspectacular promises a profundity in the quotidian—a meditation on old age and the need for slowness in a chaotic age.

But all we get is a self-indulgent show that is more of a physical theatre exercise that should have never left the rehearsal room. The supposed exploration of facial expression, energy, physical vocabulary, gesture, posture, alignment, proxemics, tempo, and weight is superficial.

Even in slowness, there are so many possibilities for physical dynamics. However, the cast (CHIA, Julius Foo, Goh Lay Kuan, Jalyn Han, Lim Chiong Ngian, Lok Meng Chue, Wong May Lam), save for one of them who changes the set, all look like spectres hovering a few feet from their graves.  

To make things worse, the constant motif of walking into the light in the first 30 minutes of the show threatens to send this reviewer into a coma. It is no wonder four audience members walked out.

Is there anything interesting in the show at all? Well, there are a couple of scenes—Julius Foo clutching his red flip flops, and four women jostling for space with kitchen utensils. A friend, occasional critic, and namesake postulated that the former is about life and death, while the latter is about women’s struggle.

His interpretation is valid, but the two scenes do not redeem the show as a whole. More importantly, while they are intriguing, they do not add anything new intellectually or experientially.

The only novel thing about this purgatorial torture is the reverent silence from the audience. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the cast consists of well-respected veterans in the industry, and one hopes that something more could be gleaned from the performance.

This makes it all the more reprehensible as we are strung along with no end in sight.

That said, The Theatre Practice should be faulted to the extent that their two offerings do keep to the theme of play. It is just that one is playfully clever, while the other merely plays the audience.

Other Reviews of Immortalx

“Theatre Review: In Immortalx, gods losing their powers make for lively entertainment” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

“Immortalx: Full of Artful Play and Adventure” by Victoria Chen, Popspoken

“M1 Patch! 2018: Immortalx by The Theatre Practice (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Other Reviews of The Ordinary and the Unspectacular

“Slowing down and taking too long” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“M1 Patch! 2018: The Ordinary and The Unspectacular《平淡无奇》 (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Too Clever a Character

There is hardly anything Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai cannot do. But this honest exploration is trapped within its own meta-theatrical devices.

Building a Character
W!ld Rice
Part of Singapore Theatre Festival 2018
7 July 2018, 7.30 p.m.
Creative Cube, LaSalle College of the Arts
5–8 July 2018

In my review of Actor, Forty by The Necessary Stage, a monologue performed by Yeo Yann Yann, I noted two things. First, it is “the show is Yeo’s performance CV”. Second, it is “shot through with meta-theatricality”.

Building a Character, performed by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, certainly rivals this.

The show is an honest look into Rebekah’s life, highlights of her career as an actor, and the struggles that she faces as an Indian actor in Singapore.

To prove her point about the last issue, Rebekah regales a portion of the countless insensitive incidents she faced. These include being asked to act “more Indian” in auditions, or people wondering why she was there in the first place; the paucity of roles in casting calls; and the general lack of representation in the media.

In the course of doing so, she mimics various people she encounters and creates a spectrum of “Indian-ness”—from the slight accent to a full-blown head-shaking, hand-twisting caricature. Apart from revealing the biases within the entertainment industry, she displays an immense versatility that is rarely seen.

A parallel occurs in her personal life as we hear anecdotes about being called San-San by her teacher, as said educator did not bother to clarify the pronunciation of Sangeetha; or being told to close her legs. Again, we see more of Rebekah’s skills and versatility, so much so that she could simply make an outstanding acting reel by stringing together 10-second snippets of every scene in the show.

But what makes this one-hander not fall into a trap of being a woe-is-me exhibition of self-flagellation?

To the credit of playwright Ruth Tang and director Teo Mei Ann, it all starts with a little self-awareness. In the programme notes, Tang explained that she was wary of simply going for “emotional catharsis”. Instead, the show from the fact that Rebekah is an actor and used the characters that Rebekah played as entry points into her life. Rather than forcing us to sympathise with Rebekah, we are invited to see how the she relates to the character, and to draw wider resonances for ourselves.

Perhaps, what is most refreshing is Rebekah interrogating the ethics of being in a show about her life that is written and directed by someone else. We see her talking about the script or even staging choices, as in one scene, we see her mumbling, forcing us to read the text on the screen. Such a dynamic compels one to consider not just her particular situation or story, but the difficulty of playing out our lives with aspects that are not within our control.

The meta-theatricality of the show also extends to the choice of having various gadgets such as voice-distorting microphones, mixers, and lamps, as we see Rebekah constantly play out the various situations she faces. The show is enhanced by her ability to gauge the audience in the room and immediately lighten up the atmosphere or bring the room to a sudden hush based on the topic at hand.

That said, the cleverness of the show is also its weakness. Certain parts of the show are merely riffs of a theme of building a character, which does not add anything to the discourse. For example, after a somewhat long monologue on being asked to be “more Indian”, we suddenly see Rebekah reappearing on stage as a wild rock star, lip-syncing to a song, only for the section to be cut short by a voiceover—also done by Rebekah—asking her to be more Indian.

Additionally, certain transitions consist of her dropping the topic and moving on. Given her sheer facility in picking up and dropping her characters so rapidly, I start to wonder if the anecdotes presented actually happened to her, or that they happened to someone else, but the creative team decided that it was important to present it on stage.

Furthermore, certain choices are a little gimmicky such as the decision to sprinkle confetti at the very end, when she came to a realisation about her abusive father. While I understand that there was a very conscious decision not to reveal every single detail about a sensitive issue, it dilutes the gravity and poignancy of the situation.

Despite all these flaws, a question constantly lingers in my mind: “She is clearly that good. How is it that I have only seen her in two shows in the past six years of being a reviewer?”

With such an irresistible character presented, let us hope that she builds a more illustrious career after this.

Other Reviews

“Singapore Theatre Festival: Building A Character shines spotlight on race issues” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Singapore Theatre Festival 2018: Building a Character (Review)” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] More Than Fist-Pumping and Finger-Flicking

Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy navigate the complexities of their lives and how hip-hop figured in it.

Photo: Crispian Chan / Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

Thick Beats for Good Girls
Checkpoint Theatre
17 April 2018
Drama Centre Black Box
5–22 April 2018

I never had any affection towards hip-hop. While I appreciate its origins in protest, self-expression, and instantiation of one’s existence, the modern ones that are popular enough to be broadcast constantly seem to be excessive.

Furthermore, whatever ingenuity that reside in the lyrics are often drowned out by brash beats. The majority that pulsate to them seem to do so solely for the largely repetitive beats, and only hardcore fans would bother to look at the lyrics.

As such, it is no surprise that my arms are folded as Checkpoint Theatre’s Thick Beats for Good Girls began. But as the show unfolded, so do my arms.

The show, co-written and performed by Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy, does have its share of railing against society and middle-finger-flicking. But at its heart, it takes particular instances of their personal struggles, and how hip-hop serves as a refuge and an outlet of expression, and compels the audience to consider how this has wider resonances.

The chief merit of the show is its ability to go from relaying very personal anecdotes, such as discovering one’s sexuality vis-à-vis the strictures of their religious upbringing, to speaking about the oppression of the Jews throughout history—a particularly arresting moment by Bellamy.

What is refreshing is their critique of politics, and the illiberalism of certain people who are purportedly advocating for social justice. While the duo do not make an overt connection, the parallels between the prescriptivity of their religions stipulating what makes a good girl, and insinuations of what makes a good feminist (to some, listening to hip-hop is definitely not an ideal trait) are striking.

Through the oft-quoted line of the show in which the pair asks whether one’s feminism is big enough to encompass them, they advocate for a more inclusive movement through an intersectional lens.

While this leaves open the questions of what constitutes an intersection and whether a movement must truly account for all intersections, even if they conflict with each other, the pair must be thanked for introducing an often overlooked nuance in the debate.

With this being a very personal show, it is buoyed up by the friendship that the performers share. While Pooja Nansi, started off somewhat cautiously, she soon got into the groove (what is the hip-hop equivalent?) of things. From then on, there is an ease of interaction on stage and both happily role-play various characters in each other’s anecdotes, which makes it all the more entertaining.

That said, like the music they love, the show does have its excesses. While I appreciate the conscious effort having parallel stories for every theme, not all of them are as impactful as the ones presented by the other. Additionally, the choice of transition in which the performers ask whether good girls should do certain things starts off as an intellectual provocation, but it soon turns into a trope. After a while, one stops listening to the question and simply waits for the next anecdote.

Even though my arms are unfolded, one will not see me gyrate on the dance floor or pump my fist in the air anytime soon. However, if there is an incidental encounter with hip-hop music, I would be happy to strain my ears and tease out the thick message within the thick beats.   

Other Reviews

The soundtrack of their youthby Olivia Ho, The Straits Times Life! 

Sisters are doing it for themselvesby Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

‘Thick Beats for Good Girls’ Keeps it 100by Patricia Tobin, ArtsEquator

Thick Beats for Good Girlsby Naeem Kapadia, CrystalWords

Thick Beats for Good Girls: A Love Letter to Hip-Hop | Singapore Theatre Reviewby Arman Shah, The Everyday People

Review: Thick Beats for Good Girls by Checkpoint Theatreby Richard Neo, Bak Chor Mee Boy

Thick Beats for Good Girls: Breaking Down Social Constructs with Hip Hop by Teo Dawn, Popspoken

[Theatre Review] A Love Letter to Waterloo Street

Four Horse Road
The Theatre Practice
12 April 2018
42, 48, and 54 Waterloo Street
4–28 April 2018

Ghosts in school hallways; a showdown at a Chinese restaurant; a drunk man believing himself to be Jesus; mutinous sepoys—these are some of the 11 stories regaled by The Theatre Practice about Waterloo Street and its immediate vicinity.

Performed in various nooks and crannies of Centre 42, Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, and The Theatre Practice (situated at 42, 48, and 54 Waterloo Street respectively), Four Horse Road is playwright Jonathan Lim’s love letter to the area where he grew up, studied, and occasionally worked.

In these stories, Lim employs some artistic license in creating vignettes that are inspired by true stories and historical facts about the surrounding area.

With several groups of people walking around three relative small compounds, it is nothing short of a logistical marvel that I did not encounter human traffic problems or delays in the various performances.

The novelty of some of the lesser known stories is complemented by generally excellent performances of the cast (full cast list). Two standout performers are Andrew James Mowatt and Johnny Ng.

Mowatt plays Dr Van der Hoot, a teacher of Dutch descent who is staying at the Nantina Home for the Aged and Destitute, and Major Wortmann, an SS officer.

For the former, the audience enters the scene on the pretext of a monthly tea session and we are supposed to spend time with the residents. We are allowed to choose which resident to converse with based on how comfortable we are in the language the resident converses in. As Dr Van der Hoot, Mowatt exudes a friendly but slightly shifty demeanour, as we later find out that he had to leave Singapore due to a scandal with a student. Despite facing a generally reticent group of visitors, Mowatt keeps the conversation alive, interspersing some jokes with his scripted lines.

Where one really feels Mowatt’s presence is when he is the German officer, Major Wortmann. In the May Blossom restaurant (a lovely set-up done at the courtyard of Centre 42), Major Onishi (Johnny Ng) and Major Wortmann are important guests, given that their armies currently have the upperhand in the war. Wortmann is stony-faced and occasionally accepts the drink offered to him by a Japanese girl. Suddenly, his eyes flickers and he catches sight of me sitting at the opposite table. This compels me to immediately look away, not wanting to draw unnecessarily attention to myself, much less a Nazi officer.

Onishi soon enters, but the festivities do not last long. We soon learn that the restaurant has been infiltrated by the anti-Japanese resistance, and they soon ambush Onishi, pressuring him to release their leader, Lai Teck. Despite being surrounded, Johnny Ng as the Japanese officer exudes a certain knowing calmness that unsettles everyone. He plays with the intonation of his text, turning it into a veiled threat, thus ratcheting up the tension. This is an excellent display of an actor milking the text for all its worth.

On the whole, this scene tempo of this scene is taut and we soon find ourselves at the heart of the conflict. As an indication, I started flinching and preparing to cover my ears when the guns are pulled, thinking that the actors would fire blanks. It is only after leaving the scene that my scant military knowledge reminds me that authorities would never approve of actors firing blanks at such close range because there is still a high risk of severe injury. Such is the general immersive nature of the show.

Alas, there are some weakness. Rather than enumerate them, I will respond to Corrie Tan’s criticisms of the show as a starting point. After all, when the usually even-tempered Corrie Tan thoroughly excoriates a show, any local critic worth his or her salt must take notice.

To unjustly sum up her points: there is an imbalance of representation in terms of languages and characters; characters from minority races are often reduced to tropes; it sidesteps any political issues and generally perpetuates the myth that Singapore has successfully overcome the barriers of multicultural interaction.

Had this show meant to represent the history of Singapore rather than a neighbourhood, I would wholeheartedly agree with Tan’s critique.

First, Tan’s point about an imbalance of languages represented is heavily based on her and her friend’s experience. As such, I believe that she slightly overstates her case. Her sheer comfort with the languages is due to her linguistic talent.

It is important to note that the Southern Chinese languages are not completely mutually intelligible. Her point about the language composition of the show privileging the Chinese may apply to those of an older generation who are conversant in two Chinese languages, while having some knowledge of the others. However, being half a generation younger than Ms Tan, I do struggle with the Southern Chinese languages and have no idea what the character is saying, save for a few words.

That said, there is no reason for the convent school students to be conversing in Mandarin, as they worry about there being an Orang Minyak in the hallway. The milieu that they would have grown up in would mean that it is highly probable that they would be speaking in English. With this change, there will be three scenes that will be completely in English (assuming that you choose to speak to Irwan or Dr Van der Hoot when you visit the Nantina Home).

With regard to the imbalance of characters represented, that would depend on the availability of historical research on places such as the Bras Basah gaol. Even if there were lack of credible historical records, I agree with Tan that the non-Chinese characters are often linked to ghosts and other mystical exotica.

The criticism of the show’s reluctance to address political issues and perpetuating a myth of complete inter-racial social cohesion may be true, but is it a fair one? It is tough to decide.

For starters, despite the scale of the production, it has the modest aims of telling the audience lesser known stories about the place and impress upon them that our history is more colourful than we think. In the programme notes, director Kuo Jian Hong writes that the show “paints of colourful and complex tapestry [sic] of Singapore’s cultures, thus enriching our understanding of the past and allowing us to reflect on what it truly means to belong to a place.” Additionally, playwright Jonathan Lim implores his audience to “please, please remember [the stories].”

Hence, it is clear that the show is not focused on interrogating, as Tan puts it, “contemporary structures of race, ethnicity and language.” Besides, to do so, one need not focus extensively and exclusively on history as this show has done. Should a critic then criticise something that is not clearly within the aims of the production? Personally, I struggle with that question because saying that a show should stretch its ambitions beyond what it has presented can be a valid point.

Yet, one still can ask, what is the point of remembering these stories beyond personal edification? Why these particular stories? If remembering history is so important, why did the playwright blend fact and fiction in the various scenes? How does having a knowledge of history allow one to understand what it “truly means to belong to a place”, especially when there is a distinct disjuncture between the past and present in Singapore?

The show leaves those questions out. The closest thing to painting a complex history that the production achieves is a throwaway line by a Japanese Mamasan in a scene where a gaggle of prostitutes regale the events of the 1915 Sepoy mutiny in all its camp glory. It goes along the lines of let it be known that the Japanese and Singaporeans fought together to bring peace to the country—a weak attempt to address the perception of the Japanese are evil in the past due to its invasion of Singapore in WWII.

As quickly as that line is forgotten, it is likely that these stories will share the same fate. But this does not preclude a fun night out with the great cast of Four Horse Road.

Selected Reviews

Four Horse Road: A fun take on Waterloo Street’s historyby Benson Ang, The Straits Times Life!

‘Four Horse Road’: buried histories and blind spotsby Corrie Tan, ArtsEquator

Patchwork Histories by Jevon Chandra, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Four Horse Road 四马路by Teo Dawn 

Review: 四马路 Four Horse Road by The Theatre Practiceby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Theatre Review] Dancing Beautifully on a Knife’s Edge

Potong is a gem of a play that deals with several issues subtly and sensitively.

Potong
Teater Ekamatra
22 March 2018
Malay Heritage Centre Auditorium
21–25 March 2018

Theatre exists in many guises and is constantly undergoing tremendous amounts of change. Despite the constant flux in tastes and aesthetics, a common aspect that often recurs is the theatre-makers’ appetite for addressing social issues.

However much we must applaud their valiant efforts, we often get pieces that screech at the choir; spread thin in trying to cover as many issues as possible; or renege on its promise to present, as Scottish theatre critic Joyce McMillan puts it, “a new and original version of the world.”[1]

Johnny Jon Jon’s Potong is none of these. Not only does he avoid the usual traps, his ambitions of addressing issues of dementia, traditions, and gender identity in a single play is akin to navigating a minefield on a pogo stick, while being blindfolded, with one leg in a cast, and his dominant hand being tied behind his back. For some reason, he navigates it without a scratch.

His plot revolves around Adam, who is of mixed heritage, being asked by his mother to return to Singapore from Australia to go through two rites of passages: circumcision and National Service. He is tasked to find his uncle, who turned out to be a transvestite, and he also discovers that his grandmother is suffering from dementia. Apart from dealing with the culture shock and finding out about his extended family, Adam struggles with fulfilling his mother’s wishes. Perhaps the biggest shock would be finding out the actual reason behind his mother insisting that he goes to Singapore, and geographical distance does not preclude similarities in circumstances.

Despite the gravity of the issues addressed, Johnny exhibits his razor-sharp wit in filling the lines with double entendres, jokes, and quick retorts. Apart from creating a certain sense of familiarity amongst the characters, the levity of the lines eases the audience into poignant moments, such as the phone conversations between Leha (Adam’s mother) and Salleh (Adam’s uncle), where the latter urges the former to return to Singapore; to return home.

Additionally, they prevent the audience from crumbling into an emotional wreck, thereby abandoning reflections on some of the unanswerable questions implied by the play. For example, who is Salleh given that his mother rejected him when he dresses up as a woman, but having been stricken with dementia, recognises him as her daughter, Leha, and effectively forgetting her son?

Despite the complexity and the hard-hitting themes of the play, the actors took their roles with a certain lightness of touch.

Having largely seen her in abstract and devised pieces, Farah Ong as Leha is refreshing. The subtlety in her approach gives one a sense that not all is well, but one only knows what that is towards the end. This makes the show all the more poignant, and it is an excellent display of Ong’s versatility and maturity in her craft.

Salif Hardie’s earnest portrayal of Adam is a nice counterweight to the general sombre atmosphere surrounding Leha and Salleh. It is interesting to see the evolution of his innocence to realising the gravity of the situation and the weight of responsibilities that he has to bear.

While Dr Dini, the circumcision specialist, is much less flamboyant than Munah Bagharib’s YouTube persona, she attacks the role with a sparkle in her eye. Munah’s knack for comic timing is apparent and her repartee in contrast to a bemused Adam provide a much-needed interlude to the heavy play.

Mohd Fared Jainal as Salleh really hits all the emotional buttons. He threatens to reduce audience members to a sobbing mess whenever he speaks to his sister or explains to Adam about the family situation. The tenderness mixed with a tinge of wistfulness and resignation speaks of the sacrifices a caregiver makes, and of duty and love that drives him to carry on. At the same time, his campiness when in drag injects much hilarity in the first half of the play. However, the novelty does wear off a little and it almost teethers on being monotonous later on in the play.

At this juncture, it is apparent that realising the playwright’s vision is no mean feat. Not only did director Irfan Kasban realise Johnny’s vision, he deserves additional plaudits for his for having the actors break the moment and exiting or transiting each scene with a certain slowness. This artifice not only signifies time passing as a character despite the actor exiting and entering the scene within minutes of each action, it also creates a certain porousness within the static set. This allows different characters in different settings to exist within the same space.

That said, some of these moments of rapture from the generally naturalistic nature of the scenes are not well-timed. As a result, some of the most emotional moments were prematurely cut off, and the actors have to build the emotional trajectory from scratch again. Despite the minor flaw, the actors did manage to do so, which is a testament of their skill.

Potong (which means cut in Bahasa Melayu, by the way) it any way you like, this show is truly a gem of a play. It is abominable that Johnny Jon Jon has suggested in the programme notes that this might be his last full-length play. One hopes that his muses make haste and compel him to write another.

[1] McMillan, Joyce. “Jotters.” In Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams., edited by Philip Howard, 50. London, UK: Nick Hern Books, 2016.

Other Reviews

Teater Ekamatra’s Potong: When ties to the past are cutby Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

‘Potong’ by Teater Ekamatra: Of Kin and Skinby Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

Review: Potong by Teater Ekamatraby Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Interview] Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy on Good Girls and Thick Beats

Photo: Joel Lim @ Calibre Pictures, Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

To kick off their 2018 season, Checkpoint Theatre presents Thick Beats for Good Girls. To find out what exactly are “thick beats” or “good girls”, I decided to interview writer-performers Pooja Nansi and Jessica Bellamy.

Both of you come from different cultures. What do you think is your culture’s view of what constitutes a good girl?

Jessica A good Jewish girl is respectful. She doesn’t draw too much attention to herself. She accepts the rules taught to her by her community. She is, of course, allowed to have fun, to express herself, to find joy—but she is also very aware of how her community might feel about some types of behaviour being more acceptable than others.

Pooja: A good Gujarati girl knows how to make the perfect rotli. She puts her community before herself and considers how others will see her before making choices in the way she dresses, who she dates and the things she chooses to say.

What was your first encounter when you were told or felt that you did not fit into society’s definition of a good girl?

Jessica:  Before I started making theatre, I was in a Jewish monoculture “bubble”. I went to a Jewish school and had Jewish friends. It was only when I took up student theatre in university that I encountered a much wider array of different personalities. Suddenly I realised there was a wider world out there than just being a good Jewish girl. And out here, I could do whatever I wanted.

Pooja:  When I was about eight years old, my maternal grandfather passed away and it was the first time I was told that women were not allowed to perform certain rites in the funeral. It was then that I realised that I lived in a world where women and men couldn’t do exactly the same things. But I remember thinking, “Who is going to stop me from doing exactly what I want?”

What was the first thick beat that you really resonated with? Why?

Pooja: It was hearing “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect at Killimanjaros on Boat Quay on the 27th of Nov 1998. It was my 18th birthday and I had never before experienced anything quite as euphoric as a whole room full of people chanting to the same beat and the same song.

Jessica:  Kanye West’s album, 808s & Heartbreaks, straddled too many genres for me not to notice it. It was an album of lovesick, heartbroken ballads. I knew that sort of music very well from the blues and roots music I loved. When I realised this music could be teamed with dexterous lyrics, cheek and swagger, I was sold.

While some hip-hop and gangster rap are expressions of protest, there are some that have themes of gratuitous violence and sex. Given your strong interests in social justice, how do you reconcile both sides of the genre?

Jessica: There’s nothing wrong with writing about violence or sex. The problem is performing violence as well as non-consensual sexuality. It is important for people to recognise that all rap artists have the ability to write fiction. Just because their lyrics are presented passionately or crudely doesn’t mean this particular person did those things. But, evoking a world where people behave in this way is important, because it does exist. It holds a mirror to life, where the colour of your skin might determine the education you receive, your treatment by the criminal justice system, and your ability to survive a traffic stop. Like the best literature, rap music forces us to think deeply about our values.

Pooja: If you are living in a community in which you constantly feel the threat of violence and aggression against yourself and against the people that you love, it’s not surprising that the art that you make would reflect this reality.

I think the question we need to ask is: What’s the bigger problem? The violence in the lyrics, or the fact that there are entire communities in that position to begin with? I also think that sometimes when you’re up against a wall, the only way to exact change is to skip the perfunctory polite conversations and use anger instead. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde says that anger expressed and translated into action, in the service of our future, is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification. Anger can be a powerful source of information and energy, and that for me is hip-hop at its best.

While both of you are no strangers to theatre, you are primarily known as writers. What is one thing that actors can learn from writers and vice versa?

Pooja: I am discovering the ridiculous amount of stamina you need as an actor!

Jessica: And in particular: actors who can also dance! HOW DO THEY DO IT?

Pooja: There’s also that interesting tension between thinking about the text as a performer and wanting to constantly tweak it as a writer. The thing about wearing both hats is that you can keep shaping the piece infinitely, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

Jessica: Any creative process is a beautiful tussle however, and I’m enjoying this internal tussle very much.

As this is a very personal play, are there any personal discoveries about yourself or each other that have arisen in the course of rehearsals?

Jessica: Pooja introduced me to her hairdresser and I love him. Now I have to fly to Singapore every time I want my hair cut.

Pooja: Jess wears print on print with so much swagger, it is ridiculous.

What is one thick beat that everyone should listen to right now?

Jessica: Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”. It’s an essential reminder for self-love during a time of struggle.

Pooja: Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. It’s the hope we all need in a difficult time.

Thick Beats for Good Girls runs from 5–22 April 2018 at Drama Centre Black Box, National Library. Tickets from Sistic.

[Flash Theatre Review] Much Ado About Very Little

History is contingent and written by the victors—so what?

Blood & Rose Ensemble

Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group

25 February 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

23–25 February 2018

To illustrate the contingency of history, this production is shot through with meta-theatricality.

Several art forms [Foley sound effects, Shuang Huang (双簧), movements from Chinese opera, pop music, etc.] are employed to continuously highlight the performativity of the piece as well as the history of War of the Roses.

While it is generally intriguing and entertaining, the novelty of it fades after a while. Yes, in some senses, history and life as a whole is contingent—so what? It’s much ado about very little.

Furthermore, the lightness of touch erases the humanity of the characters, which what makes Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 3 and Richard III interesting.

You don’t need two hours to tell us that out lives are contingent and—in the grand scheme of things—our desires, struggles, and strife are petty.

[Listing] Fun Home by Pangdemonium!

To round off their 2017 Season, Pangdemonium is performing FUN HOME, the stunning musical about a family that’s nothing like yours and exactly like yours.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, the piece interacts with Bechdel at three different ages. Moving between past and present, it reveals her unique childhood, a growing understanding of her own sexuality and how she handles her uniquely dysfunctional family. FUN HOME is a gripping portrayal of a daughter’s determination to connect with her volatile, brilliant father whose temperament and secrets have defined her family and her life.

“FUN HOME is an exhilarating, heart wrenching, and moving musical which will resonate with anyone who has ever felt different, even within their own family. The story—based on real life experiences of Alison Bechdel—is a roller-coaster of comedy and tragedy, and the songs are sublimely beautiful. Be prepared for a truly unique and unforgettable musical theatre experience.” said Adrian and Tracie Pang, Artistic Directors of Pangdemonium.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Book, the haunting melodies of Jeanine Tesori and poetic lyrics of Lisa Kron set a foundation for this refreshingly honest musical.

Starring Adrian Pang, Monique Wilson, Nikki Muller, Elena Wang, Benjamin Kheng, Gail Belmonte, Chloe Choo, Elly Gaskell, Aria Zhang, Damien Weber, and Bjorn Haakenson.

Named Best Musical of the Year by the New York Times, FUN HOME is a daring and innovative work about seeing your parents through grown up eyes. The Singaporean debut of this intimate and emotional theatrical experience is not to be missed!

FUN HOME runs from 29 September–15 October at the Drama Centre Theatre, Rated R18, Tickets from Sistic