[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

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[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