[Theatre Review] Reinterpreting the Dust of Dead Men

Cherilyn Woo reimagines Faust by putting humanity front and centre.

Photo: Crispian Chan

Faust/Us
Nine Years Theatre
24 March 2019, 3 p.m.
Drama Centre Black Box
21‒24 March 2019

Stage a conflict between God and Mephistopheles within a two-storey wooden structure? Recast Faust as a young woman? Rewrite the second part of Faust?

Nine Years Theatre (NYT) new associate director Cherilyn Woo, has achieved all that and more in Faust/Us, the company’s Mandarin adaptation of Faust.

This production marks a couple of firsts for the company: the first show that isn’t directed by Nelson Chia, and the first production in which a part of the plot is completely rewritten.

Woo turns the cautionary tale of man’s greed into a humanistic piece that ennobles the human struggle.

The wager between God (Hang Qian Chou) and Mephistopheles (Timothy Wan) is no longer a symbol of sin and redemption, but a childish and selfish bet at the expense of humanity. Faust is not a crazed man, but Jo Faust (Mia Chee), a woman who signs a pact with Mephistopheles after being bogged down by ennui. She does not fall in love with Grett (Neo Hai Bin) out of lust, but out of admiration of his writing. At the show’s climax, Faust does not give in to one side or the other, but proceeds with the pact on her own terms.

This bold reimagination by Woo is arguably more in line with the Enlightenment ideals than Goethe’s version.

While Faust/Us may not have ensemble scenes that have become a signature of NYT’s productions, Woo does tap into the ensemble training that the actors go through with occasional synchronised movements, and having Grett glide across the space as God tries to convince Faust to come to his side.

Mia Chee balances between Faust’s ambition and her emotional vulnerability wonderfully, imbuing the titular character with more complexity.

Timothy Wan’s Mephistopheles is quick-witted with a sharp tongue to match. Wan plays off Chee very well, charming her every step of the way. It is easy to see why anyone would root for the devil for most of the show.

Neo Hai Bin endears himself to the audience with his earnest portrayal of the fruit seller, while sending students giggling when Grett and Faust are in the first blushes of love.

Hang Qian Chou does not leave much of an impression as God, but elicits sympathy as Wagner, Faust’s faithful friend.

It is difficult to stage a spectacle of cosmic proportions in such a small space. But lighting designer Adrian Tan and sound designer Zai Tang makes do by signalling a chance of space with coloured lights strategically fixed on to the set (designed by Petrina Dawn Tan) or a layered soundscape.

The creative team must be commended for managing to create a foreboding atmosphere when Mephistopheles suddenly appears without resorting to the age-old trick of smoke machines.

When she first appears, Faust laments that all human achievement will turn to dust eventually, and we are merely piling dust on layers of dust.

Woo responds by clearing away centuries of dust and allowing us to view this tale afresh, while offering a glimmer of hope to the seemingly Sisyphean struggle that is life.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: FAUST/US by Nine Years Theatre is fiendishly good” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“She Creates: Nine Years Theatre’s ‘FAUST/US 浮世/德'” by Daniel Teo, Arts Equator

“The Spectacular Mundane in Faust/Us by Teo Xiao Ting, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Review: FAUST/US (浮世/德) by Nine Years Theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Theatre Review] Tussling Between Advocacy and Poetry

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu raises important issues, but can’t quite find its feet.

Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu
Grace Kalaiselvi
23 March 2019, 8 p.m.
Play Den, Arts House
21‒24 March 2019

 Goddesses of Words—Sarojini Naidu by playwright and director Grace Kalaiselvi hits a snag quite early on.

In an early scene, we are told sexual assault includes lewd comments and jokes. Shouldn’t that be classified under sexual harassment? Shouldn’t the differences between both terms matter?

Initially conceived to explore works by Indian female poets writing in English before evolving into one about sexual assault, the work finds itself caught between advocacy and poetry, rather than combining both aspects in a cohesive whole.

Its advocacy efforts consist of preachy scenes and skits such as telling us how we are complicit in “rape culture” with our words; that there is no clothing that is rape-proof; and not forcing others to eat briyani as an analogy about consent.

While the whole spectacle is fun and tongue-in-cheek, one wonders who it is meant for. In one segment, the audience has to indicate whether certain statements are appropriate through holding up the programme booklets, which has a red background on the front and green on the back. However, the statements are so ludicrously inappropriate that one just holds up the red background all the way and tune out.

As well-meaning as those segments are, it really is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Malicious abusers are without scruples, and will not recant if they were to watch this. But for the majority of us, who may say something insensitive unknowingly, or misread signals in the heat of the moment, the show is too simplistic and does not address these issues.

In fact, I found the post-show dialogue to be more enlightening and nuanced. But a show should stand on its own rather than be a prelude for the post-show dialogue.

As for the poetry, Grace and her cast (Pramila Krishnasamy, Mumtaz Maricar, and Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai) made a judicious choice in selecting the poems of Sarojini Naidu. Through movement sequences; drawings; and turning the verses into song, these segments are evocative and poignant. This is complemented by the haunting flute playing by Raghavendran Rajasekaran.

While the poems are not about sexual assault, the images of struggle and hurt makes it seem as if the poet is reaching across the ages to tell the women that she understands what they are going through.

To top it all off, the performers then perform monologues detailing actual stories of assault, including their own. The deliveries of the monologues are relatively cautious, as if they are too painful for the actors to delve into. This is a wasted opportunity as the stories are not told to its full potential.

That said, one cannot deny the effect the show has on the audience. A few audience members walked up to the performers to hug them, and some can be seen crying.

While one hopes that the show gives those affected a certain sense of consolation, the dramaturgical and artistic merits of the show must be assessed independently of the audience’s reaction in this case.

Other Reviews

“Review: Goddesses of Words – Sarojini Naidu by Grace Kalaiselvi” by Bak Chor Mee Boy