Can’t Take Him Anywhere

We went to see Platform65’s Rites & Regulations, a well-conceptualized and creatively staged doublebill of funeral-themed plays aWake (by Lin Mingyu) and Mok Cui Yin’s adaptation of Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole. The production was at 5 Foot Way Inn on Aliwal Street, and once it was over we decided to go to good ol’ Zam Zam for our murtabak fix.

Discussing the plays as we walked to Zam Zam along North Bridge Road, I admitted that my reaction to a particular situation which arose in aWake was not very compassionate. “The void deck was booked months ago for the Malay wedding!” I ranted. “If this Chinese family just went and started setting up for a funeral without even checking whether the space was available, then too bad for them!”

Alec then observed that, regardless of how crystal clear it may seem to people detached from the situation, he thought the reasons for the Chinese family’s refusal to yield up the space had been quite realistically portrayed as arising from a mixture of grief, fear and superstition.

As one might often do in a conversation as a way of expressing one’s point, Alec chose at this point to speak from the perspective of the Chinese family i.e. speaking in the first person as if he were part of the Chinese family.

Which is how, in the midst of channelling a distressed old Chinese lady who doesn’t want to move the funeral site because her mother’s ghost will get lost, Alec exclaimed “I don’t care about the Malay family!” Right next to an elderly Malay gentleman in traditional baju. Just outside the Sultan Mosque.

In Memoriam (Delfos Contemporary Dance)

Delfos Contemporary Dance’s In Memoriam presentation at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival was aimed at “broaching the topic of death through literary images”. I have not quoted this description of it as a preface to my exhaustive and learned analysis of the various literary images employed, but have simply co-opted it as adequate setup to say that despite my worst fears, this performance thankfully didn’t end up as a tale of two shitties.

The first half was fairly abstract, with few props used apart from paper boats, a tiny red fluttery bird thing, and mist. It relied mostly on the considerable skill of its dancers and the passionate dynamism of its choreography, and was really quite captivating.

The second half involved a man wearing nothing except a tiny G-string being guided towards a huge animated butterfly on a screen by two women wearing butterfly headdresses.

Guess which half was shitty.

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Reluctantly Executive Summary

Graaargh. Being away from a computer the whole day during this three-month induction/rotation period for my new job is killing me. I have time to work, live, love, and sleep (5 hours a night, max), but doing more than that has been beyond me this week and last. But since I’m off shift-work today, here’s my attempt at an executive summary from last weekend till this one, minus the bits where I am actually an executive.

Gigs:

  • Mizeryfree/Zhen/Concave Scream at Bar None (last Monday): The first two bands made little impression on me, I was there to see the third. Concave Scream did a passable gig, but nothing as memorable as their Baybeats performance. Also, although I haven’t got tired of any of their songs yet, their setlist doesn’t seem to have changed much these three times I’ve seen them play – same tracks, same introductory banter, same encore.

  • Localbarboy at Hideout (last Wednesday): I told Joe that since I hardly know any pre-2003 local music, the mark of this gig’s success was that I still thoroughly enjoyed it. The immensely likable band, great song choices (how hard does Singapore Cowboy ROCK?) and happy supportive crowd made for a good gig vibe. After the gig the DJ just played the same ol’ same ol’ Singapore indie clubbing staples (doesn’t anyone else get tired of dancing to the same songs every time?) so I left – but not before some muppet-dancing with Alec to Here Comes Your Man. That was fun.

Parties:


Are we hot or not?
  • Bad Taste (two Saturdays ago): At which Alec wore his famous spandex. Many other guests at the party were a little disappointing though, mostly because I feel they hadn’t made themselves look unattractive enough. For example, Ali Baba trousers shouldn’t have been paired with a flattering black top but rather something utterly hideous. Others fell into the trap I narrowly avoided while deciding on my outfit – accessorizing into hipness. The more I added belts, bracelets and necklaces, the more it looked like a cool outfit straight off the streets of Harajuku. So in the end I just stuck to the core items you see in the picture – black and white striped top, 70s retro dirty green skirt, bright green bag, grey trainers, black socks pulled up as high as they could go.
  • Dance Dance BBQolution (last Saturday): Kris’s birthday party cum sendoff to Trinidad. As can be expected for someone like him, the guests at his party reflected his diverse passions, from members of the Toa Payoh Community Centre Guitar Club to the multi-nationalitied denizens of the local tango scene. Later in his flat, I found myself dancing merengue, bhangra, my first ever tango, lots of madcap lindy to an awesome Indian swing track, and finally, the chicken dance.

Theatre:

  • Quills (last Friday): I attempted a review.

Books:

  • Morvern Callar (Alan Warner) is a very odd book, but perhaps you have to be an existentialist music geek with mild lesbian tendencies, a penchant for Southern Comfort and sufficient butchery skills to hack up your boyfriend’s corpse after he’s slit his own throat on your kitchen floor to really understand it properly. Unfortunately for me, I only identified with the music geek bit. Okay, and maybe the mild lesbian tendencies.

  • Love In a Blue Time (Hanif Kureishi) was rather disappointing compared to the effortless charm of The Buddha Of Suburbia. None of the stories really drew me in except perhaps for My Son The Fanatic, which took on fresh significance due to events transpiring in London since it was first published. A lacklustre read from a writer who previously delighted me.

Quills (DBS Arts Centre, 23 September 2005)

The hype about the unprecedented amount of full-frontal male nudity in this play was misplaced – it was a notable effort for far better reasons than that. Rehaan Engineer’s magnificent Marquis de Sade was mincing, offensive and completely riveting all at the same time. Deprived of the ability to speak later in the play, even with nothing more than whimpers and contortions of his beleaguered body to express himself through, his sheer presence continued to dominate the stage as he submitted to the increasing cruelties of his wardens. Daniel Jenkins also acquitted himself commendably in the challenging role of Abbe de Coulmier, which I think could have grated terribly if attempted by a lesser actor.

But speaking of lesser actors, I’m afraid I have to say that this was yet another local theatre production I have watched where the “foreign talent” so obviously outshone even well-regarded local actors such as Lim Kay Tong and Karen Tan that it was embarrassing. Where Rehaan Engineer, Daniel Jenkins and Andy Tear (the architect) were able to enunciate every word clearly and make the most of the dramatic possibilities of every line, Lim Kay Tong and Karen Tan seemed to struggle even with clear diction and effective voice projection. Tan did manage to inject her lines with a fair amount of life later in the play but Lim continued to deliver his lines with a frustrating lack of nuance or timing right to the end.

Set design was as impressive as in the other luna-id/Samanatha Scott-Blackhall play I’ve watched (The Physicists), though I’m afraid I don’t know enough about theatre production to know who should get the credit for that. Where it would have been easy, even easily justifiable given the play’s setting in a mental asylum, to go for a stark minimalist sort of set design, this production featured set design so versatile, creative and simply beautiful that it just made minimalism look lazy.

Although I’m still undecided about the ability of our local actors to pull off roles set in contexts very different to ours, I’m slowly but surely beginning to regain my faith in local theatre productions. I’ve spent about $100 on theatre tickets this month alone, and don’t regret a cent. When’s the last time you went to a local theatre production? If it’s been a while, maybe you should consider returning.

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Betrayal (DBS Arts Centre, Sept 9 2005)

The day Alec and I decided to stop circling around each other and become a couple, we were supposed to go to a Harold Pinter play, but that never happened because we were held up by my inexpert inefficient cooking of the worst steak I’ve ever eaten. On Friday, nearly four years later, we finally made it to a Harold Pinter play, except this one was about relationships torn apart by infidelity and deception. Heh.

Anyway, the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of Betrayal was quite impressive and very much worth the forty-buck price of admission, but I don’t really feel like writing a detailed review because the Second Link one exhausted me. This Flying Inkpot one should do the trick for you though. (Aside: At the same site you can also find a Second Link review written by my companion at that theatre outing. It’s way better than mine was.)

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Second Link (National Library Drama Centre, 3 Sept 2005)

It isn’t too often that I unhesitatingly plonk money down for theatre in Singapore, having previously suffered the cultural equivalent of third-degree burns with godeatgod and Private Parts, but Wild Rice’s Second Link just had too much going for it for me to pass up.

Last year, a Singaporean playwright chose and arranged a selection of Singaporean literature, which was then performed in KL by a Malaysian cast working with a Malaysian director. Last week, they brought that production back to Singapore and added its logical counterpart – a performance of Malaysian writing, chosen by a Malaysian playwright, to be performed by a Singaporean cast with Singaporean director – to round up the production.

I think the conceptual appeal of this will be immediately clear to someone familiar with the historical and cultural baggage which tends to unduly define relations between Singapore and Malaysia from time to time, and I’m glad to say that the concept was satisfyingly backed up by an abundant supply of craft. The complex, capricious relationship between the two countries gave the production an interesting foundation, the selected texts breathed life and nuance into the concept, and the truly impressive performers from both countries ensured that this promising experiment became a resounding success.

What was ultimately quite intriguing was how different both halves were, something that is only partly explained by the different contexts in which they were created. (Eleanor was specifically choosing Singaporean literature as a showcase for a writing festival in Malaysia. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin had no such constraints, and chose excerpts from articles, interviews, folk-tales and songs, as well as conventional poetry, plays etc.)

Eleanor’s selection and arrangement evolved thematically and had, by and large, a serious, fairly contemplative tone. Leow Puay Tin’s was subtitled “Tikam-Tikam” (definition here), the pieces to be performed were determined on the spot by audience members picking numbers, and the whole thing therefore unfolded almost randomly apart from a fixed beginning piece and end piece. In terms of direction, the Singaporean cast set a slightly more slapstick tone and milked every joke in the texts for all it was worth, whereas the Malaysian cast exaggerated things a little less. The thing is, both styles were thoroughly enjoyable in themselves, and were made even more so by the very fact of their contrast.

Well-earned diplomacy aside, I will however say that ultimately I did enjoy Tikam-Tikam (the Singaporean production of Malaysian texts) more. Superficially, I wasn’t in the most energetic of moods, so the livelier production woke me up a bit. Also, I think the strong Malay cultural presence in many of the texts (something entirely absent in the Singaporean texts) just made them feel relatively more exotic to someone like me who doesn’t find being part of Singapore’s majority Chinese race very interesting.

In an excerpt from the autobiography of Abdullah bin Kadir, Sir Stamford Raffles’ translator, Jonathan Lim was a scream as Raffles speaking fluent but totally British-accented Malay. Mark Teh’s Daulat: Long Live was performed in the style of a delegation paying tribute to a sultan, but contained bitingly satirical content aimed at Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew alike. For Lee Kok Liang’s Flowers in the Sky, where the poet finds inspiration for his Buddhist meditations as he hears the call of the muezzin from a nearby mosque, Gani Karim intoned that beautiful call to prayer as Jonathan Lim recited the poem. In Singapore, the call doesn’t go out directly from every mosque any more, they just play it on the relevant media channels. I was reminded, watching this, that I haven’t heard it since I was in Turkey, where hearing the call at dusk while the Blue Mosque was wreathed in sunset remains one of my most spellbinding travel memories.

Add to all this the personal ties that enriched my appreciation of the experience – curator of the Singaporean texts was Eleanor Wong (the best coach I have ever had), original director of the KL premiere was the late Dr Krishen Jit, for whom I bought lots of coffee, called lots of cabs, and generally did a lot of running around for when he came to conduct drama workshops at the CAP and have fond memories of – and the presence of sexy charismatic bald men on either side of the interval (Edwin Sumun from Malaysia, Lim Yu Beng from Singapore) and you have the best theatrical experience I’ve had since For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again. This production really, really needs to be given a more extended run, because three performances just don’t do its achievement justice.

Singapore Arts Fest 2005: The Busker’s Opera

The Busker’s Opera, staged by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina, featured an enthusiastic cast, some well-executed set pieces, and some ingenious props, but on the whole, it still blew.

Pointless reinventions really irk me. Completely subverting the original: potentially valuable. Just doing the original in some new context which adds nothing to the audience’s appreciation of its (the original’s) genius: bloody useless. And sadly, for the most part, I felt this play was bloody useless.

Do not believe what the writeup says, that “somewhere between the rock concert and the classical concert, between the street musicians and sharks who hold the keys to power, fame and fortune, the production reveals the artistic freedom that remains after the steamroller of the music industry has driven by.” It does not, unless artistic freedom is defined as the freedom to put on a musical production where almost every song is performed mediocrely by people with little or no stage presence, and inexplicably, a random and rather piss-poor turntablist.

Retaining the lyrics to the songs of The Beggar’s Opera, but transposing the story from the criminal underworld to “the underworld of the music industry”, did not provide the piece with a new satirical focus, it merely made the new story feel slapdash and incoherent, like one of those musicals which consist of ABBA’s/Queen’s/Madness’s greatest hits held together by a laughably threadbare plot. But at least in those you can dress up and sing along, and the songs don’t suck donkey bollocks anywhere near as much as the “New Yawk Pimp Rap” attempt did in this play.

To be fair, some parts of the production were well done. One scene is set in New Orleans, at a tiny bayou club on the edge of a swamp. In the club it’s a party with bright lights and rollicking music, but in the swamp a creepy robed lady sways menacingly to claustrophobic blues. A girl runs between the swamp and the party, and the opening and closing of the door of the bayou club triggers the switch between the PARTY!!! music and the BAD JUJU!!! music. The switch in music is done instantaneously by the band playing in the club, and the entire scene was pulled off quite impressively. Certain props were also well used, with a roving flatscreen TV displaying the words of the libretto, close-ups, and various things which would have been inconvenient to portray in the flesh (e.g. a dog), and a sort of segmented foldable screen used to make London phoneboxes, jail cells and the bayou club.

But really, these small successes were never enough to save me from the larger tedium of the evening. For anyone intending to watch it, I would recommend you try a real busker instead. It costs less, is more fun, and doesn’t go on for 119 minutes without an intermission.

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The Physicists / godeatgod / The Vagina Monologues

I just realized I’ve seen 3 plays in the past 3 weeks but written nothing about them.

  • The Physicists (Friedrich Durrenmatt) (luna-id production at DBS Arts Centre): I’m a little tired of Cold War “our knowledge will be the death of us because we can’t be trusted to use it properly” themes by now, but that isn’t Durrenmatt’s fault. Anyway, I still enjoyed The Physicists for the most part. I found the directing especially clever in the little sequences which began and ended each act, where the cast ran around madly under strobe lighting (to produce that “frozen with each flash” effect that I’m still not tired of), banged random implements around Stomp-style, and lit matchsticks in rapid syncopation at various points on the darkened stage to simulate a chase through tunnels, all to music that sounded like Autechre. Acting was generally competent enough, but there was a rather stark divide in quality between the local actors and the Caucasian actors – the latter brought a presence, a range, and frankly, a “not sounding fake while talking”ness to their roles which the local actors weren’t able to.

  • godeatgod (Haresh Sharma) (The Necessary Stage, Marine Parade CC): I don’t doubt that this play’s attempt to grapple with serious questions that everyone should think about is sincere and heartfelt. However, its failure to ask those questions in terms any more complex than a mediocre GP essay¹ meant that it was unable to sustain my attention for very long. In a worrying continuation of themes from the previous play, the only actors here who didn’t irritate me were the foreign ones, Rody Vera from the Philippines, and Eriko Wada from Japan.

  • The Vagina Monologues (Eve Ensler) (New Voice Company, The Arts House): Okay, this rocked much more than I’d expected it to. It didn’t equate celebrating vaginas to scenting the room with patchouli as you enjoy your Rampant Rabbit, although that “If your vagina wore clothes, what would it wear?” question did rather make me cringe. In general, though, it was well-written, entertaining without hamming it up too much, and all three women (Nora Samosir, Anita Kapoor, Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) pulled off their respective roles with panache. The audience was also pleasantly responsive when urged to yell “CUNT!” (We wondered later whether, in the Chinese adaptation of the play staged here earlier this year, people were asked to yell “CHEE BYE!”, and whether they obliged.)

¹ GP stands for General Paper, a component of the A’level exams in Singapore which requires argumentative essay-writing.

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For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again (Victoria Theatre, Singapore)

I’d been meaning to go watch a Wild Rice Theatre production for ages, but stuff like Masters exams, extreme stress, lack of money, and not being in the country kept getting in the way. After watching For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again last night, I now realize those were all lousy excuses.

In a world full of tributes to mothers, this one still touched me to the core. Neo Swee Lin was made for her role, and is unsurprisingly magnificent in it. To say too much about the ending would ruin it for you, but it is beautiful and hilarious and absolutely perfect for the play.

It has been a very long time since a piece of theatre grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and reminded me that despite the very best that cinema has to offer, despite theatre ticket prices many times more expensive than movie tickets (even including popcorn), there are still some ideas only theatre can convey, and some stories only theatre can tell. This was one of them. If you are in Singapore, you have till Sunday the 29th to see it, and you really really must.

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Private Parts (Esplanade Theatre, Singapore)

On Sunday I paid $45 to experience Michael Chiang’s flaccid Private Parts. I can safely say I have never felt so violated by transsexuals in my life.

The play’s biggest problem for me was that it was dreadfully paced. Starting the play with a drag/strip routine, good. Following this with a talk show scene where a housewife makes the same point about protecting the morality of society what feels like ten million times, each time as boring as the last, not good. Later on, when Mirabella was having her big long EMOTE! moment on the talk show, I sensed that this was the point where I was meant to be deeply moved by the loneliness and isolation of many transsexuals, suddenly realizing that this emotional hardship comes not just from without, but also from within. Unfortunately, I was more concerned with my own emotional hardship from being within the Esplanade Theatre watching this play when I was longing to be without.

Except for the actor who played Lavinia, the acting was mostly reminiscent of mediocre school plays. To call Jamie Yeo’s character one-dimensional would be crediting her with too much depth. The rest were insipid at best (Warren), and downright annoying at worst (Edward, Nurse Azman, the editor of the talk show).

When all else fails in a play involving sexuality, at least you can sometimes still glean some entertainment from the knob gags. Unfortunately not here. I like knob gags as much as the next Philistine, but not when I can see the joke coming 5 minutes beforehand.

I sat there twiddling my thumbs and stifling my sighs, and remembered a magical evening in London at an original practices production of Richard II, where a man in funny clothes (Richard) kissed another man in funny clothes (his Queen) and I was nearly moved to tears by the pathos of their goodbye.

On the Esplanade stage, I vaguely sensed important things were happening, and the play was probably near its end. Warren the talk-show host was being outed by his friends, the transsexuals, as having had to reconstruct his penis after a bizarre golf club accident. Mirabella was revealing her love for him and asking if he could ever love her back. I suppressed the urge to scream “Of course not, you whiny old bint!”, lay back, and thought of England.

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