>CITY OF DREAMS by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 18 mar 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the necessary stage black box
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>history that draws you in

One of the things that my mum and I used to argue about and still do is the state of my room. She believes that anything that does not serve a functional purpose should be kept hidden in drawers or in cupboards. I, on the other hand, maintain that these things that clutter up my room are the paraphernalia of my life, my memories, my hopes and my dreams, the physical things from the past that have defined me and have been defined by me. As such their significance should not be kept out of sight lest they are forgotten.

In CITY OF DREAMS, a piece of performance art that involves live artwork, things that are slowly put on display to be shown to the audience have a similar significance, but on a far greater scale. They are literally the historical, colonial and cultural baggage of Singapore, its memories, its past hopes and its future dreams.

CITY OF DREAMS was originated by Peter Reder of The Sycamore Works in UK and is highly city specific. Performed in London and Germany, the production celebrates the sense of place by tracing the evolution of a city from its earliest settlements to the present day. For its Singapore production, Peter Reder has collaborated with The Necessary Stage and members of the LASALLE-SIA School of Drama and School of Music. And their decision to stage it in the new residence of The Necessary Stage at the Marine Parade Community Complex that is still undergoing its final touches and proper furnishing before its official opening, perhaps suggests the attempt to locate the performance - a performance that depicts change in its essential inevitability - in a place that is still in a state of transition.

The outline of Singapore -including that of Sentosa and Pulau Ubin - was initially drawn out using white sand, amidst the darkness of the black box and under surreal blue lighting. Twigs were then used to trace the Singapore River while leaves were scattered to suggest the dense forests of the past. Meanwhile, candles were lighted to depict the various settlements around the island.

>>'The whole performance was permeated with a sense of spiritual, almost otherworldly beauty'

As the population of Singapore grew, so more candles were lighted and the actors slowly started to tell their own memories and family stories by displaying various items taken out from boxes and bags. These were the artifacts of the days gone by, the memorabilia from the past: old and yellowed photographs, 7-Up glass bottles, miniature kelongs, traditional Malay/Javanese dresses, old progress report card from a P.A. kindergarten, teddy bears - the list goes on and on. But this display was not a random act, but a deliberate attempt by each member of the cast to tell the stories of their ancestors, their relatives, themselves, or of the life-stories of those who had their roots in Singapore. Each little exhibit of the items taken from a particular box was the physical representation of a person's life, a life that had or has been spent in Singapore.

It must be said that this was definitely not like a history exhibition, dry and un-engaging, but this was history at its most interesting, absorbing and revelatory. This was a revival of our past in the most tangible and exciting of ways. In fact, one was invited to roam and take a closer look among the items on display after the end of the performance; meanwhile, the cast was at hand to answer any question - after all they were the ones who had done the research, interviewed their relatives and had asked their parents for things that have been kept hidden all these years and therefore knew the stories behind each artifact.

You might think that these things might be too personal (to the owners) and too general (for us) to take on any real meaning, but amidst the glow of the numerous candles, the items began to take on an added significance. As one wandered among these items, half remembered, half forgotten memories were triggered of one's past, of the lives of older relatives passed down through stories from generation to generation, of the lives of one's ancestors as told in history lessons. And because of this, there was a sense of connection amongst the cast and the audience, as mediated through the objects - that we all share a similar past, that we are all from a common historical landscape. Perhaps, it might even be said that these items on display were the literal manifestations of our collective unconscious.

But the whole performance was not only visual - it was a sonic journey through the history of Singapore as well. Throughout the whole performance, a brilliant pastiche of songs and sounds filled the performance space. The sounds were seamlessly edited from one to another - from the constant lapping of the sea on the coast, to the Cantonese song of an old Chinese woman, to the remembrances of one who had served under the British, to the sirens of war and the bombings by the Japanese, to reminiscences of an old Malay man - and they made the whole experience richer and by far more intense and acute.

Moreover, the whole performance was permeated with a sense of spiritual, almost otherworldly beauty. This was revealed in many ways: the symbolic and dream-like movements of the cast that became almost ritualistic (as seen in the way the map was updated again and again because of land reclamation or the growth of the population), the way the cast displayed the items with a sense of reverence for the objects, the spiritual glow of the candles, the numerous glasses of a red liquid that were placed around the island near the end of the performance (which we were told were actually meant to represent the sea). But this was due largely to the fact that the atmosphere of the production was like that of a temple or a church, with the various exhibits that of a shrine or an altar. There was a constant sense of wonderment in the air, a sense of a divine presence, that made CITY OF DREAMS seem like a religious experience - and like our past, this experience was at once both shared and personal.

This experience reached its epiphany at the end of the performance, where the cast sat down in various parts of the "island" and, trance-like, started to speak, whisper, murmur, all at once. This was an explosion of babbling voices - some were telling the stories of themselves or of people who had lived in Singapore in different languages, while some were singing the song 'Yue Liang Tai Piao Wo De Xin' (literally translated as 'The Moon Represents my Heart') made famous by Theresa Teng, while others were singing the Malay song 'Di Tanjong Katong'. This was no shouting match, but a sea of voices that allowed each its turn to be heard and acknowledged, and that became insistently hypnotic and weirdly melodious.

It might be said that after the Tower of Babel, man was cursed to speak in a variety of languages and dialects, never to have a complete understanding of one another. But who needs a common language when people are able to share in a communal spirit, the same past, the same memories, the same hopes and the same dreams of a city, a country and ultimately a nation? And as the cast of CITY OF DREAMS sat within the island speaking in a variety of different languages, they were surrounded by the glasses of a red liquid that became more than simply the sea around Singapore - they became the common blood that flows through our veins.