>CLOSER by Fiction Farm

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 12 mar 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: suntec city auditorium
>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.
 

>>>>>UP CLOSE BUT NOT PERSONAL

Let me say right from the start that if I had to choose the top 3 plays I've seen in the last 5 years, the original production of the award winning CLOSER that I saw in London a couple of years ago would definitely be in the list.

A bleak four-character examination of the laws of erotic attraction, the play is set in London during the 1990s, and deals with the erotic conquests and their immediate gratification between Alice, a young striptease artiste, Larry a dermatologist, Anna, a photographer and Dan, a failed novelist reduced to writing obituaries. They all move in and out of each other's lives with a regularity that belies their compulsive, almost obsessive, need to satisfy their sexual urges.

CLOSER begins with Alice sitting in an emergency room, after being hit by a taxi, she has been brought to the hospital by Dan who in turns embarks on an affair with Alice, who in the end breaks the heart of Larry. As their relationships become more complex and intertwined, as they start switching partners in a sexual quadrangle, the characters start becoming more frustrated, more manipulative and manipulated. It is in this way that writer, Marber, manages to zoom in on the anatomy of desire and the pathology of adultery.

Yes, some of the ideas about male-female relationships have been used ad nauseam and are not terribly original, but in the hands of Patrick Marber, love is stripped with disturbing honesty to its bare bones - its self-deception, its essential loneliness, and its arbitrariness. This is done through crude, unsubtle and stark dialogue, which is painful not only because of its callous brevity, but also because of its razor sharpness. In his hands, truth with each thrust becomes almost too painful to bear. Like when Dan discovers that Alice just had a "mercy fuck" with her ex-husband Larry, he demands to know all its explicit details: "Is he good fuck?" "Did you enjoy it?" "Did you come?" And Dan does it not only to know the "truth" but it is also becomes for him a form of perverse pleasure.

The banter, the repartee, the one-liners, the retorts, the rejoinders - all of these soon become insistently hypnotic, as the line between having the conscience to do right and giving into temptation to do wrong is twisted and redrawn again and again. And because of this constant shift, underneath the cynical bitterness that each character wears proudly like a badge burns an exhilarating mix of rage and impotence.

>>'Direction was at times clumsy and lacked the necessary pace that would have made the performance a tense and almost incendiary affair'

All of this is framed by a meticulous sense of formal beauty - as seen in the elegant structure, where as Marber describes it, "The underlying plan is that you see the first and last meeting of every couple in the play." Yet when the rage and pain bubbling beneath the cool characters manage to escape in tiny yet resounding disruptions, these little yet ground-shaking emotional earthquakes threaten to overpower the form that contains them - and they often do. This lends a powerful primal quality to the play that leads to a lacerating piece of theatre, a theatrical scorching that results in catharsis experienced by the audience.

And it is this that is sorely lacking in Fictions Farm's production of CLOSER. Like its production of David Hare's 'The Blue Room' last year, this for the most part was a strangely clinical, almost sterile and quite ponderous affair. (Though it has to be said unlike CLOSER, 'The Blue Room' has an irritating tendency to fall into the land of the emotionally dull ever so often).

This was on a large part due to the lack of tension or friction between the actors. Despite certain explosive scenes between Tan Kheng Hua as Anna and Gerald Chew as Larry, there was some impenetrable distance between the characters - be it with Nadya Hutagalung as Alice or Nicolas Lee as Dan - such that they didn't seem to get under each other's skin as they should have. What you got instead were mannered performances of characters who appeared to say the most obvious of things. You understand what the play is trying to get at, you recognise the various situations as those you might have been in before. But you never get to feel the burns of the agony or the anguish of these characters, because you feel that these characters portrayed in this production are not able to grievously hurt each other at all. The things that were missing were emotional fissures and cracks that would have allowed passion or emotional intensity to break through the various posturing of the characters. And this was not helped by the awkward British accents that the whole cast had to take on for the highly specific context of the play.

Gerald Chew gave the most convincing performance of the evening with his astute portrayal of the charming yet cruel Larry. Tan Kheng Hua was reliably radiant in her role as Anna, which proved to be somewhat her undoing, as Anna is a woman who, unable to rise above the sleazy experiences that surround her, is haunted by the need to love and is not one who is redeemed by this very need, as portrayed by Tan. Nadya Hutagalung was able to give an adept performance as the touchingly vulnerable Alice, though was too refined to be able to portray Alice as a tough, often crazy character, who mind you, pissed on the floor so as to attract her lover's attention. Meanwhile Nicholas Lee was merely competent as the immature Dan.

Direction was at times clumsy and lacked the necessary pace that would have made the performance a tense and almost incendiary affair. This was also due to the slow scene changes that instead of being breathing spaces for the audience after each explosive scene, dragged the pace of the play. Meanwhile the set, with its multiple frames hung around the stage was adequate in suggesting the passion and emotions of the characters boxed in by the rigid structure, as well as the settings for the various scenes, be they a memorial park wall, or a museum.

It is very telling that the best part of the evening was when the characters didn't speak to each other face to face but through the Internet. The concept of having anonymous sex with strangers took on a new meaning in a sinister yet hilarious scene when Larry and Dan met and had 'sex' in an Internet chat room called London.Fuck, with Dan pretending to be Anna. This witty exchange was projected on the screen for the voyeuristic audience, who could literally read the orgasm experienced by Dan.

In the end, Fiction Farm's CLOSER was an emotional vacuum, which like a museum or exhibition piece displayed behind a glass cover, would allow you only to come so close to the exhibits.