>THE EASTERN LINE ON MY PAlM by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 28 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the toy factory theatrette
>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.


Travelling to India in search of enlightenment, which probably began with 'Journey To The West', is a trend continued today by thousands of American tourists with stick-on bindi. In THE EASTERN LINE ON MY PALM, Goh Boon Teck shows that Singaporeans too can be subject to the spurious idea of India as the homebase of spiritual awakening.

Anna, a twenty-seven year old Singaporean geothermist on the brink of marriage, is sent abruptly to India by her company. She is an armchair tourist who watches 'Lonely Planet' on cable TV and dreams of greener pastures, but when she gets to India all she can do is complain about the condition of the sewers, and that "all the street signs are in Hindi".

She is impervious to cultural differences, chafing at being refused entry to religious sites and insisting that her pipeline cut across a sacred river. India to her is a checklist of place names and facts about Hinduism which fail to tell us what the country is actually like, and perhaps reflect that fact that the playwright has never set foot in it.

>>'In a particularly bizarre scene all four women repeatedly shout "I'm Anna" in a way that recalls the climax of 'Spartacus''

Anna's project is cancelled, and plane schedules force her to wander aimlessly around India for a few days. She meets a variety of stock characters: the young housewife with five children and no sanitation, the wise child who is in touch with nature and his self (whereas she is repressed), the Dutch backpacker in his seventh month of revving his motorbike around the country. Through these encounters, we are meant to see, she comes to understand and then embrace an alternative way of life.

The trouble is that Anna remains stubbornly insular. She marvels at the simplicity of Indian lives but does not confront the fact that this is the result of extreme poverty. The world outside Singapore is still, to her, intriguing but ultimately too messy. Even at the end, when she announces, "I live in a big world and I want to live it big," her images of foreign lands are a series of picture postcards: Italian galleries, English pubs, Red Square, the pyramids.

Anna is portrayed for much of the play by the very watchable Janice Koh, but her performance is diluted by the three other actresses who take turns to become Anna, for reasons that are never made clear. In a particularly bizarre scene all four women repeatedly shout "I'm Anna" in a way that recalls the climax of 'Spartacus'.

The cast play the people Anna meets in her travels with mixed results. The Indian accents are palpably false, adding insult to the injury in such lines as "this be the most holy way". Vel Ng's portrayal of Nicholas-from-Holland is completely unconvincing, demonstrating that neither she nor the director has taken the trouble to create imaginatively any of the non-Singaporean characters.

The Toy Factory theatrette has been transformed into a network of wooden scaffolding and platforms, amidst which the actresses move freely. They are all talented physical performers and make excellent use of the space, but often their movements have no bearing on the text and appear to be there simply to indulge the director's taste for elaborate choreography. There is a pit in the centre of the space filled with rice grains which one or more of them will, from time to time, enter and play with for no apparent reason.

Where the production succeeds is in its creation of atmosphere. Chee Bing's lighting design, which includes a magically convincing sunrise, deserves much of the credit for this. It is let down by the insubstantial script, which is as limited in its way as Anna herself. It acknowledges the existence of other modes of existence but cannot adequately convey them.

Anna experiences not enlightenment but a holiday from reality - at the end of her trip she returns to Singapore, marriage, her well-paid job and a newly-renovated HDB flat. There is no sense that she is materially different even though her experience is presented as being an epiphany; and for all the hype about the spiritual aspects of this play, we the audience remain similarly unmoved.