>red by singapore repertory theatre

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 22 jun 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the srt theatre
>rating: ***

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

ook, 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.


Many column inches have recently been devoted to the intricacies of the SRT's contribution to the Arts Fest, RED. In case we missed these, the programme lets us know what we are in for, with a cheerful disregard for grammar: 'The play leave audiences with an understanding of the power of art.'

Ah, does it then? Not at first glance. The main plotline, set in the Cultural Revolution, is filtered through the consciousness of an American writer, Sonja Wong Pickford. Not shy of exploiting her Chinese roots, Pickford produces romances with such titles as 'Love of the Jade Pagoda'. Her ethnicised slush (she is proud, she says, to be "the Asian Danielle Steele") sounds mass-produced and pulpy, more Amy Tan than Maxine Hong Kingston.

>>'"There are
not buts in art"; a
little less of this insistence on the absolute might
have benefited the

While visiting Shanghai in an effort to discover her roots, Pickford becomes involved, in a way that is only explained much later, with the tribulations of an opera star in the mid 1960s. Master Hua, famous for his portrayal of women on the Chinese stage, is being tortured by the Red Guard for practicing a reactionary art form.

The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, as presented in this play, is the art that was destroyed. Books are burnt on stage, and the "loss of the wealthy legacy of our accomplishments" is repeatedly lamented. Starving farmers are mentioned only in passing, and even then, to Master Hua, are of interest only as an audience.

Despite scenes showing Hua rehearsing with his apprentice, Ling, and a
generic soundtrack, we have no clear sense of this artform that Hua
apparently feels is worth dying for. It does not help that we take narration from Pickford, who lacks both cultural and historical awareness, and gives Mao Zedong roughly the same cachet as Oprah Winfrey.

Pickford is, in any case, superfluous to most of the action. Her character is only brought into play in the last fifteen minutes of the play, far too late, wasting a fine actor in Emily Kuroda. For the most part she is reduced to watching Hua and Ling silently from the side of the stage, or asking them questions in a manner that suggests she missed her true calling and should be hosting a talk show, not writing books.

RED confusedly tries to talk about both the alienating experience of living in an immigrant society, and the plight of artists during the Cultural Revolution. Both are interesting topics, but neither is fully explored - it is never explained just what it is in Hua's work that the Red Guard object to so much. Meanwhile Pickford's pseudo-ethnic novels ("I could give them Iowa and they'd believe me") are lapped up by an Asian-American community desperate for identity, but we are given little sense of what this community is like. Further muddying the waters, the issue of gender identity in the form of Hua's cross-dressing flits across the stage but is never discussed.

These novels, did they exist, would probably resemble Chay Yew's script. He has Pickford talk about "mei hua blossoms", which is a bit like referring to 'Jalan Sultan Road'. The script is peppered with monologues, all overwritten, about such subjects as Master Hua's difficult childhood - his father is, of course, "a poor day-labourer" with "rough, chapped hands" and "breath stinking of cheap wine".

More problematic is the schematic nature of the action. Scenes of Hua berating Ling during rehearsal are echoed when Ling joins the Red Guard and tortures Hua as a counter-revolutionary. Hua dies in exactly the same manner as his putative gay lover. Ling and Hua are given, in several instances, the same lines to say. But there is too much of all this, and what was probably meant to set up resonances merely becomes repetitive.

RED is a play without a heart, and the SRT's slick production cannot hide this. It tries to explore the workings of culture both through the Red Guards wanton destruction of it, and Pickford's debasement of it in her nakedly commercial work, but fails to do generate any meaningful conclusions. Hua repeatedly insists that "there are not buts in art"; a little less of this insistence on the absolute might have benefited the play.