>a right ritual by toy factory theatre ensemble
>reviewed jeremy samuel
25 aug 2001
The storyline is simple: the Liu family decides to wind up an inherited family business, a bakery, in the hundredth year of its existence, and the proceedings of the evening are a ritual conducted to mark the occasion, and appease their dead ancestors. The method of presentation is another matter.
with, the audience are transformed into members of the extended Liu family,
liable to be buttonholed in the manner of the wedding guest in 'The Ancient
Mariner'. The preoccupations of the main family members are revealed as
they take it in turns to harangue us with their problems (Second Sister-In-Law
is worried that her husband will allow his mistress to move into the ancestral
home; Eldest Brother has lost an arm in a biscuit-making accident).
>>'A particularly annoying touch comes when the actors, in turn, step out of character to enact 'personal rituals' which range from self-flagellation to minor acts of arson, then proceed to ask the audience how they feel as witnesses.'
Even more annoying is the constant movement - we are barely allowed to spend fifteen minutes in one location before being pulled to our feet and hauled up or down to another level of the three-storey shophouse. Each time thirty-odd people have to pick up their bags, move and settle down before the new segment can begin, which breaks the rhythm of the play. Several times there seems no point for the shift, apart from director Jonathan Lim's fondness for moving people around (see, for example, his 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead').
Four actors take it in turn to play different members of the family, a device familiar from 'Lao Jiu'. The cast is uniformly excellent - the only caveat being Caleb Goh's noticeable discomfort with the Chinese language -- and it is a testament to their versatility that they are able to inhabit each character completely despite the many role-changes.
family is dysfunctional hardly needs saying - there wouldn't be half as
much drama if it wasn't. Over and above the personal tragedies - particularly
that of Fourth Sister, sent to an asylum after attacking Eldest Sister-In-Law
with a chopper for separating her from her lesbian lover - comes the overwhelming
sense of the family being at an end. The ancestors, including the four
siblings' own parents, are barely mentioned, and the biscuit factory is
only of value to them in terms of its monetary worth.
In general, however, the play simply does not cohere. There are too many fragmented bits that add up to far less than the sum of their parts. A particularly annoying touch comes when the actors, in turn, step out of character to enact 'personal rituals' which range from self-flagellation to minor acts of arson, then proceed to ask the audience how they feel as witnesses. This is an obsessive dissection of an experience that can, after all, mean little to anyone except the participants themselves is irritating and pointless.
A lot of prudent editing would have saved the evening from descending into irrelevance and repetition. Two hours and twenty minutes without an interval is far too long, and many of the later scenes simply tell us things we already know. Allowing the actors to speak out of character fails to turn up any profound insights, but rather shows up how woolly their thinking is - Tang Wan Chin, for instance, tells us she believes that Taoism and Buddhism are 'quite mixed up'.
In the final
segment of the ritual - conducted by actual Taoist priest Ang Wen Zhong
- the family offers hell money to their ancestors, then encourages the
audience to join in. The evening ends memorably with us companionably
throwing notes onto the flames. Still, I couldn't help feeling the play
could have been significantly improved had the director been persuaded
to burn a large portion of the script as well.