>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 8 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>rating: ***1/2

>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.


Robin Loon's WATCHING THE CLOUDS GO BY is a laudable attempt to deal with the Cultural Revolution - a daunting subject to explore in any medium - within the framework of a stage play. Its wide canvas is a breath of fresh air amidst the navel-gazing, often claustrophobic topics that occupy so many Singaporean writers.

The story is narrated from a corner of the stage by elderly schoolteacher Zhu Wei Ling (a subtle, understated performance from Faith Liew). The younger Wei Ling (Serene Chen) is an idealistic student at Beijing University who, convinced that revolution is necessary, pursues her goals with a zeal that indirectly leads to the death of her lover, Guo Ping.

The first half of the play is a series of vignettes interspersing scenes of the revolution in progress with more intimate portraits of the conflicts within the group of four friends (including Wei Ling and Guo Ping) who model themselves upon the heroes of Chinese classic 'The Water Margin'. Confusingly, the four actors playing the friends also take on all other roles. Director Jeffrey Tan allows the short scenes to flow into each other, often without even a lighting change - a technique which might have worked in a film, but on stage looks jerky and disorienting.

Besides, it is reductive to try to represent an entire revolution through thirty-second scenes of self-criticism, denouncing relatives and the like. These may give us a quick resume of historical events, but have already beeen done to death. The atmosphere of the time is captured best not through these scenes but the stark image of the actors tramping noisily, unstoppably across the stage as the Red Guard.

>>'Jeffrey Tan does a credible job directing, pulling off difficult moments with alpomb'

As for the fallout of the revolution, we get a better idea of this from the personal glimpses of loss, often self-inflicted by brainwashed individuals. Most chilling of all is Wei Ling's stark pronouncement after witnessing the death of her "reactionary" grandmother: "I didn't cry for her because I didn't think she was worth it."

After the interval, the revolutionary red banners on stage have been replaced by the white of mourning. Wei Ling, devastated by the scale of the destruction her cherished ideals have brought about, has joined the counter-revolution. Loon convincingly portrays her flight from ideology to ideology, desperately seeking the system which will bring about Utopia.

Wei Ling is a Don Quixote for our time, constantly battling imaginary enemies, unwilling or unable to accept the insignificance of her actions and her inability to bring about lasting change. She flip flops from side to side, but there is little to choose between either group she joins - both sacrifice humanity to rhetoric.

As Wei Ling, Serene Chen turns in a compelling performance, capturing the mix of vulnerability and steel in the character. She is well-supported by Caleb Goh, persuasive both as party cadre and fascist student, and Josephine Chen, who brings an unexpected warmth and depth to the slender character of a prostitute. Leow Kwang Heng is less successful, in particular in his ham-fisted, inarticulate portrayal of Guo Ping, the student producer of a documentary "flim".

Jeffrey Tan does a credible job directing, pulling off difficult moments with alpomb, particularly the stage fight which culminates in Guo Ping's death. His blocking is questionable, though, especially his decision to have some of the action on the extreme sides of the stage, where half the audience cannot see it. And he has the actors declaim their lines straight out front, instead of to each other, far too often. Still, these are quibbles next to his major accomplishment of succesfully recreating the atmosphere of fear and senseless cruelty that characterised the cultural revolution.

The script itself is well-crafted and features some memorable images, but is ultimately flawed in its attempt to represent a broad historical sweep on stage. Loon's whistle-stop tour of the revolution is confusing to those unfamiliar with the period, and superfluous to those who are. This also leaves the personal segments of the plot desperately underwritten. The ending is a cop-out and over-explicit to boot, featuring the characters from Wei Ling's past confronting her and chanting, "You must remove us from you."

Leaving aside its faults, this production bravely tackles a difficult subject and resists the easy solution of blaming one or the other side, demonstrating instead that it is individuals, not parties, who are the ultimate casualties of ideology. With a tighter script, most assured direction, and perhaps a slightly larger cast, WATCHING THE CLOUDS GO BY would have the potential to be truly astounding.