>the island by the theatre practice

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 3 may 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the warehouse, havelock road
>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.


The performance space which we step into is a sombre, leaden one; the atmosphere almost overcast and oppressive. There are the layers and layers of (forgotten) history in this disused warehouse and ex-disco; the fans (not air-conditioning) stir up the fetid night air and the stage is small and bare save for iron bars, concrete and sand.

It is not an easy space for the audience to enter into, much less exist within, but it is the actors' ability to exist and express themselves within these confines that we are here to watch. This is especially so when the play is THE ISLAND, a play devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona during the turbulent times of South African apartheid, which underscores the injustices of the era. The gravity of the play also extends to the heavy realism that the performance employs, where even the sounds are produced in situ and not recorded.

THE ISLAND, here performed in Mandarin, tells of two political prisoners John (Nelson Chia) & Winston (Alvin Chiam) - victims of South Africa's apartheid rule - who were banished to the prison on the isolated Robben Island, an island for exiled political convicts, where Mr. Nelson Mandela spent 22 years. Winston has been sentenced to life imprisonment whilst John is serving a 10-year term. To keep them going, John moots the enactment of the play, 'Antigone'. In an unexpected twist, John's appeal is rewarded with parole, freeing him in 3 months. Their friendship, borne of their time & experiences together in incarceration, is now put to the test.

Almost thirty years since its first performance in 1973, this landmark play is still considered one of the touchstones of political theatre. However, its relevance outlives its socio-political context. The resilience and generosity of the human spirit which it plumbs, the power and necessity of Art for human survival which it displays and the tyranny of unjust institutions which it exposes, all form the body of THE ISLAND's legacy.

>>'There are the layers and layers of (forgotten) history in this disused warehouse and ex-disco; the fans stir up the fetid night air and the stage is small and bare save for iron bars, concrete and sand.'

The last of these is perhaps dealt with most strongly in the opening scene. It has just the two actors miming the digging and shifting of sand with imaginary wheelbarrows and shovels in a grotesque play of futile, repetitive and interminable labour. Each fills a wheelbarrow and then with great effort pushes it to where the other is digging and empties it, resulting in never diminishing piles of sand. The entire activity is wordless: there is only the spectacle of their stark, sweaty, imagined physical labour. The end-effect is absurd but the unapologetic actuality of their work wins our respect. The lightness of this imagined space and activity is counteracted by the charged weight and tedious monotony of their labour, with only the modulating rhythms of their breathing, hissing and motions providing the undulations. The youth of these actors looks to be slipping through their fingers, not through backbreaking work but through meaningless tasks, pushing Nietzsche's infinite recurrence ad nauseum.

I would have liked the sequence to be longer than its fifteen or so minutes (in fact I would have liked the director to take more time with the other scenes of the play to show and settle into the subtle shifts of mood instead of bulldozing them into an undifferentiated flow). It was not played out long enough to get under our skin, which then did not allow the prolonged silence to provoke discomfort. If the effect was to have the actors not act the situation but to be living it themselves, the performance certainly did not give the labour time enough to wear into the sinews of the actors nor for it to wear thin the audience's patience. Nonetheless, director Wu Xi's semi-concentric arrangement of the set and the audience seating had a strange Foucauldian panoptic effect in reverse. Whilst the setting of the prison-stage in the middle of audience, separated by the moat of sand and free space, reinforced the isolation of the island-prison marooned offshore, the surveillance gaze (towards the audience) was cast more effectively from the prisoners' point of view. The tension between the two worlds was set up and specular judgement was rendered more indeterminately poised.

However, because the play is anchored around the lived experiences of John and Winston, and its staging mostly unaestheticised, much of the performance's efficacy really lies in the quality of the dynamics between the two actors. Although lacking the maturity that age will endow, Chiam and Chia convey their emotional roller coasters - their camaraderie, mutual fondness and frustrations - competently, and both possess close awareness of and comfort with each other. Their physical humour and teasing work to lighten the psychological anguish and cruel hard labour that they are subjected to. The two are not construed heroically, but with a certain sense of fallible grace. Individually, Chiam (who has the more rugged edge) is perhaps the more outstanding of the two, giving a nuanced and honest portrayal of Winston as he flits between bouts of despair and jealousy, anger and resignation. His exchange with John after learning of his early release pushes the play to a climax. Chiam steers Winston from a frenzy of exhilarating expectations and hopes into envy, doubt and agony, all the while displacing Winston's pain onto John, who disbelieves his own imminent freedom. Winston baulks at being emasculated through the playing of Antigone, but his own convictions about doing what is honourable and right fit squarely with Antigone's. I would have, however, preferred Winston/Chiam not to speak in a falsetto but use his own voice when playing Antigone as he is speaking in his own capacity as much as he is playing a role.

Chia, on the other hand, gives John (someone who has been imprisoned for almost three years) a tad too much buoyancy and makes him a little over-mannered for my liking. His John pushes through his answers much too cleanly and glibly and his emotional acuities appear too well rehearsed to let in fragility, especially when he needs to convince us of his anxieties about his early release. Where Chiam's speech on old Harry turning stone-like literally moved me to tears, I found myself distrusting John. He seemed to have difficulty giving John the levity of a joie de vivre just short of flippancy. As King Creon, Chia flattened out the inherent irony of his opening speech on the role of the king as servant of the people, especially when it is a pointed jibe at the establishment for whom the prisoners are performing.

Unlike other reviewers I might mention, I do not believe that the lack of a direct, immediate context for us Singaporeans need necessarily diminish the power of the play. We can still appreciate the play as a forceful reminder to us forgetful citizens who may have forgotten about the truth of freedom because we have gotten too comfortable and have taken our civil liberties for granted. Indeed, the play finds itself focusing on remembrance, recollection and memories. On another level, we can recognise the compelling psychological and physiological need for human contact and conviviality to the extent that most of us dislike even eating alone. Finally, as a masterful piece of art and theatre, it is self-reflexive (with various layers of viewing as a play within a play) about its own status and effects as art and how human life is conditioned by art. Yet at the same time it admits that theatrical power is merely the harnessing of the full scope of humanity and imagination that is already latent and present in mankind.

Should future performances rise to all the possibilities engendered by the play, there will be a pot of gold at the end of every island.