>mines by agni kootthu

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 22 jun 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation
>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.


MINES writer-director Elangovan believes that art "should conscientise, confront and question accepted societal stereotypes of vision, perception, feeling and judgement to examine reality as a historical and social process". And there is no question as to MINES' achieving this. Long into the night and the next morning, my friend and I were still tearing away at the issues explored in the script - race, military defence, land rights, water agreements. It made us ask ourselves how much we really knew about the world around us and, more importantly, made us face the realisation that we cannot keep saying that these are faraway things for other people to settle in other places.

War, for example, is not simply an article in Newsweek. It is a part of my life too, no matter how much I choose not to see it that way. And maybe I should stop trying not to. Or have I forgotten that landmines and chemical warfare are certainly a very real part of my life as an NSman? We may not want to see it that way when we go through the drills during in-camp training but there it is. As the play itself says, we need to remember that war is not just about ammunition, it is about people - and not just People with a capital P like, "real, everyday People somewhere out there," but people as in you and me.

>>'Those who expect MINES to be all angry soap-boxing and banner-waving, will find here a story with relatively strong, well-fleshed out characters'

Watching MINES was, in many ways, like watching a documentary; I was being educated about things I did not know much about (shame on me). But NAC and PELU - which again showed their lack of support for Agni Kootthu's work in rating, funding and permit matters - need not worry. Contentious issues may have been raised but this was not an exercise in brainwashing (the R(A)18 rating, however, is probably valid for the disturbingly graphic accounts of the horrors of war in the last third of the play). In fact, it was the very opposite.

The play undermined itself at many points so you were never entirely sure which facts were true and which were not. The two enemy soldiers (played by Max Ling and Faizal) argue and counter-argue with accelerating ferocity but with each drawing on such a plethora of facts that you cannot help but be sceptical about some of them. And then a third soldier appears and he declares who has been speaking the truth about his country and who hasn't … but then you later learn he's not exactly an entirely neutral or trustworthy character either.

So whom do you trust? That's the point. None of them. You go away and you decide for yourself, based on your own research, reflection and reading. And that, for me, is the "conscientisation" that Elangovan is preaching. We are not meant to just sit there and absorb his words; he is firing us up to ask questions and take the trouble to know about the world around us, to sort out the lies, half-truths and truths we are fed, by him as much as by everyone else. We are being prodded to seek truth; we should not expect to be given it: in short, we should forget we are Singaporeans.

Even moving away from the politics of the piece into the theatrics, there was still much to appreciate. Those who expect MINES to be all angry soap-boxing and banner-waving, will find here a story with relatively strong, well-fleshed out characters. The premise of the play is that two soldiers from different enemy lines have both accidentally activated landmines and therefore now cannot move way lest the mines explode. Simple and perhaps not entirely original but it works, setting up nicely not only a sustained war of words but an uncontrived opportunity to delve into each soldier's back story. And it is to the credit of the dialogue that the two hours flew by, even without an interval - I liked the crude realism of the dialogue, the many flashes of humour and the set-pieces like the soldiers being desperate for a smoke though, tragically, one has the only lighter and the other the last cigarette. A special mention must also be made of the staging and lighting which captured the claustrophobia beautifully with the lights simply focused on a circular patch of dead leaves in the centre of the stage where all the (verbal) action took place.

Having said that, a major weakness of the play was the acting, with the exception of Ahamed Ali Khan, although even he gave a pretty much one-note performance. I know it is a very difficult thing that they had to do, each man having to sustain the play under the weight of great limitations, but Ling, in particular, delivered a rather stiff and nervous performance and often lacked the ability to pull off the rhetoric without it appearing simply as that. Faizal fared a bit more successfully, with a softer performance and came across more accessible and genuine but even he slipped into Sandiwara melodrama at points. Mind you, both are relative newcomers to the local theatre scene, being either a current student at LASALLE or a recent graduand and I'm sure the experience of MINES will hold them in good stead for the future.