>cloud nine by drama box

>reviewed by fong liling

>date: 20 mar 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: theatre studio, esplanade
>rating: ****

>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.


It was one long journey to get to the end. But an extremely liberating and amusing one at that.

CLOUD NINE was based on the same-titled play by prolific feminist playwright, Caryl Churchill (who also wrote the recently staged 'Top Girls'). Translated by local playwright Quah Sy Ren into Mandarin and further adapted by Kok Heng Luen (who also directed this piece), Drama Box's version of this highly satirical piece follows the award-winning original closely, up to its songs. Basically, the production was a direct translation of the initial piece, only different in the setting.

Gordon Tay plays Wang Zhiyuan, a patriarch of a well-to-do Chinese family displaced in colonial Singapore. In fulfilling the demands of his British master, he oppresses his own household and the natives while struggling to stay connected to his ancestral roots. He imposes on his family his ideals and values in order that they keep up appearances - He tells his wife, Yumei (Danny Yeo, 'Fugitives'), how she should behave as a woman, he tells his son, Yongqing, (Li Xie, 'White Songs') how to behave as a man, and even his Malay manservant, Ahmad (Ng Wei Min), how to be a Chinese. His daughter, Huiqing, is merely a stuffed doll he throws around, signifying how girls at the time were not respected or taken seriously. Tay's speech was immaculate, and his portrayal of a strict, no-nonsense head of the family was striking. He possessed a great amount of stage presence playing the man of the family; his movements always sharp and clear.

>>'After a while, you stop feeling embarrassed about what they are doing onstage and get swept away by it!'

The depiction of cross-gender, as well as cross-racial, roles was rather intriguing. Yumei is "in" a man's body because she wants to be what men want her to be. Yongqing is a girl who dresses as a boy, because his father wants him to grow up to be a man. It would then be right to say that Zhiyuan represents the society's norms and stereotypes of how a gender should behave. But Ahmad's case is slightly different. A Chinese plays him because he wants himself to be Chinese. This brings in racial issues of the time, of how the British want the Chinese to take charge and control the Malays, and how Ahmad desperately proves his loyalty to his master while turning his back on his people so as to attain a higher status than them.

As Act One unfolds, the audience slowly realizes that the supposed boundaries of sexuality are getting hazy. Zhiyuan, who appears to be an all righteous man, has an affair with the widowed Mrs Situ (Jean Ng, 'Squeeze And Squeezability'). Zhang Liguo (Ray Lee), Zhiyuan's good friend and an eligible bachelor, really prefers men. He has been briefly involved with Yongqing, is sought after by Yumei, and engages in some hanky-panky with Ahmad while in the Wang residence. Xiao Cui confesses her love for her mistress. These lustful and bizarre relationships are revealed promptly, one after another, leaving the audience with no time to stop and think about what they have just seen. The images and dialogue of how this oppressed family strives to keep up with appearances are fiercely comical and instructive. They keep bombarding you to the extent that after a while, you stop feeling embarrassed about what they are doing onstage and get swept away by it.

Act Two takes place one hundred years later in modern Singapore, but with the characters only aging twenty-five years. Here, all the actors have to take on a completely separate role in Act Two from the one he/she played in Act One. By this time, they have started to claim their identities and are trying to come to terms with themselves and one another eventually to embrace sexual freedom.

Danny Yeo and Li Xie exchange roles, in a beautiful transition where Li hands Yeo the doll that Yongqing used to play with and Yeo puts on for Li the necklace Yongqing was 'safekeeping' for his mother in the previous act. Here, new characters like Yongqing's lover, Gerry (Ng Wei Min, Ahmad), Yongqing's younger sister, Huiqing (Low Kah Wei, Yumei's mother), Huiqing's husband, Martin (Ray Lee, Zhang Liguo), and Lin (Jean Ng, Mrs Situ/Xiao Cui), Huiqing's lover, are introduced. The characters' relationships are as interwoven as in the previous act, while the language is definitely more straightforward. Playwright Quah Sy Ren actually kept a considerable amount of Churchill's original dialogue in this translated version which also included Hokkien and Teochew - not forgetting the expletives. Indeed, the dialect did add a local touch and a different comic element to the play, but the English bits and certain direct translations sounded a tad unnatural and exaggerated at times. It made me wonder if Singaporeans today really talk about their sexual experiences so openly? And where does the playwright draw the line when translating texts?

While Act One was all clear, straight lines with a yellow flag imprinted with a dragon in the middle of a British flag, Act Two was a complete contrast. It was set in a park, and the sides of the stage were covered with dried leaves that looked yellow in the light, a la 'Hero'. This act was also slightly more light-hearted due to its language. Hearing the actors spout vulgarities as if it was second nature was definitely what drew the audience closer to the characters. Jean Ng and Gordon Tay (who played Peipei, Lin's daughter, and a soldier) both put in a commendable effort. In fact, both their performances in this act were the most memorable. The tall and lanky Tay played a little girl like a natural - his short monologue in Teochew when he was a soldier brought the house down even though I only caught the gist of it, and Ng was just purely funny. The actors generally did well, except for the orgy scene involving Yongqing, Huiqing, Lin and Martin. Other than Ng, the rest of the actors looked as if they were under torture. Oh well. I understand scenes like that ain't a piece of cake.

The production was a success primarily due to the fact that a good script was chosen. Churchill's well-crafted piece was already entertaining and purposeful in itself, dealing with issues of gender politics, social roles and identity. In the midst of exploring these issues, a big orgasmic mess is created, leaving the audience weak with laughter. I am sure all who went to watch CLOUD NINE found their imaginations unlocked and their minds set free. Then again, are we laughing (blindly) at what we see onstage because we ourselves are somewhat like the characters, oppressed? Or are we so taken aback by their behaviour we do not know how to react except by laughing?

Fong Li Ling is an Inkpot Student Writer. She is currently a Theatre Studies student at Victoria Junior College.