of The Eunuch Admiral' was The Theatre Practice's landmark production,
'Off Centre', The Necessary Stage's, 'Beauty World', Theatreworks',' Titoudao',
Toy Factory's, then CLOUD NINE could possibly be Dramabox's signature
play. Directed by Kok Heng Leun and co-translated by Quah Sy Ren, CLOUD
NINE is Dramabox's Mandarin adaptation of feminist playwright Caryl Churchill's
audacious assault on gender, racial discrimination and social oppression.
Re-contextualised and weaved into Singapore's historical milieu, the play
spans from 19th century to the present time, confronting racial and sexual
repression with a gender-bent cast of characters who traverse 100 years
while aging only 25. As Churchill's plays always have been, the original
script of CLOUD NINE is an extremely challenging feat, not only in terms
of reader study but also of theatre performance in practice.
While Dramabox's rendition faithfully follows Churchill's original plot,
the production is still refreshingly incandescent of powerful and poignant
direction. An impressive leap from Kok's last two works, 'Fugitives' and
'White Songs', 3 ½ -hour long CLOUD NINE is a test of the audiences'
patience and the cast's versatility and stamina. Actors play at least
two different characters, cross-acting over gender, sexual and racial
borders, with Ray Lee as Zhang Liguo/ Martin, Li Xie as Wang Yongqing/
Lin Yumei, Low Kar Wai as Old Mdm Lin/Lin Huiqing, Jean Ng as Xiaocui/
Mrs. Situ/ Lin, Ng Wei Min as Ahmad/ Gerry, Gordon Tay as Wang Zhiyuan/
Peipei/ Soldier and Danny Yeo as Lin Yumei/ Wang Yongqing. The first act
depicts characters struggling to conform to society's rigid expectations
and stereotypes, with patriarch Zhiyuan terrorising all in the household
with his phallocentric oppression and vindictiveness. He subjugates his
good friend Liguo, a gay explorer and lesbian governess, Xiaocui into
marriage so that the former may be cured of his homosexuality. Even his
mother-in-law, Old Mdm Lin is subdued into taking orders from him. All
except Mrs. Situ, a widow staying as a guest at the Wang family, are paralysed
in a deep spell of overwhelming tyranny and helplessness. Mrs. Situ is
the only person who dares to defy Zhiyuan and stands tenaciously by her
principles (her name speaks for itself). Though a little compromised by
over-enunciated Mandarin, Jean Ng's cross-acting of Xiaocui and Mrs. Situ
radiates with excellent versatility and composure. It is also worth noting
in terms of its significance from a feminist reading: Whereas Mrs. Situ
scorns the patriarch's initial demands to wed her with Liguo, Xiaocui
is helplessly interpellated into the heterosexual institution of marriage
after her profession of love is rejected by her mistress, Yumei. This
dual-role-by-same-actress juxtaposition not only raises questions of female
role playing and subversion, but more importantly, it challenges social
constructs of gender and sexuality.
'Descendants of The Eunuch Admiral' was The Theatre Practice's landmark
production, 'Off Centre', The Necessary Stage's ... then CLOUD NINE could
possibly be Dramabox's signature play.'
With his immaculate hairdo and elaborately embroidered Chinese dress,
Danny Yeo holds his poise convincingly playing Yumei, the subservient
wife and damsel in distress who exasperatingly yearns of love from Liguo.
Yeo moves on to switch roles with Li Xie to play Yongqing, Yumei's gay
son in the second act. By this time, the characters have started to redefine
their identities and reclaim their rights as they endeavor to find themselves
in the changing sexuality and cultural norms of modern-day Singapore.
The lines in act two are slickly adapted into Singapore's multilingual
living environment. Low Kah Wai makes her comeback after a long break
from her last major production 'Invisibility' (Taipei) in 1997. Playing
Huiqing, the bisexual daughter, Low captivates the audience with her commanding
presence and delivery. Meanwhile, Jean Ng continues to rouse the audience
with her performance of a divorced butch and lowly-educated lesbian mother,
Lin, who unflinchingly professes her love for Huiqing. Contrast her actions,
or pro-activism, if you'd rather, with that of powerless Xiaocui and even
economically-independent woman, Mrs. Situ, who cannot resist the patriarch's
carnal pleasures and chases after him for more when tantalised with oral
Li Xie's acting is also praiseworthy, never failing to invite laughter
from the audience, as she sings her lines effortlessly with clear diction
and musicality as Yongqing in the first act and Yumei in the second act,
albeit her delivery being a little too punctuated and engineered at times.
Ironically, she could perfect her technique by being less conscious of
technique. As for Ray Lee who sounded awkward in Mandarin playing the
effeminate explorer in the first act, he pulled his part off with fluent
English in the second as the new-age, sensitive-to-women's-needs-and-feelings
husband. After shredding off the persona of an overbearing authoritarian,
Gordon Tay provides comic relief in times of rising tension between other
characters, by playing the menacing little girl, Peipei, with a mischievous
demeanour. It is uplifting to see how Kok's production has breathed new
meaning and dimension into the three women of Churchill's original Betty,
Lin, and Cathy.
Though written 24 years ago, the play is still refreshingly relevant with
themes that question the conventional role of the "domineering-husband"
and "passive-wife", even in a gay relationship, as well-represented
by the tumultuous love between Gerry and Yongqing respectively. Ng Wei
Min dishes out credible acting by playing Ahmad, an oppressed Malay servant
who fights back by gunning down his Chinese master in the first act. He
then turns oppressor by playing the domineering, adulterous, self-centred
Gerry. However, Gerry feels asphyxiated by submissive Yongqing's devotedness
to and unconditional love for him, causing him to dump the latter. This
however induces Yongqing's own emancipation as he seeks solace from his
sister. Empowerment of the characters is achieved when these rejects of
society live together with Huiqing's girlfriend, a lesbian single mum,
Lin, and the latter's unruly little daughter Peipei, thereby constructing
a totally new family order that essentially challenges heterosexual establishment.
While some may think that the play wraps on a satisfactory note with Li
Xie playing Yumei "coming to terms with herself" by embracing
her former self, played by Danny Yeo, I beg to differ. Though the Yumei
in act two is seemingly liberated with her newfound financial independence
and makes her first love advance to a guy who is unfortunately gay, her
intense loneliness and perpertual unease is telling of a woman's never-ending,
turbulent struggle with ghosts of the past and social norms for the rest
of her life.
The production is not without some minor faults though. Firstly, the Teochew
dialogue between Lin and her brother, a soldier, however pleasingly refreshing,
was a little too abrupt and poorly articulated. The set design successfully
created a colonial Southeast Asian ambience in the first act and crafted
a feeling of rawness and disorder of a city in the second. It could however
be improved with more subtlety by coming up with alternatives to the blatantly
monolithic yellow banner of a dragon and the palpably huge, halved British
Nevertheless, the play is excellent and provocatively entertaining with
a great script, directing, acting, costumes (both ancient and modern),
and lighting, evidently depicting improved production values overall.
Effectively evoking questions of gender, sexuality, morality and oppression,
Kok's CLOUD NINE is likely to be remembered as one of Dramabox's best
productions for a long time to come.