>the royal hunt of the sun by world-in-theatre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 18 jul 2003
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: the substation garden
>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.


Someone in the audience remarked during the interval of THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN that he had "never seen anything like this before".

I cannot say the same. I have been a follower of the now-defunct Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre and its successor, World-in-Theatre, for some time now and through productions such as 'The Painted House', 'Sita' and 'The Ramayana' I have become familiar with their aesthetic of presenting theatre productions outdoors and with a rich vocabulary of traditional Asian music and movement arts. Even when the companies are handling texts from the Western canon like Peter Shaffer's 'Equus' or ROYAL HUNT, the audience can always expect an infusion of strong Asian flavours and aromas - as in this case, with music created using traditional Malay instruments and Asian martial arts and dance coming into play.

Watching a production by the company(ies) is always inspirational for me and almost a religious experience. As it is, it appears, for the actors. Watching them on stage is mesmerising because they approach their performances with an almost spiritual devotion. They draw on ancient forces and perform as if taken over by them. Their bodies become the vessels through which these forces flow, allowing the actors to be stripped bare of vanity and pose but still letting them bring epic texts like 'The Ramayana' and ROYAL HUNT - the story of how 167 men destroyed the Inca empire of 24 million for its gold - to life through the sheer force of their performance.

>>'Someone in the audience remarked during the interval of THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN that he had "never seen anything like this before"'

Watching 'Ballet Under The Stars' at Fort Canning Park is like going to a drive-in cinema. Watching Asia/World-in-Theatre, however, makes you feel like you have been transported to ancient Greece, Shakespeare's street theatre or a storytelling session by a wise elder around a fire.

It has therefore always been easy to admire productions by Asia-in-Theatre. It has, however, not always been easy to like them. Thankfully, World-in-Theatre's debut production, ROYAL HUNT, succeeds on both counts.

The main reason is that, unlike earlier work, for example, 'Sita', the text is not drowned by the aesthetics but is allowed to breathe, with the characters and narrative developed onstage through dialogue and interaction, giving the audience something concrete to work with. While the text is not always able to sustain the attention placed on it - there are some tracts of really rather uninteresting dialogue that begged to be snipped, especially for an outdoor production where the onstage effect can be diluted - it has a clear narrative, characters that are passionate, powerful and complex and (mostly) diction of an intense energy that suits the stage.

The cast rises to the occasion and many deeply impress, notably Philip Marcelo as the Spanish Commander of the Expedition and Subramaniam as the King of the Incas who shows him a new way of loving God and living life. Both actors command the stage with their ferocious presence, - Subramaniam especially is almost like a lion in human form. These would have been actors in any age. The supporting cast of Clement Lau, Priya Arun, Cheng Tan and R Chandran also provides more than able support. However, Dick Soo and Neelam Chugh, though they do not actually put a foot wrong, have a manner of acting that has such a natural contemporary energy that it throws the play slightly out of sync whenever they appear.

There are other quibbles. Directors Chris Cheers and Sonny Lim did not use the outdoor space to its full effect - as the company had done in 'Equus' with the horses moving like shadows among the trees - and although the central structure of the set design was used very effectively, there was little else to complement it. This therefore created a lot of "space" around the actors which the play was not always able to fill. I am guessing, though, that this had something to do with creating a space for the martial arts/dance choreography by multi-disciplinary performance group, Sri Warisan, and if this is so, then I guess it was arguably worth it, because the group's intricate and beautiful performance gave the audience a lift after lengthy tracts of dialogue.

This was one production that I felt necessitated neither an outdoor setting nor the infusion of Asian arts but both did add to the aesthetic and overall appeal of the play for me so it was a case of a choice well made nonetheless. Also, the multi-racial Asian cast and the use of Asian arts arguably brought out the universal quality of the themes of the play (greed, conquest, religion, the clash of cultures).

If, like the gentleman in the audience who remarked that he had "never seen anything like this before", you too have not experienced the aural and theatrical wonder of Asia/World-in-Theatre's productions, then ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN is a good way to begin, lacking as it does some of the excesses of previous productions by Asia-in-Theatre and yet still maintaining the company's unique sensibility.

Unlike the Inca tribe of the play, World-in-Theatre, it appears, has found a place in the New World.