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Production

Furthest North, Deepest South

Company

Mime Unlimited and The Finger Players

Reviewer

Musa Fazal

Date

28/11/2004

Time

3.00pm

Place

The Asian Civilisations Museum Auditorium

Rating

****

Journey West

Furthest North, Deepest South tells the story of Cheng Ho, eunuch admiral of a fleet of thirty thousand men, who set out on expeditions between 1405 and 1433 at the behest of the Chinese Emperor Zhu Di to nearly every inhabited land bordering the China Sea and the Indian Ocean (including America some 70 years before Columbus, if we are to believe the historian Gavin Menzies whose book inspired the play). As Zhu Di declares in the play, "If I am indeed the son of Heaven, I want proof."

But how could Cheng Ho - a "barbarian" from the backward province of Yunnan, and a Muslim - achieve all this? More importantly how could a eunuch? Historians will tell you his lack of a penis is central to explaining Cheng Ho's rise to power (and fall from grace). Cheng Ho lived at a time when the Emperor's countenance was deemed too divine to be viewed at close quarters by his subjects. If the Emperor wished to walk down the street, roads had to be cleared. Eunuchs occupied a special place in the court because they were the only human beings allowed so close they could whisper in the Emperor's ear. That privileged position bred an animosity and tussle for political power between the eunuchs and scholar bureaucrats, which is translated well in this play.

Unlike Western adventurers that followed him, Cheng Ho was not motivated by the desire for gold, silver or slaves. Indeed Cheng Ho gave to the lands he discovered far more than he received, and was always careful to pay homage to all cultures and religions in equal measure. Hence the discovery of Chinese coins and gold ingots in corners of the Earth as far flung as Africa. The prizes he sent home were valuable only in the sense that they were exotic - elephants and giraffes. His expeditions were purely to establish China as the centre of the world.

But, driven by the Emperor's insatiable desire for glory, Cheng Ho goes too far. In the play, Cheng Ho triumphantly returns from his great voyage on the back of a giraffe, without even so much as a victory march. His expensive expeditions have drained the coffers of the state, and an over-burdened population has mutinied and strung the Emperor up on the city walls.

What is particularly terrifying about the story of Cheng Ho is its aftermath. Having stretched the boundaries of the Earth to its limits, China does an about turn and enters a period known as the Great Withdrawal. By the 1500's it is a capital offence to build a seafaring junk with more than two masts, and all subjects are forbidden to go abroad.

There are lessons to be learnt here. As we try to cope with a world increasingly characterised by extreme beliefs and extreme expressions of power, it is easy to dissociate ourselves similarly, and retreat into our own private spheres. But what also grips the imagination, is that a seemingly ordinary person - imperfect, flawed, and in this case, penis-less - somehow manages to push mankind beyond the very edges of possibility. There is perhaps a glimmer of hope then, for all of us.

All of this comes together in Furthest North in a manner that avoids appearing didactic, partly through the liberal use of humour. So the play begins with Cheng Ho in an almost cartoon-like universe haunted by the symbols of all things extreme like spirits from past, present and future. So Cheng Ho's discoveries around the world are told through the multicultural eyes of contestants in a Miss World pageant.

Gene Sha Rudyn in particular is hilarious as Cheng Ho's impish sidekick. Playing a convict who is freed by Cheng Ho because all men are equal on his ship, he reminds one a little of Bilal, the emancipated black slave and devoted follower of Muhammad. And in a clever bit of casting, the wiry, diminutive Fanny Kee who plays Cheng Ho is juxtaposed beside the imposing, baritone Subramaniam as Zhu Di, visually adding to the sense that Cheng Ho tries too hard to overcompensate for his deficiencies.

Director Christina Sergeant manages to widen the breadth of the script through the use of less conventional forms of puppetry. With the aid of some enlarged props, humans turn into puppets, and puppeteers appear fully visible. That a woman is chosen to play a eunuch is perhaps meant to remind us that here is an actor playing her part to achieve what Sergeant's invisible hand wants us to see. And in the process we are drawn to consider the relationships and societal strings by which we operate and which direct our movements.

Others too deserve a mention. Koh Leng Leng turns in a touching performance as the mute concubine, carefully chronicling Cheng Ho's adventures through her paintings. The puppets are all adorable, especially Imelda Marcos' immortal shoe, but even the mouthless, nodding, pasty-faced imperial bureaucrats do a good job. The crew also deserves plaudits. In spite of the relatively heavy props, scenes merge quite seamlessly and the sets on wheels give the play a surprising swiftness.

I am grateful to the collaboration of artists for the time taken to prepare this play. It is with the help of plays like these that two-dimensional historical figures unfold into their full three dimensions and catch the light. I only wish this play could be performed on a larger, more well equipped stage to do justice to the sweeping grandeur of Cheng Ho's monumental life.


"I am grateful to the collaboration of artistes for the time taken to prepare this play. It is with the help of plays like these that two-dimensional historical figures unfold into their full three dimensions and catch the light"

Second Opinion
The World on
a String
by Matthew Lyon

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Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.