>THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK by World-In-Theatre

>reviewed by kenneth Kwok

>date: 19 feb 2004
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: sculpture square
>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.
 

>>>>>JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

World-in-Theatre and its predecessor Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre have always focused on the craft of storytelling in its most basic and traditional forms. A simple narrative is brought to life through the use of voice, visual arts, dance and physical theatre, and the experience is invariably a spiritual one, relying as the company does on venerable ethnic art forms.

This is art at its most primal and yet - or perhaps, therefore - it is sometimes difficult for a modern audience to connect with.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK is something different despite employing the same approach, largely due to the casting of Rodney Oliveiro in the lead role of Jesus. It is not that Oliveiro is the next Olivier but he does bring a contemporary energy to the play with his rock-star poses, movie-star good looks and a more showy style of acting that some may find off-putting or discordant with the rest of the play, but others, like myself, may feel takes the production from a narrative of the past into the reality of the present and gives it a resonance that is sometimes lacking in other World-in-Theatre productions.

Strong performances from the supporting cast as a whole also bolster this particular production where in the past casting has been sometimes too patchy. This helps audiences get to the emotional heart of the play. Again, it is not only the old guard of the company like Sonny Lim who impress with both their craft and their passion but also relative newcomers to World-in-Theatre like Act 3's R Chandran and young actors like Kevin Murphy. Murphy, in particular, is a striking presence on stage and is able, with a look on his face or the way he holds his head, to translate his emotions into physical form. You really feel his pain when, as Peter, he betrays his Jesus three times.

(It is also worth noting the fact that the cast members are facing an uphill task. They need to be able to represent the unadulterated joy of people whose lives are changed by miracles. Their dead child lives again. A cripple can walk. Their God is before them in human form. Such emotions are not easy to render. This reminds me of a film of the novel 'Jude The Obscure' in which an impoverished Kate Winslet, when confronted with the murder of her young children by their own 12-year-old brother because they were "too many", turns her back to the camera and sobs into a wall, her face remaining unseen. Is it fair to expect any actor to be able to present such emotions?)

>>'Credit to the creators of this piece for artfully walking the razor's edge so that these powerful stories can be enjoyed whether you take them as fact or fiction'

No review of a production by World-in-Theatre would be complete without comment about the theatrics underscoring the performances and here is another embarrassment of riches. When Jesus meets Satan in the desert, it is a scene without words and yet the classical Indian dance style of Sonny Lim playing Satan in the form of a snake is mesmerising and says all that it needs to. It is a truly magical scene, as are others where director-choreographer de Rosa directs the actors to present storms and long journeys through clever movements of their body. These form simple but very effective moving tableaux, with the actors in costumes of bright colours vividly set against a stark and largely white set (side note: covering the entire stage with sand was also a nice touch). De Rosa has moved away from the busy-ness of earlier work into a cleaner and clearer approach - and less, in this case, is certainly more.

And then there is Cyril Wong's voice which has to be heard to be believed. It fills the entire play and the entire hall and is an instrument of beauty. His countertenor / near-mezzo-soprano (think castrato) voice is sharp as a knife and yet beautiful as a bell. And the longing and pain he fills it with is breathtaking. The accompanying live percussion music is also cleverly used to build currents of suspense and tension throughout the play.

And so there you have it: thirteen actors on-stage playing different roles to present to you a stage adaptation of stories from the Bible in an admittedly slightly overlong 2 hours (there are only so many miracles and parables one can take). Two easy comparisons come to mind, but of course the high production values mean that this is no Nativity play being performed in church by a bunch of schoolchildren nor is this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company, out to tickle the funny bone. What then is the rasion d'être, seems to be the question on quite a few people's lips, including that of a newspaper reviewer. Why present these stories that are already so familiar to their audience? To convert audience members? Respectfully presented as it is, I would say, no. This is no bible-thumping TV Evangelism, take it from me, a staunch agnostic whose hackles are very easily raised. (Besides, there were probably more devout Christians in the audience than in the cast.) To reveal fresh insights into the Bible? Again, not likely. This is the Bible. It's been around a while, you know?

So what it is, for me, is the simplest of things and none the worse for it: it is storytelling. Like the Mystery Plays of Medieval times, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MARK is basically a stage presentation of all the wonderfully inspirational and dramatic stories you heard as a child - for its own sake. And credit to the creators of this piece for artfully walking the razor's edge so that these powerful stories can be enjoyed whether you take them as fact or fiction.