>mixed blessings by the necessary stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 13 mar 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: the necessary stage black box
>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.


Forum theatre is a game of two halves. First you get the "here's one I made earlier" part, where the cast shows you a simple scenario with a clear dilemma (in this case, a young couple in a mixed-race relationship striving to be together without alienating two pairs of disapproving parents). And then you get the "now it's your turn, children" part, where audience members are invited to jump onto the stage and take on the role of one of the two lovers in order to try to solve their problems and succeed where the actors had failed.

But the two halves of this game have very different rules, and in this production - at least on the night I saw it - they also had rather different success rates.

All that the first, scripted section has to do to consider itself a success is to set up a simple problem in an entertaining manner, and give the audience some clues as to how they might approach solving it. Anything else is superfluous and would probably get in the way. So it didn't matter that the script had no depth, the direction was obvious and the characters were one-dimensional and one-dimensionally portrayed; indeed, strange as it may sound, these were strengths, as they would later allow the audience participants to build on the solid, unadorned foundation that had been created. And anyway, if Haresh Sharma's script had no depth, it made up for that by being witty, tight and entertaining; if Natalie Hennedige's direction was obvious, then that just helped it to be pacy and communicative; and if the performances were one-dimensional, then they also had an exaggerated, cartoonish appeal that made them a pleasure to watch.

>>'You got the feeling that the cast and production team could have done the first half in their sleep. You also got the feeling that, even if this were the case, they had decided to stay very much awake and give it their best shot'

So far, so good. Indeed, you got the feeling that the cast and production team could have done the first half in their sleep. You also got the feeling that, even if this were the case, they had decided to stay very much awake and give it their best shot. This meant that the only problems with the first half were tiny little ones: although Rajesh Krishnamuti and Rosalind Pho shared chemistry as the young lovers, it was only O-Level chem when it should have been A-Level; and Hennedige, who usually has an excellent ear for music, was for once a little too indulgent with a ballad in a slow-dance scene, letting it play for too long with nothing else happening.

But in the second half, the rules changed. Suddenly the ball was in the audience's court and the people held the power. Or did they?

Well, they certainly appeared to have been given leeway to affect the play's outcome and realise its protagonists' dreams of parentally approved canoodling. If we imagine the dialogue Sharma wrote for the Indian and Chinese parents as a suit of armour defending against the audience's liberal thrusts, then Sharma had smithed that armour with deliberate chinks, where the audience might be able to force its point through.

For example, early on, we see Subin Subaiah (playing the Indian father) watching diminutive Honky song monkey William Hung on 'American Idol' and commenting on the implied racism of having this Asian held up for ridicule in front of Western eyes. Obviously, we are then supposed to step into the scene as his son and accuse him of the same racism for disapproving of Chinese girlfriends. Similarly, we learn that Subaiah's character is a biology professor at NUS, and so when we hear his wife (played with infectious good humour by Daisy Irani) deliver an asinine speech about how "the crow doesn't mate with the swan; the duck doesn't mate with the ostrich" or some such nonsense, we are clearly meant to leap in and destroy her argument on the grounds of genetics and hybrid vigour - grounds upon which her husband's profession is based.

But the problem was that no one did this. The references were perhaps too quick or too abstruse for the audience to pick up on - or perhaps those brave volunteers who stepped into the scene had their own agendas they wished to pursue. It made me wonder, however, as the volunteers' gallant attempts were smashed to the ground by the indomitable Subaiah or by Lim Kay Tong, playing the Chinese father with intimidating, patriarchal rage - it made me wonder what would have happened had anyone aimed his or her sword at one of the chinks Sharma had provided and pushed hard. Would they have got through? Did they really have the power? I tend to doubt it. I don't think those were the rules of the game.

You see, the audience wasn't stupid. Several of the volunteers chose sensible lines of attack and stuck with them. But the cast had clearly been trained for any eventuality and, it seems, had been told to win at all costs, so that even when an argument seemed persuasive, they cast it down or sidestepped it or just plain ignored it.

I think the way it was supposed to work was that persistence would eventually pay off. I think it was kind of a time-release thing, whereby twenty minutes before the end, whichever set of parents was being attacked would give way and begin to grant the audience the closure they desired. There were signs of this. The Indian family, whom the audience had decided to confront first, had proved absolutely one-hundred percent implacable. The Chinese family at first seemed the same, but then, as time wore on, they gradually softened and one could sense that with just one more push, they would have given way. But the push never came. The audience was tired and out of ideas. Additionally, a significant proportion of the audience was older and more conservative and didn't see the problem in the first place, believing that the young couple should simply submit without argument to their parents' demands. In short, the whole thing fizzled out and we were left with a most unsatisfactory conclusion (which Hennedige nevertheless gamely tried to spin into a substantial achievement) where almost nothing had materially changed.

That isn't to say we needed a "happily ever after" ending - that would have rung false - but we did need a bit more reward than we got for our exertions. It must be terrifically hard for actors and facilitators to make the kind of snap judgements forum theatre requires of them - to be able to keep the audience running after the carrot without ever catching it or giving up the chase. The ensemble for MIXED BLESSINGS, faced with a surprisingly difficult crowd, was not quite up to the task on the night that I saw them. It is my guess that on most nights they would have been more than adequate.

Note: Matthew acted in TNS' production 'godeatgod' back in 2002, so this review is clearly biased and isn't worth the paper it isn't printed on...