The programme for Porcelain claims it is "an attempt to bridge the gap between men who publicly claim they are straight and the gay men who know better". In synopsis the play sounds like it might make good on that claim: smart young British-born Chinese, John, has killed his white lover, William Hope, a man who maintained he was straight throughout his affair with John and then abruptly dumped him. Pending trial for murder, John has been attached to maverick criminal psychologist Dr Jack Worthing, who seeks to determine his sanity while using the case's notoriety to make a quick buck on the side from the media.
But we never really find out much about William, the "straight" guy who picks up men in public toilets, so instead of bridging the straight-gay gap, the play pretty much just points it out and then falls through it anyway.
No, instead we find out about John: his loneliness, his alienating intelligence, and most of all his identity as a double minority: a gay Chinese boy. Porcelain mines the territory of identity politics thoroughly and perceptively - but also, these days, anachronistically. You see, Chay Yew wrote the script in 1989, before the internet, when gay people had fewer options for meeting each other. The play's story hinges on John's being forced to meet men in public toilets because he feels judged and awkward in bars, but this just doesn't work in an age of private chat rooms - John would just get a webcam and learn to type one-handed. This means that Porcelain no longer seems like it is describing today's world and its impact is somewhat reduced. Still, a production that recognised this could have succeeded on its own terms, but directors Goh Boon Teck and Beatrice Chia never let on that they were staging a period production - they seemed to think their message was current and vital, and this felt disingenuous and undermined the play's emotional resonance.
The acting had problems too. Mark Richmond's accent as William Hope had briefly visited every English-speaking country in the world, and listened in absolutely none of them. I noted phonemes from Singapore (natch), and from America, red states and blue; there was a surprisingly strong showing from Australia, and there was even a bus tour around the UK with stopovers in the West Country, Manchester and Liverpool. The only place he didn't visit, strangely enough, was London, which is where the play is set.
Not only was this unholy aural ordeal upsetting in itself, it also limited Richmond's performance. Usually he is a versatile actor with a voice capable of expressing a wide range of emotions naturally and with nuance (and in fact, he showed some of this in a smaller role as a TV documentarist). As William, however, his vocal contortions forced him into a rhythmic whine, like a puppy being beaten with a metronome.
I have the vague impression that the rest of his performance as William (physicality, emotional investment, motivation, etc.) was broadly viable, but I can't really say for sure. His accent was such a Babelian earsore that I couldn't concentrate on anything else he was doing. It's like asking me to remember the colour of the cushions when there's a giant squid on the sofa.
The voice of Nelson Chia, playing John, was also a problem. Even when Richmond's accent was at its most alien, it was clear that he can speak English properly when he wants to. This was not the case for Chia, who seemed uncomfortable with the requirements of the language. Sometimes he got words amusingly wrong ("hynoptic" and "swolling crawtch" were two slips among several), but most often it sounded like he was overcompensating - lengthening vowels and biting down hard on consonants for fear of misspeaking them. This resulted in his talking extremely slowly and it made him sound pretentious, which was particularly troubling in the parts of the script where the writer was trying to prove that John was quick and smart. You see, Chay Yew's play is clearly influenced by Oscar Wilde - he names one of his characters Jack Worthing after one of Wilde's - and the scenes Jack and John share are often aphoristic, precious and self-consciously witty. John is obviously supposed to be the kind of guy who can verbally fence to Olympic standards, snapping off retorts and finishing your sentences for you, so it doesn't help when the actor playing him sounds like he's reciting a script he doesn't fully understand.
It also doesn't help that Yew's writing is not nearly as Wildean as he imagines. When Wilde writes verbal fencing matches, his characters are electric with wit: they grasp and subvert each others' meanings in the shortest possible time and with the greatest possible spark. The characters in Porcelain do it quicker and more dully. Quicker sounds good, but it's not. A character needs to say a certain number of words before it is clear what he is saying and the other character can interrupt him, but Jack and John in Porcelain often finish each other's sentences well before any kind of meaning is established and without any particular cleverness. The effect is like two schoolboys with fingers in their ears shouting insults at each other.
The second schoolboy was Andrew Mowatt, playing Dr Jack Worthing, the criminal psychologist assigned to John's case. Mowatt possesses a rich, mellifluous baritone - the kind of voice that would secure him regular work as a radio actor if the BBC moved its headquarters to Singapore. Also, he clearly understands how to sharpen and texture dialogue to project character and emotion. But even he got the accent wrong. I don't mean his London accent, which is perfect (I think he probably is from London originally). No, the problem is that the first time Dr Jack talks to John, the latter says something like, "Oh, you're American?" And Jack replies, "No, but I spent a lot of time there." Yet Mowatt made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to put American inflections in his voice. And what I don't understand is, if you're not going to bother with the accent, why not just remove the only line in the play that refers to it? Why leave it in and irritate the people who notice such things?
But this is not major, and for the most part Mowatt did a commendable job lending weight and credibility to a poorly written character. He kept an edge in his voice and a bristle in his movements that helped us believe that whatever opinion this man held, he would hold it loudly and unapologetically. This made Jack's overnight transformation from arch-homophobe/racist to queer-theory-spewing friend of the Chinese about as believable as it was ever going to be (which is to say, not very believable).
The only time Mowatt looked bad was in a scene where directors Chia and Goh had decided to stick masks on their actors and have them lollop around the stage shouting sexual obscenities and innuendoes. The directors seemed to be pastiching carnival, and the actors were grotesques embodying our sexual subconscious, embodying urges that we repress and publicly renounce, but which secretly fascinate and fuel us. It's a neat idea, but it didn't work because the actors weren't up to it. Mowatt, especially, is not for lolloping. His attempt to look demonic (a half-crouch leaning forward with fingers splayed like claws) just looked uncomfortable, as if he were reaching for poorly placed toilet paper.
The other two weren't quite as bad, but they also seemed slightly embarrassed, and, because of the nature of the play, this was a surprisingly big problem. One of the loudest statements Porcelain makes is, "Men have sex in public toilets - deal with it." But the carnival scene made me feel that the people involved in this production hadn't dealt with it - that they were still embarrassed about sex, like the good, middle-class boys and girls they are - but that they were trying desperately hard to convince me they were over it already. Such bourgeois prurience was more than a little distasteful, like your maiden aunt in fetish gear.
The fault for this lies with the directors. Either they should have pushed the actors harder until they got past their self-consciousness, or they should have abandoned the carnival idea entirely. Sadly, this was not the only directorial oversight. Much as I rail against the actors for their freakish accents, it is Goh and Chia who should bear the brunt of my complaint, because it seems they encouraged the accents when they should have stopped them in their tracks.
And on top of all this, the blocking was flawed. The Esplanade Studio had been arranged with a raised transverse stage in the middle and the audience on either side. A wide but shallow stage like this places three significant demands on directors.
First, they have to make sure that the cast plays to both sides of the auditorium. In this, thankfully, they succeeded.
Second, they have to keep the actors moving a bit more than they would on a standard proscenium stage, as visibility problems caused by actors masking each other are much more common when the play can be viewed from a wide range of angles. In this they failed badly. Almost half of the play is made up of Jack and John talking to each other in their psychoanalysis sessions. In these sessions they practically never moved: Jack sat at his desk and John sat on a toilet across the stage from him. This meant that you could only see one of the actors' faces and had to content yourself with the other's back. Worse, if you were sitting in an unlucky seat, one of the actors blocked the other and all you got was a back and no face. I was sitting in an unlucky seat, as were several people behind me and diagonally opposite from me. Even worse than that, set designer Nicholas Li had made the extremely foolish decision of placing gauze arches at certain points on both sides of the stage between the actors and the audience. This was so that "video arts designer" Sam Tan's video montages could be projected on to them, and probably it was also to create the sensation that we were looking in on a hidden world. The problem was that the world was quite literally hidden as the fabric was too opaque and it obscured the top halves of actors who stood behind it. Consequently I spent a lot of time looking at shoes, and even when some of the shoes have lewd graffiti scribbled on them, as John's did, shoes are not as interesting as faces. (I should mention that the video montages were quite effective snatches of symbolism and fragmented imagery - but they weren't worth losing part of the play for.)
Third, the directors have to use the whole width of the stage - otherwise it looks like a TV movie shown on the wide sceen of a cinema. Goh and Chia almost pulled this one off by using different areas of the stage for different scenes. This had the advantage of creating "psychological areas", areas that we learned to associate with certain emotions or relationships, thus reinforcing them; but its drawback was that as the scenes progressed and lost their novelty, you started noticing that they were lost in an empty sea of stage. Mac Chan's lighting design went a long way to addressing this problem: when the scenes changed, he swept rectangles of coloured light across the stage to direct us to our next destination - it was the theatrical equivalent of a cinematic establishing shot, panning over landscape. His lights also worked with Darren Ng's sound and music design to enhance the moods of the darker scenes, creating a street-lit cathedral with unsung digital hymns.
But in this kind of play, even the best lighting and sound are peripheral; success depends on acting and direction. And that means that this Porcelain was pretty badly cracked.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /