Doug Wright's Quills (perhaps best known for the 2000 film version starring Geoffrey Rush) shows an ageing Marquis de Sade, pornographer and philosopher, incarcerated in Charenton asylum, where he has forged a happy life publishing his blue books on the sly and sipping wine with the asylum administrator, Abbé de Coulmier, a man remarkably tolerant of the Marquis' eccentricities. But soon arrives Dr Royer-Collard, a physician who believes in harsh cures for the insane and who aims to make an example of the Marquis (especially because if he does so, the Marquis' estranged wife will reward him handsomely for it). And so de Sade is deprived of his writing equipment and, when that doesn't stop him writing, his tongue and several of his appendages in increasingly gruesome torture scenes.
So no, it's not for kids.
Playing the Marquis de Sade, Rehaan Engineer showed us everything he had to offer, both physically and psychologically. First, the physical.
The history of the nude in Singaporean theatre is, by my count, short. In terms of full-on, where-are-your-clothes nekkidness, I can only think of Jeff Chen's stationary rear in TNS' 2000 production, 3Some, and Ben Xiao's brief frontal flash to half the audience in last year's Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 by W!ld Rice. But these are as nothing compared to the mobile, enduring, double-sided nudity of Engineer in Quills, and it seems we can now safely assume the censors here have well and truly got over the nudity taboo.
Having an entirely naked (and rather svelte) man walking around the stage could all too easily have devolved the play into the kind of prurience Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble's productions often fall prey to, but it is to luna-id's credit that they had no intention of trading in smut: after a brief round of giggles from the inordinately large number of young women in the front rows, any salaciousness the audience may have felt was dispersed by the candour and courage of Engineer's performance. In short, this was art, not porn.
Indeed, Engineer's performance was remarkable for far more than it's déshabillé - every inch of his character (and there were several) was louche, feline, lettered. He lounged and purred and suckled on Doug Wright's deliciously overripe dialogue, letting its juices trickle down his chin. He took obvious delight in his intellectual destruction of de Coulmier's arguments against his literary excesses, even as he planted the poison-tree seeds that would later grow into de Coulmier's moral undoing. He was, in many ways, perfect.
And yet, there was no madness in him. This is likely director Samantha Scott-Blackhall's decision rather than any failing on the actor's part, and I grant it is not without validity: the Marquis' patent sanity makes the play appear more forcefully condemnatory of censorship. But I think Quills is more complex than this. The Marquis' stories eventually provoke a gruesome killing, which he shows no sign of regretting, and he is willing (even eager) to undergo torture rather than promise to stop writing. With this in mind, I think Engineer's performance suffered somewhat from its lack of feverish energy.
Daniel Jenkins, playing Abbé de Coulmier, was also excellent. He had remarkable chemistry with Engineer - an almost parental indulgence that made it clear why he would put up with this lecher who taunted him and undermined his authority. He interacted well with Lim Kay Tong's Dr Royer-Collard, too, displaying exactly the right level of controlled indignation at the latter's draconian ideas about curing the mentally ill. And he walked with such smoothness down the path of moral ruin (he dismembers and beheads the Marquis, takes a knife to his own flesh, and sexually assaults a corpse) that when I watched him committing these terrible acts, I wondered how he came to such a pass, and then realised he had showed me the whole process.
The one clear flaw of his performance was that he gave not even the slightest hint of any attraction to the young seamstress, Madeleine, until he had dug up her body and had his way with it - and if we are to believe him capable of this, even in delirium, we must see, if only very briefly, that he fancies her.
An additional flaw is more subjective. Although Jenkins' priestly equanimity proved effective for much of the play, the very end of Quills is pretty much a Grand Guignol fantasy, and the restraint of his performance detracted from its garish impact. But again, this is probably Scott-Blackhall's decision.
Despite my having just criticised her twice, Scott-Blackhall's direction was generally capable. After a shaky start, she gave the play the pace it needed to build through the first half, and she was particularly good at using height and distance to comment on the characters' relationships.
She was, of course, assisted greatly in this by Sebastian Zeng's wonderful set, which managed to split the DBS Arts Centre's not-overlarge stage into three distinct areas without cramping it, and which provided a rich playground for the actors. The set came into its own at the end, when its rough-hewn black columns glowed a hellish red and Suven Chan's shafts of light separated the saved from the damned. (And if the set furniture was a little more Ikea than Napoleonic, we'll just put that down to budget constraints.)
But Scott-Blackhall's direction was not equal to the end of the play. To be fair, Doug Wright's script is really bad at the end. His dialogue moves from marginally overwritten to painfully verbose, and many of his later scenes serve only to hammer home points he has already made. To get through this morass a director needs to pick up the pace but, if anything, the pacing slowed and the play got stuck in the mud.
There were other problems, too.
Mariel Reyes, playing Madeleine Leclerc, the seamstress who is seduced by the Marquis' prose, brought some of the spiritedness that her role required, but too often her energy was the faux-girlish enthusiasm of an MTV VJ; and her trans-Pacific inflections were jarring in a play where the rest of the cast spoke with either neutral British or neutral Singaporean accents. (Though in a later, smaller role as a succubus, she was much more effective.)
I am usually a big fan of Karen Tan, principally because of her translucency: she has a way of showing you the emotions swimming under her eyes and skin. But in Quills the character she was playing (Renée Pelagie, the Marquis' wife) was an almost pantomimic caricature, thrown in for comic relief and composed entirely of opaque surfaces. It felt like Tan was lost somewhere deep inside the hollow construct of her character, shaking her arms to jerkily animate its frame and speaking too loudly in case her voice got lost inside it. I kept longing for the studied poise Ivan Heng can bring to such roles.
Lim Kay Tong had the opposite problem from Tan - he was all surface where depth was required - and this proved far more damaging to the play because Lim's was a major role: Dr Royer-Collard, the asylum's chief physician and the architect of the Marquis' demise. Royer-Collard is portrayed in the script as a master manipulator: he coaxes money out of the Marquis' reluctant wife, and he convinces the saintly Abbé de Coulmier to strip, degrade and eventually dismember the aristocrat. To believe that Royer-Collard can accomplish all this, we have to be able to see his shifts of emotion and perception - the minute calculations and accommodations he makes when speaking to the other characters that enable him to control them. In Lim we saw none of this. He was a blank, granite cliff face, impenetrable and austere. Even when the doctor realises his spendthrift wife has cuckolded him with the decorator she entreated him to employ, and when the Marquis writes an allegorical story to taunt him about it, the only thing that changed in Lim's performance was its volume, the increase of which was apparently intended to convey pain. The only way his performance succeeded was in showing us exactly why his wife was so desperate to leave him.
In some ways, Quills was spectacular. I can't think of a better pairing than Engineer and Jenkins since 2002's Lonely Planet (also Jenkins, with Michael Corbidge); the set, lighting and sound were all admirable; and the first half of the script is classic. But at the end of the play, the applause was far more muted than these elements deserved, and it's a shame that luna-id couldn't quite pull the rest of the production up to the standard they set.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /