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Production

The Secret Souk

Company

The Theatre Training and Research Programme

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

02/03/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre Black Box

Rating

***

Playing without Children

I've always loved art that makes you childlike. Give me those towering installations in museums that make you feel small in wonderment; those playful experiments in poetry that frame the language as if you're learning it for the first time. We've built up sturdy psychological defenses as adults, and art can break them down, make us willing to accept and absorb the greater world beyond us, to make us learn.

The Secret Souk is a work of children's theatre. Nothing in the publicity material suggested that it was anything other than a piece for adults, and no children were present in the audience the night I attended. Yet there's no better way to sum up the use of spectacle, fable and chorus and the general mood of innocence that was the stuff of the play.

Children's plays uplift the jaded soul. It was childlike amazement I felt as I witnessed the stunning visuals of the shadow puppetry, the water-sleeve dance, a web of ribbons to represent interlocking destinies, the deft dance of the moving stalls of the pasar malam set. I was equally thrown back to the days of primary-school clap-alongs as the five cast members of diverse nationalities chanted their multilingual market calls in a toe-tapping, ear-thrilling ensemble of voices. And the very premise of the play, that of a market where stories are sold along with vegetables, is the marvelous stuff of an Arabian Nights bedtime story.

Yet there's a problem. As much as I love children's theatre, I'm an adult, and a critical one too.

As much as I was willing to play along with the actors' game of having an audience member choose the first story via the purchase of vegetables, I felt impatient when, on the second opening of the market twenty minutes later, the same rules of the game were repeated word for word, with several phrases in over-theatrical unison. And did the director not consider that, since almost the entire Chinese population of Singapore has heard the legend of Chang-Er and Houyi, it might be less than riveting when used as the first story of the night? (Personally, I'm turned childlike more by things wondrously new and surprising than by nostalgia for days of being short with shaky milk teeth.) There was also an unfortunate proliferation of "cute" humour, such as Chang-Er's flying to heaven while mimicking the noise of her flapping arms with her own name, chanting, "Chang-Er, Chang-Er, Chang-Er, Chang-Er, Chang-Er!" Though I'm generally disposed to laugh, this show seldom brought me beyond the level of a chuckle.

Certainly, the framing story of the market attempted a mature statement, regarding the place of the arts in an increasingly materialist world. I'll applaud the apt sustained metaphor of the conflict as one between the worlds of the moon and the sun, although the lunar imagery was hammered home with zero subtlety in the recounted fables. Yet the story could have been performed so much better - it was slow in the beginning, as the focus remained on the fairy tales, so the actual characters of the market vendors emerged late, as did the problematic foundations of their story trade, derived from a CD-ROM rather than tradition.

The historical positioning of the play was also bizarrely inconsistent, what with the vendors, including the Indian national Sankar Chindavalap Venkateswaran, decked out in gaudy Song dynasty costume, even as they spoke about health spas, software piracy and cultural erosion in their village, negotiating the issue of their licence with a police officer in contemporary uniform. A child may not have been addled by anachronism, but a nitpicking know-it-all twenty-something points out that a lot of trouble could have been saved if the costumier had gone along the path of sarongs and sandals and T-shirts instead.

The actual physical acting of the actors also left something to be desired, especially during the first two narrated stories. With the stage cleared of props, I began to notice the large spaces between actors points when their bodies should have commanded all my attention. Often, an uninteresting play of levels or a slow reaction from an actor turned what could have been a great scene into an underwhelming one. It might say something about the quality of the script that one of the best scenes was an extended uncomfortable silence following the announcement, "And now, we will wait until night!" - although the hilarious tension of the waiting that followed may bode well for the troupe's upcoming Beckett anthology in August

One might excuse the iffiness of the script with the fact that English is not the primary language for many of the actor/devisers of the play. Yet another beautiful moment contradicts this: the tale that Chinese national Xu Jia Li relates of the creation of lady's finger vegetables. Xu was able to deliver a simple yet powerfully moving story in English, in spite of the fact that throughout its telling she was standing in a spotlight, stationary, save for a few hand gestures. Sometimes, in the field of dramatic movement, less is more - and more is usually also more, but almost is never enough.

One personal complaint I have against this play is that so much more could have been yielded from the premise. A night market for the barter of stories could have been played as a site for a sinister, Borgesian drama that reflects on the honesty and motivations for telling stories as well as the value of sharing them. Yet I'm also aware that something of the childlike fancy of the play would also have been lost this way. There's nothing wrong per se with the techniques of children's theatre that were employed. It's simply that they could have used plenty of sharpening.

Ultimately, The Secret Souk is a fun night out, and while the childishness of its theatrics may become irritating after a while, it's never actually cringe-worthy - and, just as importantly, the show is never boring. It's a pity that the director failed to consider the cynical spectator's reaction to his jumping-jack nursery fable and cutesified moral allegory. Still, even the cynic is broken down at times by the spectacle and sweetness of the show, which is, after all, staged by students rehearsed in different traditions of drama. Perhaps the spectator must take his own steps to open himself to innocence. Perhaps it is enough to be made childlike half the time.


"Even the cynic is broken down at times by the spectacle and sweetness of the show"

Credits

Director: Russel Cheek

Lighting and Sound Designer: Ben Watts

Set and Costume Designer: James Browne

Production Manager: Pierre-André Salim

Cast: Felix Hung Chit Wah, Sia Ee Mien, Tan Seok Chin, Amelia, Sankar Chindavalap Venkateswaran, Xu Jia Li

Previous Productions by The Theatre Training and Research Programme
The Water Station

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

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