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Production

Furthest North, Deepest South

Company

The Finger Players

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

19/04/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Esplanade Theatre Studio

Rating

***1/2

Pole 2 Pole

Everyone loves this show. The Life! Theatre Awards named it Best Play of 2004, and the 2006 encore performance just received a similarly rave review by Kristina Tom of the Straits Times. In a year of festivities celebrating the 600th anniversary of Admiral Cheng Ho's voyages, this dramatic tribute to the famous Chinese explorer has managed to retain its relevancy and freshness.

Furthest North, Deepest South has stood out primarily as one of the first adult-centered productions of the Finger Players, who've combined their puppetry arts with live action to produce a visually distinctive, surreal style of drama. The night I attended, audience members trotted out of the auditorium babbling in awe at the amazingly believable chorus of seven scholar officials, played by three puppeteers and their four life-size puppets. If you happen to be in Budapest, where it's shortly going on tour, it's definitely worth the price of a ticket.

But since everyone's praised this production to the sky, I think I can justifiably use this review to dwell on its flaws. I watched the Finger Players put on great stuff long before they aimed at grown-up audiences - their Ne-zha of 2002 and 2004 was a particular triumph - and consequently, while I was appreciative of this new visual style, I wasn't taken aback. The physical command of Fanny Kee and Sim Pern Yiau playing living puppets was impressive, but all things considered, I've seen the company do more spectacular visual displays of puppetry for the benefit of rugrats.

Rather, as a writer, I was struck by how the language of the script was somewhat wanting in sophistication. Playwright Chong Tze Chien used a largely straightforward, pared-down style of writing, striving less for historical accuracy than a sense of timeless pantomime and universal political allegory. Unfortunately, this meant that the same simple maxims were uttered several times ("I am not a woman! I am a man!" and "Laughter is the best medicine!") with uncomplicated directness by Fanny Kee and with little variation, due to her portrayal of Cheng-Ho as stuffed with stoic, upbeat pride and formality. The effort to establish a metaphor between the subject matter and the Singapore government's treatment of the arts further resulted in shifting, irregular metonymy. First, the scholar officials were identified as themselves actors and artists who had to be distracted from causing trouble while Cheng-Ho, the scientist, went on his fact-finding mission. Later, these same officials became the administrators who urged the Emperor Zhu Di to dismiss his artist concubine and his admiral, as "We have no time for artists and scientists". Still later, their hands describing the remnants of their burnt palace, the scholars blame Zhu Di, saying, "He has made mime artists out of us!" Such metaphors were effective in eliciting laughs from the audience, but their inconsistency made them resemble schoolboy jibes at a higher authority, lacking a unified vision of the ideal.

This style of retelling the legend was further complicated by the script's imaginative, if apparently incongruous flights of postmodern fantasy - a testimony of evidence for Cheng-Ho's visits to different continents, delivered by the contestants of a Miss Universe pageant, or, most disorientingly, at the very opening of the play, the encounter between a lost Cheng-Ho and the apparitions of Imelda Marcos and Virginia Woolf. These bizarre moments, though initially unsettling, were in retrospect some of the best parts of the play, striking both visually and intellectually when you try to puzzle out their relevance. I eventually parsed out my own interpretation of Marcos and Woolf - feminine emblems of the tyranny of Zhu Di and the exploratory genius of Cheng-Ho - though I won't claim this is the only possible reading of those polysemous images. Ultimately, it seems that the Finger Players is hatching a new style of storytelling as well, where pantomime and po-mo may live side by side, provoking one another by their difference.

Scriptwise, there's still sharpening to do, however, as seen in the dubious judgment of giving the play a new ending. Just when Cheng-Ho drowns and is set to continue his voyages in a curiously modern spirit world, the final line of the play punctures this open-endedness with the banal statement, "He died at the age of 62."

However, Furthest North is already outstanding as a historical play in Singapore simply for the freshness of its approach to the life of Cheng-Ho, who's received dramatic treatments before in Singapore, notably in Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral and The Admiral's Odyssey. This is the first work of theatre I've seen that's forsaken the idealisation of his voyages as the beginnings of a global Asian culture, choosing instead to focus on the grittier political aspects of his biography. By highlighting the power play between him and his master the Emperor Zhu Di, played marvelously by Sim, the greatness of Cheng-Ho's journeys was challenged, the selfish imperial thrust behind them is revealed, and the very value of such feats of glory questioned within a bounded life.

I feel lucky to have witnessed at least one staging of this play, not simply because it's well worth watching, but because I believe it represents a new step in which small Asian theatres can develop. And last year we saw, with the very differently configured Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, that it's clear that the Finger Players are developing. With roots in Chinese puppetry, the company's been able to take a sledgehammer to an icon of Chinese history, and has mixed the resultant pieces together with elements of contemporary global consciousness. Their new creation is still wobbly, but its overall public approval shows it to be a success.


"I feel lucky to have witnessed at least one staging of this play, not simply because it's well worth watching, but because I believe it represents a new step in which small Asian theatres can develop"

Credits

Cast: Fanny Kee, Sim Pern Yiau, Gene Sha Rudyn, Kph Leng Leng, Charlotte Chiew, Candice De Rozario, Wong Young Tseng, Ang Hui Bin, Adrian Chong, Jo Kwek

Playwright/Set Designer: Chong Tze Chien

Director: Christina Sergeant

Production Manager: Joanna Goh

Puppet Designers/Conceptualists: Oliver Chong, Ong Kian Sin

Lighting Design: Lim Woan Wen

Sound Design/Music: Darren Ng

Costume Design: Lim Chin Huat

Makeup Design: Makeup Forever

More Reviews of Productions by The Finger Players

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.