The first ten minutes or so of First Family fixed a silly grin to my face. The curtain rose to a defiantly two-dimensional, low-tech world of shadow puppetry, a world of grand scope but limited means, where myth fused with nonsense and was painted in broad black strokes on a canvas of light. Three archetypes journeyed across the simple landscapes of this shadow kingdom: the Emperor, the Harlot and the Rat. Each was portrayed by a live performer wearing ornate but unarticulated headgear, so that the archetype's thoughts and emotions all had to be transmitted through the attitude of the body and head, and through sweeping gestures of the arms. The result was a warm and human visual poetry which found strength in simplicity.
The visuals were given forward motion by Darren Ng's cinematic, Chinese-style score. The epic swells of his music superimposed grand emotions on the shadow archetypes, telling us that these were people whose passions could shape their world. The music promised us stories of empire and majesty, stories for the ages.
And then the narration and the characters' voice acting deliciously undercut this mythic setup. The narrator was slightly ironic and occasionally disapproving. The Emperor was slow and bathetic. The Rat was puckish. And the story was simply ludicrous, even by folktale standards: at the prompting of a Rat, an Emperor finds the salvation of his nation in the womb of a Harlot, pregnant with six daughters each fathered by men from different cultures and countries. When the birth is difficult, the Emperor climbs inside the Harlot to expedite proceedings, and when finally the Harlot's waters break, the resultant flood drowns the Emperor's enemies and a new era of prosperity is established with the birth of the six daughters, the First Family, the defenders of the realm.
So the first ten minutes were rich and rewarding. The images were inventive and strangely resonant, the music sculpted a world for the bizarre characters to inhabit, and the actors were infectiously mischievous. There were hints of satire (Singapore as a ragtag group of bastard children trying to build a glorious nation) and the play had a pleasingly post-postmodern aesthetic, in that its embrace of folktale was genuine rather than ironic, but it still wanted to have fun with the genre.
But after this opening sequence, the play waned and never quite recovered. The pace slowed and scenes seemed to repeat each other without progression; the promising satirical and philosophical elements became confused and blunt, even as they attempted to make incisive points; and the characters began to seem interchangeable and even, in some cases, superfluous.
This was certainly not the fault of the actors, all of whom were up to the task. The wonderful Goh Guat Kian grounded her physical and vocal performance in the deep rhythms of the earth, becoming the Platonic ideal of "Mother". Julius Foo as the duplicitous Prince used his plastic face to great effect, mugging to the audience. Ong Kian Sin, in drag as the artistic Fifth Daughter, externalised and embodied femininity in a way that few people, male or female, can. And, best of all, Oliver Chong played the talentless, ugly Sixth Daughter like a manga caricature: all huge eyes, huge mouth and random, whiny outbursts.
Indeed, the Chinese-speaking cast was altogether more entertaining than the English-speaking cast (the play was performed in English, Mandarin and Cantonese with a distractingly ungrammatical English translation inconveniently projected on either side of the stage). This is not because the actors were necessarily any better (Karen Tan and Jean Ng are both fine actors, for example); it is because the play's aesthetic made more room for the exterior, physical performance style of the Chinese-theatre veterans than it did for the relatively interior, psychological style of the anglophones.
One almost powerful moment from late in the play hinted that, with more work, these two styles could have been made to dialogue with each other, perhaps producing striking results. After the First Family has been defeated by the Prince in a kungfu showdown, they retreat to the forest to lick their wounds, and they start infighting. Tan's character, the cunning Third Daughter, accuses the Mother of always favouring the useless Sixth Daughter over the rest of her offspring. Tan's sense of betrayal is genuine and psychologically motivated, as is true of her best performances, but it also has an exterior, performative element. Conversely, Goh's reaction is a presentational distillation of evasiveness and guilt, but it is also interior and deeply felt. The unstable fusion of these two aesthetics produced a momentary frisson, but then the play pretended it had never happened and went back to its default, somewhat surfacey setting.
It was strange, in a way, that First Family didn't make room for the anglo performance style, because it made room for so much else. It made room, for example, for extended scenes in which the characters simply played childish games or wandered around without contributing to the narrative or characterisation. These were often fun and frothy but, considering the mythic, folktale atmosphere so successfully instilled at the start, I soon found myself wanting some substance to go with the froth.
The play also made room for more characters than I could really keep track of or see the need for. An attempt had been made to differentiate the six daughters based on their personalities and predilections, but with so many daughters to cover, the attempt was necessarily shallow, meaning that the daughters' respective traits did not always show through in their dialogue or interactions. And on top of the six daughters, the play made room for the Mother and a Maid(!). Ang Hui Bin did a good job playing the Maid, but structurally she was surely unnecessary and her presence further slowed the progression of the story.
The play's leisurely pace and its profusion of characters resulted in an extremely soggy midsection where different groupings of characters visited a market, a theatre and a temple and spent too long in each place with too little happening. Each scene was initially fun as each had an amusing theatrical gimmick: in the market, carriages randomly drifted past, letting us glimpse the private moments of their shadow-puppet occupants; in the theatre, the actors were played by cast members facing away from us with masks on the back of their heads, lending them an awkward, declamatory style suited to a pretentious performance troupe; in the temple, the monks spoke in unison with accompanying hand gestures, giving the impression that they were the splintered voice of God. But these gimmicks were not enough to sustain the circuitous and sometimes unwieldy dialogue that often seemed to be deliberately holding up rather than advancing the action.
Additionally, the play seemed to want to ask certain questions but never quite got round to doing so, further diluting its focus. There was an intimation that the First Family were complicit in the rape, murder and enslavement of their enemies and their descendants, yet they are clearly loving and supportive of each other. Equally, the Prince is personally a bit of a murderous tyrant, yet he appears to govern from sound, egalitarian principles. But I have made the issues here too clear: in the play, they were little more than asides, merely hinted at and never followed up, so that by the end they had been conveniently brushed under the carpet along with equally provocative questions such as "Is the West best?", "Is female authority preferable to male?" and "Should we value compassion for the incapable or respect for the competent?" The initial mention of each of these questions was like an arrow to the heart of the folktale narrative, and I would have loved to see the story bleed if the ideas had been explored. But the arrow wounds healed instantaneously and the play sauntered on.
Chong has been guilty of meandering before, for example in Furthest North, Deepest South, but there he had Christina Sergeant's impossibly inventive and razor-sharp direction to compensate (see my slightly too negative review here). Chong directed First Family himself, and while he was often creative and displayed considerable flair for the visual, these were not quite enough to paper over the cracks. Of course, Chong can also be capable of sharp and illuminating focus (e.g. Spoilt and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea) so let's hope that this script is a minor misstep in an impressive body of work.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /