The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's Poetics, a fourth century BCE treatise on the nature of poetry and especially on the nature of tragic drama, had a remarkable influence on the Western stage for around two millennia after his death. Remarkable because Aristotle was writing about a theatrical tradition produced and performed under extremely specific conditions which did not apply to the dramas of later ages; and also remarkable because Aristotle was a bit of a bookish pedant rather than a practical man of the stage. Thankfully, these days we are more or less over Aristotle - but since Cake Theatre's latest production, Cheek, has as its foundation Sophocles' tragedy Antigone, which Aristotle referred to in his treatise, it seems fair enough for me to use a more or less Aristotelian framework to dissect it.
Aristotle believed that tragedy could be divided into six parts, some of which were more important than others and all of which could be analysed discretely. These parts, in order of Aristotelian importance from most to least, were: plot, character, thought, diction, song and spectacle.
Plot seems to be of minor importance in Cheek. It comprises three stories - or rather three rather static situations, lacking much in the way of action, climax or resolution. In the first, as in Sophocles, King Creon has decreed that Antigone's traitorous brother Polyneices' corpse be left to the vultures, but Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother according to religious custom. In the second, an Aunty walks out on her "pig of a husband and bum of a daughter". In the third, hermaphrodite Marguerite worries about acceptance in seventeenth century France. The synopsis in the programme precises this triptych as "Personal beliefs clash with the powers above and what a big bloody mess that can be!!!" But in fact, we see little of the blood or the mess, and, in the third situation, very little of the clash.
Probably plot was not Hennedige's first concern. Indeed, her previous productions, Animal Vegetable Mineral and Queen Ping were just as vague in traditional cause-and-effect story terms. But these previous productions at least had structures on which to hang the plays' important themes and images so that they didn't all fall to the ground in a jumbled mess. Animal Vegetable Mineral used a simple quest structure (protagonist must travel from point A to point B overcoming all obstacles), which helped tie together the wildly different situations the quester found himself in. And Queen Ping very loosely followed a family as their young daughter grew up and fell in love, which made it easy to contextualise the various vignettes and images along the way.
The three situations of Cheek, considered both separately and together, just didn't have enough forward motion or enough reference points for my mind to pin themes, images or what passed for events to them. Consequently I can't remember very well what occurred on stage.
I found character problematic, too. One of Hennedige's reasons for creating this work was to find "the spirit of Antigone", not just in Antigone herself, but in others (Aunty and Marguerite) too. I don't think she even found it in Antigone.
In the original play, Sophocles' heroine is fierce and single-minded. Yes, she fights to bury her brother's body, and in this she is noble and just. But, even as she rails against Creon for ordering her execution, she seems in love with death, and seeks a grave for herself as much as for her brother:
She is full of righteous rage, calling on the gods to punish Creon for what he has done to her brother and her; yet she is also jealous of the glory conferred by martyrdom. When her sister, Ismene, offers to join her in her tomb, she replies, "Don't try to share my death! Don't try to claim you helped me bury him!"
If Antigone were around today, she would be a suicide bomber - albeit one with a just cause.
However, in Cheek, Jean Ng played Antigone with a kind of stoned Zen. This was not someone who wanted to tear down authority and herself with it; this was someone who stood up to authority as a tree stands up to the wind, swaying a little, but firmly rooted.
This wouldn't have mattered so much if Ng's qualities had been reflected by the other actors supposedly embodying the spirit of Antigone, so that this form of defiance could be fully probed. But Neo Swee Lin as Aunty seemed to let fate lead her by the hand, walking out on her boorish husband almost by accident; and Karen Tan playing Marguerite was so hesitant and vacillating that she seemed more like pliant Ismene than Antigone.
Nor would it have mattered if Ng, Neo and Tan's diverse portrayals had seemed to comment on each other, perhaps jointly exploring the limits of resistance to authority. But these largely insipid characters failed to deliver a full enough spectrum to accomplish this.
Little of this was the fault of the actors, who seemed to be doing what was required of them with poise, focus and the smooth gear changes of a well-oiled ensemble.
Few plays these days attempt to convey "thought" in the rhetorical sense in which Aristotle meant the word - and, indeed, Hennedige seemed to be deliberately avoiding didacticism, argument and even, much of the time, directly conveyed meaning. Sometimes she seemed deliberately obscure. Why were Neo's characters often obsessed about a pot plant? Why did Tan's characters often have unresolved gender issues? This can be fine, but if you're dispensing with the conventional ways in which dialogue transmits meaning, you have to come up with something else instead.
To be fair, the casual poetry of Hennedige's dialogue (or diction, since we're being Aristotelian) sometimes filled the gap, heading straight for the left brain, ignoring the right, and, at its best, gradually building up persuasiveness and force. But, equally, the dialogue sometimes just didn't seem to be about anything and it became circular and empty.
Not all the dialogue was Hennedige's. Towards the end of the play, the actors sat down in a row and read (quite well) a section of Sophocles' Antigone. Before this, the only thing Cheek had had in common with Antigone was several character names and a couple of plot details (largely implied). In all other ways, they could not have been more different.
Clearly, Hennedige was attempting to play with the audience's expectations, keeping us on our toes. This tactic had paid off several times earlier during the evening, often thanks to Hennedige's use of song. Her characters had an odd tendency, apropos of nothing, to break into cheesy pop songs, such as Madonna's Papa Don't Preach, which they delivered with measured earnestness. Most striking was Lim Kay Siu's growly, karaoke-Dad vocal meandering to some loungy jazz number, which he jumped into straight after a scene where he had played Creon at his most tyrannical. The contrast was so stark that one couldn't help but be shocked by it, and also delighted by how the jolliness of the song undercut the harshness of the scene before it. And the juxtaposition had poetic force too: it made me think of men in white, making laws then kissing babies.
But this high-contrast tactic is like crying wolf - if you do it too much, people stop responding. The emotions of surprise, shock and delight all depend for their existence on deviation from the norm. If there is no norm - if you expect the unexpected - they cannot exist. And well before it got to the Sophocles reading, Cheek had veered so sharply and so often from one extreme to another that I had ceased to derive any emotion or meaning from its violent oscillations. Moreover, as the play wore on, I found myself retrospectively questioning my earlier reactions to the play's more striking moments. I found that they became duller in my memory because I had discovered that, in Cheek's chaotic universe, they were nothing special after all.
This leaves spectacle (which for the purposes of this review, I'll simplify to mean visual images). Aristotle says of spectacle that "of all the parts, it is the least artistic" - but we don't have to listen to him, and, in fact, spectacle has been Hennedige's strong suit in previous productions. Animal Vegetable Mineral contained several images that left a strong impression (e.g. a faceless maid who communicates by scrawling chalk on the walls; a man who endlessly chops up brinjals, searching for the face of God); and Queen Ping made visionary use of spectacle such that it stiffened plot, illuminated character, burned the brain, bled poetry and erupted in song. In certain moments in Queen Ping, Hennedige fused together the apparatus of the stage, forming an incandescent whole, indivisible by Aristotelian categories. When, exposed by Suven Chan's lights and afloat on Hennedige and Zai Kuning's waves of sound, Noorlinah Mohamed gushed forth the words of a Jamaica Kincaid prose poem as if her heart was on fire while the text of the poem was endlessly falling, falling, falling on the projection screens behind her, we saw a girl being born naked into her first love, uncomprehending, raw, violently alive.
There were several images of this calibre in Queen Ping, but only one in Cheek. Lim's Creon works the crowd like a South American generalissimo, his proclamations resonating in a lush soundscape, while, out of the giant, scarlet lips that form the centrepiece of the set, emerge the other three actors, wearing bright yellow coats and semi-sinister old-man masks. These old men troop shambolically around the stage, gesturing offhand affirmation when Creon questions them. We see here a displaced tragic Greek chorus, robbed of the power of speech, merely going through the motions, slack puppets to puppeteer Creon. There was something ancient in this image, but also something modern. We see the trappings of Athenian Democracy, where the leader dialogues with the people - but these people are powerless, tired, perhaps apathetic; and their leader wouldn't listen to them anyway, so enamoured is he with the resonance of his own voice. This image, for me, was the only time Cheek succeeded in capturing the spirit of Antigone (the play, not the character) and rebirthing it into a new age, into a new country.
Although there were a couple of other diverting images in Cheek, the majority of them failed to transmit very much to me. One of these was the constant presence upstage left of performance artist Andree Weschler, trapped in a perspex box which slowly filled with sand throughout the play. This, very obviously, referenced Anitgone's burial alive; and I daresay it was also a metaphor for anyone who attempts to stand up against inexorable authority. This is fine, but it's not exactly deep or rich, and it didn't get any deeper or richer with time - it just pulled focus from more interesting things.
I am aware, of course, that Hennedige did not create Cheek in accordance with Aristotelian principles, so it is somewhat glib of me to use them to structure this review. But I'm only doing it because I can't find a way into the work on its own terms. In the programme, Hennedige thanks Andree Weschler for three precepts that have taught her "what it means to be an artist." These are:
On the surface, these seem all well and good. But any piece of art is a negotiation for meaning between artist and audience (or viewer, reader, etc.) and what worries me about the Weschler / Hennedige credo is that it stands exclusively on the side of artist's expression, ignoring the side of audience's response. If we translate the above precepts into the vernacular, they sound something like this:
When the duty of the artist is to indulge the slightest and oddest of his or her whims and the audience is just damn well expected to keep up, then art falls prey to a dangerously solipsistic expressionism, which seems to me particularly ill-suited to the live, shared experience that is theatre.
Hennedige has remarkable talent as a theatre-maker, and I certainly don't want her to betray her artistic ideals. I just hope that, as well as trusting her audience, she occasionally looks back over her shoulder to check that we're still there.
*This muscular, modern-but-classic translation by Robert Bagg prefers Polyneikes to Polyneices and Kreon to Creon.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /