Next to Godliness
Think feather boas, OTT props, disco lights, cheesy pop tunes and butoh dance moves. The ominous makings of some tacky, 70s-inspired party? Nope, these are actually the components of Cake Theatre's latest offering, Divine Soap.
Behold Singapore's theatre rebel, Natalie Hennedige. Under her stylised direction, Cake channels the weirdest and most cringeworthy elements into some of the most subversive and powerful theatre I have seen. At its best, Cake's eclectic blend of language, music and dance delivers sharp visceral shocks that probe the mind and unsettle the soul.
Divine Soap pays homage to an ancient art form, Bangsawan (Malay opera). In her director's statement, Hennedige professes a desire to conflate Bangsawan's traditional elements with "a sense of re-invention". However, given her tendency to overwhelm with wild and surreal theatrics, would Divine Soap find a contemporary voice for tradition and history - or would it devolve into a strident mess of half-baked caricatures and bewildering antics? And would Haresh Sharma's writing, which is capable of being tight and charged with emotion, make any difference?
The results are decidedly mixed, but there is much method in Hennedige's madness. Hennedige's clever layering illuminates the tension between Bangsawan's re-alignment with modern tastes and its rootedness in traditional artistic conventions. Despite its adoption of new media, such as the radio, and foreign styles, such as popularised Latin American dance rhythms, its use of traditional folk theatre elements like stock characters (watak) and fantasy stories about kings and queens in heavens (kayangan) is still inherent.
However, clashes between tradition and modernity are inevitable, and can create unwitting farce. For example, in a 60s flashback, Divine Soap comically re-enacts Bangsawan's dismal transition to radio. Since the visual elements of Bangsawan are absent, the monotonous, uncannily synthetic voices fail to properly transmit the Bangsawan plot. In articulating the continuities modern art forms share with traditional ones, Divine Soap also reveals how jarring this relationship between past and present can be.
What both Sharma's writing and Hennedige direction do brilliantly is to contextualise the tension Bangsawan's traditional-yet-modern nature creates. For example, timeless hits like Billy Preston's With You I'm Born Again and Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All are used to illustrate Bangsawan's transition from folk to popular music. In other sequences, the main Bangsawan story segues into a modern theatre troupe's backstage quarrels, drawing stark parallels between the struggles of old Bangsawan troupes and modern ones. When Hennedige's subversive style is effectively employed, we see how Bangsawan's struggle for relevance remains relevant in present times.
However, as my friend and fellow theatregoer put it, some of this production is "far too clever". Divine Soap was bloated with too many caricatures, subplots, sequences and layers squeezed into a running time of little over ninety minutes. I felt more than a little dazed after watching it. Vague transitions exacerbated the problem, rendering some of the most colourful sequences dull. One minute you were watching a modern theatre troupe rehearse their roles; the next you were transported into a palace where a Bangsawan matriarch emphasizes the importance of Bangsawan on the social calendar. And as if this wasn't messy enough, the matriarch would abruptly transform into a frazzled theatre director who screams "Cuuuuutttt!" - a cue for the cast to lapse into a bizarre backstage argument.
Divine Soap was also awkwardly paced. In the end, I felt so
overwhelmed that the climax of the show - when the prince unknowingly
kills his deranged father before the queen resurrects him using her
special powers - didn't seem like a climax at all, merely another sequence
chockfull of the flamboyant theatrics to which I had become desensitised.
However, therein lies the contradiction: if this play had crammed Singapore society and politics into its already overwhelming repertoire, Divine Soap would only have alienated the audience even further. So, my suggestion to the makers is to tame this expressionistic beast with moments of introspection, so that the play pauses long enough for the audience to appreciate and embrace such imaginative sequences.
And Hennedige, despite her tendency to overwhelm, is capable of this. It is no surprise then that the Divine masterstroke of this Soap lies in its understated final sequence, where the cast sits on the stage facing a projection screen and watches, along with the audience, a movingly simple black-and-white short film tribute to Bangsawan. It is such flashes of subtlety that enhance Hennedige's already powerful craft.
Given the multiplicity and craziness of the play's roles, the cast was admirably effective in conveying Sharma and Hennedige's vision. However, I do have specific quibbles: in parts, Kumar and Peter Sau's well-oiled comic routines degenerated into bland factual accounts of Bangsawan that had already been elucidated in other scenes. And given Fared Jainal's strength in body craft, several of his fight sequences - especially the climactic duel with the king - were disappointingly tepid. Thankfully, he did display his mastery over physical theatre in other aspects of his performance, such as his hilarious facial contortions in a scene where he played an overzealous actor aspiring to be the prince sent the audience into fits of laughter.
Also, the pairing of Najib Soiman and Siti Khalijah as the macho king and mysterious, but delightfully campy queen fuelled the slapstick momentum of the production. In one of the funniest moments, Siti bats her eyelashes and responds coyly to the king's eloquent praise of her beauty in typical manja/ngada-ngada fashion, "Eh don't like that, lah".
However, it was the uniformly excellent Noorlinah Mohamed that stole the show. Assuming a variety of personas from frazzled director to Bangsawan matriarch to cool 60s hippie, she was the star of this ensemble. This see-saw production demanded sudden and drastic transformations and showcased her vocal and physical dexterity: her voice switched effortlessly from raspy growl to 60s cool; and her body, initially slack as a put-upon theatre director, tightened into the hunched, taut frame of an imposing Bangsawan matriarch.
After watching Divine Soap, I cannot help but identify with the parallels Hennedige draws between Cake and the Bangsawan troupe in her director's statement. Like the Bangsawan artists, Hennedige and company are agents of change embracing a stunning form of theatre that "transports us all to another realm and provides a kind of balm for our souls". However, in re-inventing theatre they must be constantly aware of the fine line they tread between contemporary edginess and ludicrous disarray. Nevertheless, as Divine Soap undoubtedly reveals, Cake is well on their way to being a theatrical tour de force.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /