Old Cat, New Tricks
It's 1988. Playwright-cum-director Kuo Pao Kun creates a play called Mama Looking For Her Cat. It's a devised work, telling the story of an old Hokkien-speaking woman, alienated from her English- and Mandarin-educated cosmopolitan children, leaving the house in search of her missing cat. The work's groundbreaking for its use of multiple languages onstage, as well as its hard-hitting criticism of a Singapore so obsessed with speed and progress that it's forgetting the old, the tender, the traditional.
Fast-forward to 2006. Mama's become regarded as a classic of national theatre, and the late Kuo's been canonised as a pioneer of Singapore theatre. The Theatre Practice, which was co-founded by Kuo and T Sasitharan, commissions Martina Winkel of Austria to direct this legendary play. She's a visiting teacher in digital media; an outsider both in terms of nationality and aesthetic tradition. Can she do justice to the work, created by the man some call the father of Singapore theatre?
The popular answer's a resounding yes - Mama's turned out as one of the most moving productions of 2006, daringly postmodern, yet deeply resonant in its depiction of family dysfunction and generational divides. My date for the evening was so overpowered, he was immediately guilt-tripped into calling his neglected mother in Xiamen - plus he bought another two tickets for a second show.
In her staging, Winkel strikes a keen balance between the complexity of mixed media presentation and the simple power of minimalist theatre. An ensemble of five played out the scripted scenes within the space of a bare black floor, yet the borders of this playing area, and even the walls and ceilings of the auditorium were plastered with monitors, supertitle screens and sound mixers. We, the audience, were arranged on opposite ends of the room, watching the action take place between us, our eyes hopping from stage to screen to screen as we were bombarded by projections of digital commentary by Sasi and performance art, broadcast live from Vienna, by Magdalena Snizek.
All these bells and whistles could have distracted from the play, but Winkel's been careful enough in her curation of untraditional dramatic elements so that they tend to enhance Kuo's original script rather than detracting from it. Take, for instance, Snizek's confessional monologue about her Turkish-speaking grandmother, unable to adapt to her newfound home in Austria - it reveals Mama's disenfranchisement as a minority language speaker in Singapore as part of a larger problem worldwide.
The core of the Kuo's script also remains solid, thanks in no small part to the strong cast - there was hardly a dry eye in the house after Yeo Yann Yann's monologue of a daughter recalling her mother's attempted suicide. Winkel distills the dialogue of a much larger ensemble amongst an ensemble of four children, and goes further to play with the overlap between the immediacy of live action and the mediation of technology, creating absurd scenes such as a sexed-up karaoke ABC-song and a mahjong game played sitting on video monitors.
It's arguable that the only way to be faithful to Kuo Pao Kun's legacy is to experiment, even unto the point of violence to his original scripts. After all, the man was never insistent on the sanctity of his texts. The script of Mama leaves ample room for actors' individual interpretations and translations of word and action, and his later plays display his willingness to welcome other art forms into the field of theatre - consider the abstract role of dance in 0Zero01 and Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral.
Winkel is also eager to pay homage to the original master - all publicity materials make reference to the 1988 production, and throughout the play, on one end of the theatre, a video of this first performance plays silently.
This show is haunted by the past. That's its glory and its downfall.
The informed viewer becomes especially sensitised not only to everything added to the production, but also everything taken away.
For example, there's a scene in the original Mama where Mama's children play a game called "Di-xia-tie". One child calls out terms like "MRT" and "Registry of Marriages" in English, a second child translates these words into Mandarin, but a third child, searching for Hokkien equivalents, grows progressively more exasperated and confused. It's a scene that reflects a deep concern in the text with the phenomenon of language loss - how by the 80s, dialects like Hokkien had become marginal tongues, censored by state authorities, untaught and fallen into disuse.
This scene is excised from Winkel's production. Why? Well, possibly because she feels there's no longer a perception that Hokkien's an endangered language, given its re-emergence in theatre and film (though its use in storytelling and opera is still in decline). At times, even Mama's children speak Hokkien amongst themselves.
Winkel's more interested in communicating the universal marginalisation of the old than going into cultural specifics. She's inserted new scenes of a Malay-speaking mother and her son, mirroring the Hokkien scenes of Mama with her children. She's extended the play with further devised scenes that show Mama being persuaded to go for computer classes, trying to grasp the new electronic languages of the future.
However, to this viewer, the new scenes aren't as allegorically resonant as those in Kuo's first script. In comparison, they feel heavy-handed and less than sensitive to the nuances of different cultures. For instance, after Goh Guat Kian tells the story of The Tortoise and the Hare in Hokkien, emphasising the value of steady perseverance over speed, Emanorwatty Saleh delivers a rendition of the fable of Sang Kancil and Sang Buaya (the Mousedeer and the Crocodile) in Malay - another underdog story, but with a thematically incongruous moral one that praises cunning over brute force. The sonic impact of the two is again, quite different - a fluent Hokkien tale is a seldom-heard treat in contemporary Singapore, charming even a non-speaker with its onomatopoeic effects, while the Malay tale is gentler, more halus, and being in an officially sanctioned language, comes across as less of an outside voice.
As the play went into its last quarter, and newly devised scenes dominated the stage, my enthusiasm for the production dissolved. Despite earnest intentions, the notion of Mama going online felt too gimmicky, too determinedly demonstrative of 21st century zeitgeist to win me over. An argument between Mama and her son over housekeeping bills was moving for other viewers but just didn't work for me - the mythical figure of the questing mother shrank in my eyes, diminished by such quotidian trivia.
By the end, I feared that Mama had been reduced to a cautionary tale of filial impiety. Had so much electronic wizardry served to diminish the play rather than to develop it?
Well, no. Winkel's earlier experiments are remarkably successful, and she's aware of her own limitations in staging the work. Note, for example, one of the most comical and touching scenes of the play, the dialogue between an old Tamil-speaking man and Mama. The two meet. Neither can speak each other's language. Through an arduous process of mime and repetition, the two communicate the fact that they are both looking for their lost cats, that one cat is black and another is white, that their lost cats are abused by their children.
Winkel chooses to play this scene by projecting a video from the 1988 production on the central screen, with full sound and no subtitling. It's a throwback to the past, and a due homage to the pioneering practitioners of a hybrid Singapore theatre who moved audiences without high-tech paraphernalia or government grants two decades ago.
But then the live action continues. And the new director must implement her own interpretation of a script that's deliberately left open to interpretation.
In the end, it's a little senseless to speak of whether justice has been done to a work. What truly matters is the experience of the audience, who were almost unilaterally blown away by the revival and, to an extent, the amplification of a known work. Fidelity's a noble ideal, but perhaps best left to musty academics like me.
A director should pay tribute, and then move on to speak her own theatrical language.
She must respect her elders.
She must not respect her elders.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /