The Empress' Nude Clothes
It was a Sabbath - did I feel bad that I was watching three females, two of them donning male apparatus, making escalating orgasmic noises in various positions? A tad because of the religiosity of the day, but more because it all seemed to have been done in bad taste.
Watching 251 felt like watching someone masturbate. Not that I ever have, but if I had, I imagine this was what it would have felt like: very awkward, rather strange, slightly horrific, and terribly confrontational. But as 251 nursed itself into a climax, the orgasm was merely self-indulgent and I didn't feel a thing for it.
Attempting to use Annabel Chong's famed conquest of 251 sexual exploits at the World's Biggest Gang Bang as a launching pad to provoke social discourse, the play had two main ambitions: Ambition 1 - study Grace Quek's life to explain how she came to develop the alias Annabel Chong and went on to conquer the Guiness Book of World Records in the sex field; Ambition 2 - Make a deeper study of how the 251 phenomenon reflects on our culture.
For all its fine artistic and emotional moments, and there are some, 251 did not sufficiently fulfil those ambitions. Three winning moments which shone among the rest of the more gauche moments were the solos of chorus member Amy Cheng. She never failed to make me sit up as she walked on stage, dressed first as the Roman Queen Melissa, then as the Hun princess playing her 18 laments on her pipa, and finally as the beautiful slave-turned-Goddess of Women. She was transformed into each different persona by the enchanting costumes, every one of them tailored exquisitely to depict different cultures and eras, and by her skilled physical and vocal expression, unique to each persona.
These different personas served to parallel Grace Quek's own evolutionary stages into Annabel Chong, magnify the scale of the production by broadcasting its issues as relevant around the world and, at the same time, represent the chaos evident in the execution of 251. The shifting chronology was one element causing chaos in the play, as it swivelled around Grace's past, Annabel's, and Annabel/Grace's present. There was no coherent purpose to the sequence that was presented, and it led the play to appear as a series of installation art pieces without a thread running through them. The social discourse in the play also took on such a form. The supporting cast used their bodies to shape and mime representations of Singapore's national accolades, ranging from Longest Popiah to Tallest Man-Made Waterfall in Asia. It was comedic and memorable, but the answer to the question of the exclusion of Annabel's achievement in the list of national accolades was not explored enough to make a true point.
This failure was also echoed in 251's hollow re-enactment of Josef Ng's artistic demonstration back in 1993. Like he did, Grace Quek laid down cubes of tofu on the floor and smeared them with red paint, but unlike Ng who chose to turn away from public view to cut his pubic hair, Quek chose to turn to the audience when exposing her breasts. If the re-enactment was meant to symbolize Grace's protest against Singapore's straight-laced society, as was Ng's statement, what is to be made of the fact that she failed to carry through with the final act of hammering the tofu? Also, the exposure of breasts proved nothing except that she could and would bare herself.
Bare herself Cynthia Lee-Macquarrie certainly did, not just physically but emotionally as well. She, climaxed if you will, at the point where her mother unpacked her suitcase to find her sex tape and both parents left the room, since they were too beyond heart-broken to admonish her. Seeing the little dark dots appear on the wooden stage at Lee-Macquarrie's feet, I felt the first waves of believability that came from someone aside from Amy Cheng and Paul Lucas. The problem with having to act like a 15 year old pressurised teenager and a sexually-liberated woman the next is that you compromise depth for versatility and Lee-Macquarrie's acting was as inconsistent as the sketchy play and lacked constancy to ground us in her character.
The play meant to shed some light on the famed character of Annabel Chong. Its glimpse into her past showed the troubles she faced to answer the riddle of her being. But with the unravelling of the riddle came the unravelling of the play's potency. The simple reason the play offered that Chong was just trying to escape from the well-known pressures of our society, namely education and family, and other less-known pressures like overly religious friends, was frankly, too cliché and modest to satisfy our appetites. We wanted more, more to the story of this maverick. Who wants to know there is just another sob story behind the neon marquee of Annabel Chong? What the play could have done was to focus on trying to reconcile Annabel Chong's personal problems with societal issues, which was I believe it meant to do but failed, despite its valiant efforts.
On hindsight, though the show may appear incoherent and lacking in
soul, it was a still my first experience of watching issues and bodies
bared onstage in this way. 251 offered the experience of a
one night stand in its mysterious seduction and flirtation with dangerous
discussion, yet, for all its hype, it remained unconsummated (unlike
its main character!).
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /