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Production

Blithe Spirit

Company

Wild Rice

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

14/04/2007

Time

3.00pm

Place

Drama Centre

Rating

***1/2

Mixed Medium

Back in 2001, Inkpot writer James Koh witnessed W!ld Rice's first staging of Blithe Spirit. In his review, he describes how impressed he was with the interpretation - a "seamless transposition of 1940s London to present-day Singapore", as the company excelled in their adaptation of an apparently dated, thoroughly British text to the local stage, still flush with its native wit and lightness.

Six years later, I'm watching the revival of Noel Coward's famous play, with many of the top-notch original actors from its previous run reprising their roles. Once again, Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin play the married couple Charles and Ruth Koh (originally Condomine), exhibiting their natural chemistry as husband and wife. Once again, Tan Kheng Hua plays Elvira, Charles's deceased ex-wife, conjured up by a medium, now haunting the household and wreaking mischievous havoc on her husband's life. And once again, these actors spout Coward's tongue-twisting lines in the uncontrived, believable local accents of upper middle-class Singaporeans, communicating both the sense and humour of his intricate banter and repartee.

And yet - something's not quite right. There's an odd, off-centre je ne sais quoi about this staging: our laughter falls out of rhythm on occasion; the humour feels uneven, mismatched. Like many a production, this adaptation is haunted by its original.

We've all by now become familiar with W!ld Rice's legacy of highly successful theatrical adaptations - consider their performances of the Franco-American comedy Boeing Boeing and the neo-Japanese kyogen The Magic Fundoshi, as well as their fairytale pantomimes - and perhaps we expect near-perfect reinterpretations of exogenous scripts, compounding the gleeful verve of appropriation with the potent genius of the classics.

In Blithe Spirit, however, we encounter a strange, subtle clash between Singapore and British styles of comedy. You see, British comedy tends to involve a battle between uppity order and zany chaos - a conflict easily seen as the Koh/Condomines try in vain to preserve their peaceful suburban way of life against the destructive attacks of the phantom Elvira. Singapore comedy, however, is of a more rambunctious nature - it assumes chaos as a starting point, with the comic standing on the edges of society mocking social and political systems - think of the Dim Sum Dollies, Broadway Beng, or the stand-up acts of Kumar.

The clash is crucially visible in the figure of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium who is responsible for summoning Elvira's spirit during a séance, and one of Coward's best-loved characters. This time the role's given to local comedienne Selena Tan, a member of the Dim Sum Dollies trio. Selena plays the character with gallons of jolly earthiness and solid gusto - but seems quite insensitive to her role as a bridge between the worlds of chaos and order; to the extremely English way her character insists on the dignity and logic of her singing baby songs to her disembodied spirit guide. Sure, her use of Singlish gets some laughs, but she alters the very balance of the play - without real pretensions to refinement, her character is not truly absurd.

In fact, the entire play's off-kilter nature may stem from an uncertain grasp of the dynamic of chaos and order. The twin comedic styles of high literary wit and slapstick don't gel well - in particular, the gag of Ruth misunderstanding Charles's verbal attacks on Elvira as being against herself grew especially tiresome on repetition. The household's gradual descent into disorder was also portrayed with insufficient grace - every time the house was damaged by the haunting, the broken pieces were cleaned up behind curtains, failing to properly foreshadow the explosion of poltergeistic chaos that served as the finale.

These flaws in Blithe Spirit are by no means particularly glaring - in fact, I'd say the show functioned extremely well as a vehicle for entertainment - one must appreciate how it gives license to Swee Lin to play a sophisticated lady, when she's so often typecast as a motherly figure. It's also imperative to commend Kheng Hua for her intoxicating charisma and seductive mischief in her rendition of Elvira, delivering a jolt of energy to the stage every time she wafts in dressed in gauze and daubed in blue make-up. Indeed, several of the play's flaws seem to lie with the classic script itself - I find the resolution unsatisfying even in print, and I commend the director for his minor cuts to the lengthy text. I write of these imperfections because they intrigue me, being illustrative of the tricky game of adaptation.

Glen Goei writes in his Director's Message that W!ld Rice's performance of Blithe Spirit ties in with the company's aim "to reclaim classics and make them relevant to contemporary audiences". And it is good for a theatre company to function as a medium - an entity that conjures up dead, difficult texts of the past and manifests them live in the theatre. The apparitions of such efforts may be changed from their original form - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but usually carrying with them a hint of magic.

Still, it's a little out-of-date to applaud the company for a feat of creative adaptation which they accomplished all the way in 2001. So go on. Don't rest on your laurels. We want a different trick.

First Impression

As expected, Blithe Spirit is a barrel of laughs - but it's not quite the perfect W!ld Rice comedy. Noel Coward's thoroughly English script survives a Singaporean adaptation decently - Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin are generally believable in their roles as an upper-class middle-aged couple, haunted by the ghost of the husband's former wife. However, at times the eloquent words and stiff British register elude the mouths of the actors, and become still more contrived in the speech and antics of lower-class characters such as Pam Oei's Filipina maid and Selena Tan's more Singlish-spouting medium, Madam Arcati. There's also an odd mix of comedic styles in this play - measures of literary wit and heavy-handed slapstick which don't quite work together. Thankfully, Tan Kheng Hua boosts the energy onstage with her every entrance as the ghostly Elvira, handling the coy, amoral and mischievous character with grace and aplomb. In total, it's a worthwhile night of entertainment - just not the best the company's achieved.


"There's an odd, off-centre je ne sais quoi about this staging: our laughter falls out of rhythm on occasion; the humour feels uneven, mismatched."

Credits

Director: Glen Goei

Playwright: Noel Coward

Set Designer: Adrian Linford

Lighting Designer: Mac Chan

Costume Designer: Moe Kassim

Hair Designer: Ashley Lim

Make-up Design: M.A.C

Make-up Artist: The Make-up Room

Producer: Tony Trickett

Production Manager: B B Koh

Production Co-ordinators: Yvonne Yuen, Greg Swyny

Technical manager: Teo Kuang Han

Stage Manager: Elnie Mashari

Assistant Stage Manager: Luke Kwek

Cast: Lim Kay Siu, Neo Swee Lin, Tan Kheng Hua, Selena Tan, Pam Oei, Gerald Chew, Celine Rosa Tan


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More Reviews by
Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.