Full Frontal was launched this year as part of the Singapore Arts Festival's effort to support young directors. In the programme notes, Kok Heng Leun, one of the two dramaturges acting as consultants to the project (alongside Robin Loon) , says the idea was to provide these relatively inexperienced directors with a platform upon which they could "work on their vision [and] challenge and expand their body of work."
Such an agenda tends to lead to work that is audacious, experimental and, dare I say it, self-indulgent, and these were my expectations going in - especially when the plays were being presented under a title like Full Frontal. To my surprise, neither Peter Sau (directing Tan Tarn How's Machine) nor Li Xie (directing Kuo Pao Kun's Little White Sailing Boat) took that route. Despite some interesting directorial decisions that enabled the directors to claim these restagings as their own, neither piece was particularly innovative or groundbreaking.
Not that they needed to be. Machine (***) is an intricately crafted script that is extremely engaging on its own terms, especially when trimmed down and tightened as it was here. The play is an intense psychological drama about the twisted relationships that are formed between two young women (Mia Chee as Kim and Chermaine Ang as Lina) and the strange men that appear at their door one day, ostensibly to repair the washing machine in the women's flat. On the surface, the two men could not be more different: Rex (Rodney Oliveiro), is flashy, smooth, suave and dressed in corporate attire; the aptly named Mud (Mohamed Fita Helmi), on the other hand, is dull, rough, barely articulate and dressed in a workman's jumpsuit. Nothing is what it seems, however: our impressions of the men twist and turn as they worm their way into the home and lives and of the women, leaving a trail of abuse, lies and broken hearts in their wake. Who are these two enigmatic men? Free-wheeling malcontents intent on loving and leaving whomever they meet? Malevolent forces on a mission to wreak havoc? Or are they angels helping (in their own unique fashion) to repair the two women's broken souls? Machine asks what it means to really fix something (or someone) and whether abuse can be a form of remedy since whatever does not kill us makes us stronger, and these questions haunt Kim, Lina and the audience.
The chilly tone of the dialogue and the way its rhythms slip and slide as if floating on air gives the script an almost dreamlike quality and makes it open to various interpretations for adaptation and staging. With its witty one-liners and quips, Machine can be played straight as a sharp situation comedy that eventually takes a turn into darker territory. Alternatively, by playing up the metaphysical quality of the two strangers, it can be a dark slice of magic realism. In fact, with the high production values - the striking and imposing all-red-and-white set design, the well-chosen lighting and sound effects to create the feeling of the characters onstage as components of a machine - I thought magic realism would be the route that Sau was taking. Instead, he rather interestingly chose to play Machine as a broad comedy, going for easy laughs: the actors played up the embarrassing sexual situations the characters found themselves in with a nod and a wink to the audience; Oliveiro pulled exaggerated, cartoon faces when trying to charm his way into both Ang's and Chee's pants. Although the audience responded warmly to this, I personally felt that the over-emphasis on comedy distracted from the psychodrama inherent in the script. I admit I preferred the clean thrust of the original production by TheatreWorks in 2002: without forgoing comic touches, it nonetheless brought out the eerie, almost supernatural quality of the two men and the complexity of the emotions felt by the two women, each torn apart by the mix of hate, fear and desire they feel, at different times, for both of the men.
Sau's decision to mine the comic elements of the script also meant that he needed to turn up the pace in his version. When I think of the 2002 production, I think of a cool blue; here, the predominant colour scheme was a thick red. In Sau's play, the machine is a heart, pumping all the time. The actors talk as if trying to fill up all the spaces between the words rather than simply letting the dialogue breathe. Sau's version was punchy but it sacrificed the original's airiness and atmosphere.
This directorial decision would have worked better, however, with actors who could carry the verbosity and intense rhythms of the dialogue. Unfortunately, Ang and Chee were not up to the task. Ang is actually a competent actress and her ability to portray a variety of emotions and character beats - a kittenish temptress, a woman battered into submission - impressed as always. However, her poor vocal delivery of the English text marred her performance. She mispronounced and stumbled over quite a few words, making it difficult to take her as the confident, metropolitan, yuppie character that she was clearly intended to be. Chee had similar problems with her enunciation but, in her case, even her scenes without dialogue failed to really convince: she had little chemistry with either Helmi or Olivero and her performance struck me as immature - and I mean that literally: often, she came across more as a petulant teenager than an adult woman.
But if the women had been neither well-cast nor well-directed, at least Sau did a good enough job with the men. Helmi's reining in of his natural energy to play a reticent character worked nicely - although he sometimes overplayed the character's inability to speak lucidly. Olivero could similarly have done with less mugging to the audience for comic effect but generally played his character with the required charm and smarm.
In terms of the adaptation of the script by Sau, I thought he made good choices in paring down the script. Sau's version captured the essence of the plot and could also stand on its own. My only real problem was his decision to have the actors mime some parts of their conversations. This happened whenever all four actors were onstage but having separate conversations in pairs. This is always very difficult to pull off theatrically: it is very contrived when you can hear some flashes of dialogue and not others and I'm convinced that only the very best actors can look convincing miming dialogue in a naturalistic mode, especially when they have to switch around and suddenly be audible mid-dialogue. Of course, one can play the suspension of disbelief card and I accept that my dislike of the approach may just be a pet peeve but I feel that Sau should have found a way round this trite stage convention.
Despite these and other reservations, there was also clearly quite a bit to recommend about Machine. All in all, I felt that this staging was a solid, if uninspired, presentation. Most importantly, I think it succeeded in drawing attention to what is actually a very well-designed and sharp script that is strangely overlooked when one talks about the major works of local theatre.
The second piece of the evening did not seem to have any real connection to the first, other than that it was another piece by a relatively new director: in tone and shape, it was a completely different play. Where Machine was edgy and contemporary, Li's staging of Boat (***1/2) was more traditional in feel and approach.
The story revolves around a family conflict which ensues when a young man, Li, decides to give up his family wealth to pursue his own path as a socialist. This angers his grandfather, Lin, who casts him out of the family home. This resonates with Li's father, Sun, who, as a young man, had married into Lin's family in the 1940s even though he knew that Lin had made his fortune as a Japanese spy. This leads Sun to take a chance and forge his own path as well despite his growing years.
The theme of the play is simple: live your life with integrity and follow your dreams and ideals, no matter what the cost. The narrative structure is, similarly, very straightforward: what we see are just the bare bones of the main story. There isn't any deep characterization or elaborate subplot other than what supports the main thrust of the story. The actors were all strong but, to be fair, none had anything particularly challenging to do (although I did wonder why the director cast the relatively young Tay Kong Hui in the part of old man Lin).
What impressed me most about Boat was how Li Xie took such a simplistic script and made it resonate powerfully for contemporary audiences. She did this through the use of simple theatrical devices which drew on the context within which the script was written to flesh out the theme of the play. The clearest example of this was the use of voice-overs which were recordings of interviews of people who lived through the social upheavals in Singapore in the 1940s to 1970s. In their interviews, which were accompanied by historical photographs, they described the Singapore people's struggle for independence against the Japanese the British and even the Singapore government. Kuo intended for Sun's eventual decision to stand up for what he believes in to be a metaphor for their struggle, but Li's directorial approach extends beyond this by taking into account the playwright's own struggle. Boat was, after all, staged in the early 1980s, only a few years after Kuo had been detained without trial and had had his citizenship revoked because of alleged anti-Singapore, communist activities. It was difficult for Kuo to persevere as an artist and have his plays staged - and yet persevere he did, eventually winning numerous national cultural awards and having his citizenship reinstated before his passing in 2002. His inspirational story, a topic discussed in the interviews, is used here to add another level of poignancy to the piece and to remind us that the battle for dignity and integrity can be fought on many fronts - as a son, as a country, as an artist, as a citizen. The play ends with the actors bowing before Sun's body and sending it off on a funeral boat but there is a sense that it is Kuo who is really being honoured.
Boat's clear narrative structure, recount of Singapore's history and homage to a local hero make it an ideal play to be used in school as part of the National Education curriculum. With due credit to Li's confidence and sure hand as a director, the play rarely veered off-course and engaged both the heart and head although some theatre-goers may have felt it lacked the flair or sophistication to be considered a truly great piece of theatre.
Unfortunately, in the talkback after the performance, one aspect of Boat dominated the conversation and it was sad that this was what many members of the audience would be taking away with them after watching Full Frontal. The issue was that Boat had been advertised as being performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, but in fact, word-for-word translations were only done for the voice-overs; the rest was only surtitles with a brief synopsis of each scene.
Li, Sau, Loon and Kok defended Li's decision, arguing that Li as a director had the prerogative to not provide detailed surtitles. They argued that this decision was valid for aesthetic and political reasons. Aesthetically, Li felt felt that surtitles would get in the way of the staging, and politically, she wanted to focus our attention on the Chinese language because she felt that English was over-privileged by audiences (I infer this from her retort in the talkback session that no one had asked for Mandarin surtitles for Machine). Her decision was in line with the theme of the play, but her retort also shows that she misunderstands the issue at stake. Naturally the director is free to present a play in any language and not surtitle it. However, the advertising must be fair to paying audiences. A Caucasian lady next to me walked out after five minutes; I assume because she could not understand Mandarin. Similarly, the Chinese audience member next to me spent the whole performance translating the story for his Indian friend. No one asked for Mandarin surtitles for Machine because Machine did not purport to have surtitles. Audiences need to know what to expect before putting down money and going into a production. I am happy to attend a play in a language that I do not understand and be confused if I am told this is the nature of the play beforehand. Just as we need to respect the artist, the artist must also respect the audience.
The artists' other argument was that you do not need to understand every word of a performance to enjoy it - and they used Italian opera as an example. Italian opera, however, is not analogous because of its visual spectacle and musical elements; Boat, on the other hand, is a talky, narrative-driven play that cannot sustain the attention of most audiences who do not speak the language in which it is being performed.
I hate to end this review on such a combative note, but that's how I felt at the end of the evening, especially after the talkback. I had not paid for my ticket and I speak Mandarin so, at the end of the day, the issue was not a personal one for me; but listening to the artists defend Li's choice not to have surtitles reminded me that even when (as she advocates) we fight for what we believe in, we must also think about how our choices and decisions affect others.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /