Oddly, as World-in-Theatre has moved from epic dramas towards quieter, more intimate work, this reviewer and long-time fan has become more alienated. Whereas I was exhilarated by earlier pieces like The Royal Hunt of the Sun because of their colour and vibrancy, I have found myself less engaged by the company’s chamber pieces like 2005’s A French Double Bill: the direction is often flat which emphasises the weaknesses of these dour, text-heavy dramas, and I am unable to connect with the characters because I find some of the actors’ presentational style of acting – perfect for Indian gods, biblical apostles and Inca warriors – too jarring in this supposedly more naturalistic context. Unfortunately, I had similar reservations with the company’s latest work, Mishima, a double-bill staging of Yukio Mishima’s Hanjo and Lady Aoi based on English translations by Donald Keene.
The first piece, Hanjo, is about the relationship between the lonely and disappointed Jitsuko (Bridget Therese) and her young charge, Hanako (Sherilyn Tan). As the play progresses, Hanako slowly loses hope in being reunited with the man she has met briefly at a railway station and begins to go mad even as the older woman seems to find a kind of fulfilment in keeping the despondent girl more and more dependent on her. It is a delicate piece, the text and lines of dialogue carefully crafted and put together, and there will, no doubt, have been some in the audience who were moved by the poetry of the lines and the story of both women’s aching desperation.
However, the lack of variation in staging and movement again made it hard for me to really invest in the play. The stillness of the actors and the confined, minimalist set evoked a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere but it also meant that the actors were left to carry the full weight of the play and, as in A French Double Bill, none of the actors actually had the stage presence or vitality of spirit to do so. They did all the right things on the surface but I was never convinced that they got under the skin of their characters. As a result, I often tuned out of the play.
There was also little chemistry between the different cast members and I found the conflicting styles of the two lead actresses particularly distracting: Therese spoke in a strict, mannered fashion while Tan presented her character with more softness and naturalism. The play was further destabilised by the appearance of Kevin Chua in the small part of the young man, Yoshio, who appeared to have simply wandered onstage to say his lines. There was actually a certain endearing affability in this young student actor’s performance, but it clashed too much with Therese’s harsher tones.
The second piece, Lady Aoi, had greater coherence and seemed
to come alive more. The script, while still wordy and meandering, had
greater breadth and this gave directors Sonny Lim and Richard Chua more
opportunities to play with the staging and the unfolding of the narrative:
Lady Aoi (Sherilyn Tan), a woman who lies ill in hospital is visited
every night by the spirit of Mrs Rokujo (Bridget Therese), the former
lover of Lady Aoi’s husband, Hikaru (Andrew Mowatt). It is unclear,
however, whether this spirit, who also appears one night to Hikaru himself
in Lady Aoi’s hospital room, is a figment of Lady Aoi’s
imagination, a projection of Hiakru’s guilt or a representation
of Mrs Rokujo’s own longing for Hikaru.
Mowatt’s performance was grounded if a little one-note but my main problem was with the part of Lady Aoi’s nurse (Elizabeth Tan): it was played with so many little tonal shifts that I was not always sure what to make of her character. The nurse was, at turns, flirty, dreamy, chatty, wise and sad. Elizabeth Tan played each mode well but I would have liked a clearer and less mercurial reading of this character who had limited stage time but important and poignant information to impart about the complexities of relationships between men and women.
Ultimately, I felt there was a lack of a strong directorial vision in both these pieces. They seemed set up simply as acting showcases but unfortunately, none of the performances, especially in Hanjo, was truly impassioned or inspired. What I was left with, then, were just wisps of promise that never quite cohered enough to haunt me.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /