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Production

120

Company

TheatreWorks

Reviewer

Deanne Tan

Date

12/10/2007

Time

8.00pm

Place

National Museum of Singapore

Rating

***

Past Forward

120, a new work created for the National Museum of Singapore, was a museum tour, birthday party, short film event, artefact display and futuristic spectacle all rolled into one. Given that it was conceived in celebration of the 120th anniversary of the National Museum, 120's eagerness to please was understandable. The National Museum, aiming to distinguish itself from its more staid brethren, has been positioning itself as an exciting lifestyle venue, incorporating movie-screenings and a new watering hole on its premises. TheatreWorks' ambitious concept for 120 fit right into this spirit of reinvention.

120's strong point was its combining of theatre and museum tours to create an entirely new museum-going experience. The main concept was that of a dramatised guided tour, led by "Super Personal Audio Visual Aids (PAVAs) of the Future", who would take on different roles and identities to bring forth the essence of the Museum. This worked well with the National Museum's focus on the oral tradition of storytelling. Employing actors as storytellers added a spark. Hossan Leong, taking my group through the post-war period to the 1970s, was a natural at engaging his audience. After covering the requisite topics of Singapore's early development, he threw in his own comic material to poke gentle fun at Singaporeans, Confucius, the Courtesy Lion, Tagalog accents, and other features of Singapore society. As always, his jokes highlighted pertinent social trends while tickling our funny bones. Aidli Alin Mosbit's soliloquy on the socio-anthropological history of the chilli was enthralling and spicy, much like her subject matter. The chilli lecture captured experiences of chilli-loving cultures from the Malay Archipelago to the ancient Aztecs, reminding us obliquely of the spice trade upon which Singapore's port was founded.

As a commissioned work, one had to wonder how 120 contributed to the public's appreciation for our nation's story. In this regard, the scripts were by and large engaging and historically relevant. 120 gave equal voice to large political events and personal histories. Less prominent characters, such as David Marshall and Constance Goh (who first introduced prophylactics into 1950s Singapore), were featured rather than the usual Cabinet members. A droll speech on David Marshall and Lim Tien Hock, politicians from our independence era, made the slightest suggestion of a government-biased history. Another section called Cacophony featured speeches from our colonial administrators, as well as lesser-heard voices like Eunos Abdullah. Although the sources were as everyday as a Straits Times article, Eunos' (played by a Super PAVA) exhortations for the Malay community to stop being fatalistic and to work harder had resonances of more famous speakers like Munshi Abdullah, or even modern-day politicians.

The weak link in 120 was its conclusion, a showy display of 120 artefacts, each one from a year in the National Museum's past. I was somewhat surprised at the lack of rigour to this display. The items did not seem to have been chosen for any particular reason other than their date of acquisition (which, may I add, does not always correspond to their age). 120 pieces acquired between 1887 and 2007 were neatly laid out on a long table, like a buffet. A mix of items was chosen, from an antique batik to a Thai divination book, to a Miu Miu dress. But while the display in its entirety was visually dazzling, the individual items were difficult to appreciate. The items were labelled with only their name and date, with no attempt at any in-depth description. The Super PAVAs had retired, and the handful of "real curators" standing by were over-stretched and often did not know much about the objects, many of which were loaned from other museums. Appreciation or even close inspection of many of the pieces was near impossible, because of the stringent reminders to keep half a metre away from the table, and the harsh fluorescent lighting originating from light tubes on the floor, which threw the artefacts into deep shadow. In such a setting, the delicate, time-worn details of the artefacts were barely visible. In contrast to the dedicated attention we received from the Super PAVAS, this was rather a surprise.

Which brings me to the futuristic theme of the event, a baffling one. The fluorescent lighting and other careful details transformed the area between the old Museum building and the new building into something like a corridor from one of the Starships Enterprise. The tours did not start until the 11 Super PAVAs, wearing astronaut suits in a spectrum of colours, were ritually dressed in origami-inspired plastic coats and headpieces made of foam sponge material. They were assisted by silent assistants who were dressed in trenchcoats, plastic headgear and sunglasses. It was all very The Matrix meets Star Trek. But while the entire spectacle was aesthetically beautiful, it did not go beyond spectacle. In contrast to the well-thought-out and well-executed museum tours, one got the sense that more thought had gone into implementing this theme than in its conception.

The contrast between the curated tours and the other aspects of 120 was obvious. In the background of the 120 artefacts display, there played a grainy film which no one really paid attention to, accompanied by a medley of music ranging from Henry Purcell to Dick Lee. At the end of this mini-arts festival, one was led to question if the National Museum has grasped its created identity. With all the stylish and showy happenings taking place, my senses were greatly stimulated but not entirely satisfied. I might be one of the few museum-goers who read all the fine print on the displays, but surely my plea for substance need not be at odds with the need for a hip National Museum?


"It was all very The Matrix meets Star Trek"

Credits

Concept and Direction: Ong Keng Sen

Text: Ong Keng Sen and Robin Loon

Additional Text: Bryan Tan, Kaylene Tan and the performers

Costume Design: Koji Hamai

Ensemble Choreography: Jeremiah Choy

Concert Direction: Rosita Ng

In collaboration with Serene Chen, Nelson Chia, Jeremiah Choy, Chua En Lai, Caroline Fernandez, Koh Boon Pin, Janice Koh, Sharon Lim, Lok Meng Chue, Noorlinah Mohamed, Aidli Alin Mosbit, Neo Swee Lin, Jean Ng, Rosita Ng, Rizman Putra and Nora Samosir

Special appearances by Irene Ang, Kumar and Hossan Leong

Concert: Alex Abisheganaden, Cheong Sze Chen, Rosita Ng and Rizman Putra

With the participation of actors from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

Curatorial Advice: Cheryl-Ann Low and Jason Toh

Stage Manager: KC Hoo

Technical Manager / Lighting Designer: Andy Lim

Wardrobe Mistress: Tara Tan

ASM: Chan Lee Lee

Production Sound Engineer / Designer: Jeffrey Yue

Sound Engineer for Concert: Shah Tahir

Translator: Nahoko Kodama

Technical Team: Ian Tan, Rahmat Abdul Rahim, Mohamed Fuad Bin Ahmad and Li Sini

Crew: Mohamed Hatta Sulaiman, Esther Teo, Fiona Lim and James Page

More Reviews of Productions by TheatreWorks

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

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