Old World Charm
Cake's new offering, y grec, is based on Madeleine Lee and Eleanor Wong's poetry book of the same name, which attempts to meditate on love, longing, modernity and travel through the poets' experiences in Greece. Admittedly, I found the book disappointing. With most of the poems, there is a sense of an event or moment overwhelmed by grandiose renderings of Greek myths and excessive description. The result is a collection half-hatched, structurally and thematically, skimming over the surface of the poets' impressions rather than immersing in their experiences.
It is then surprising – and remarkable – that director Natalie Hennedige fashions some of the most exquisite theatre I have seen from such unwieldy material. In the opening scene, a voiceover - its volume and pitch calculated to resemble that of the MRT lady that tells you not to cross the yellow line or leave your belongings behind - declares, "holiday." Two women, clad in identical black coats and sunglasses, stride across the stage with the flair of the countless faceless corporate types that throng the Central Business District everyday. Infusing travel with an unlikely corporate sensibility, this sequence is classic Hennedige; a cutting little satire on holidaymakers that can never quite leave their office suits behind.
Such quirky perceptiveness gives way to melancholy in the following scenes as Hennedige channels some of the book's most haunting lines into an intimate, engrossing dialogue between two voices (played by Noorlinah Mohamed and Karen Tan). Muttering and exclaiming the poetry, Noorlinah and Tan navigate intricately designed Greek-inspired furniture, and each other on a whitewashed stage, plumbing these lines for fresh sources of insight and anguish. Throughout the performance they never touch, but come perilously close – you almost expect an explosion of sorts if one brushes against the other. In the multimedia sequences that run on a screen in the background, the camera is always moving, roaming the streets and architectural wonders of Greece as if in search for something missed, now felt. As the two voices "mutter thoughts deep of affection", the viewer is drawn into their world of deep longing, then rebuffed – these are thoughts shared between tortured lovers; only one or the other will "receive it loud and clear".
Throughout y grec, Hennedige also discusses the intrusiveness of technology in our daily lives, sustaining her introductory observation of the disturbing coalescence between work and play. Most of the production pulses with Philip Tan's discordant soundtrack of high-tech new-agey sounds - the same way our lives are played out to a background of cars honking, office phones ringing and construction site drilling. While Tan's aural backdrop enhances the intensity of several scenes, it also has a powerful bathetic effect in others. In certain sequences, Hennedige deliberately builds up an emotional connection so intense between the two voices – only for a cell phone to go off in the background, cutting it off at its height. Unsettled, the lovers turn away from each other, shift this way or that, gaze hesitantly at the floor – that searing moment of desire or sadness lost, never to be recaptured again.
Although the (often verbose) lines of y grec roll off both actresses' tongues with admirable ease, Mohamed's performance comes closer to piercing the heart. While Tan captures the lines with impressive specificity, Mohamed's delivery is electrifying, loaded with an awesome range of inflections that lends remarkable depth of feeling and nuance to the poetry. As she utters the haunting last stanza of the poem theatre ("i mutter thoughts deep of affection / only you receive it loud and clear"), a sad-eyed Mohamed serves up emotional nakedness at its most unflinching. She inhabits her character so completely that you're afraid she might lose herself there.
On the surface, Cake's latest might seem like a departure from Hennedige's
flamboyant and radical style. As she puts it in the post-show dialogue,
this play does not feature "twenty different costumes and twenty
different wigs" – what someone familiar with her work might
expect. However, this is not to say that y grec is any less
fascinating – or bizarre – than any of her other productions.
In fact, she retains all the energy and boldness of her previous work,
turning in a gorgeous, vitally intelligent performance of poetry on
stage. In reminding us that the play can go places inaccessible to other
art forms, Hennedige's novel interpretation is an essential testament
to the abiding relevance – and necessity – of theatre.
On the surface, Cake's new play seems to be a departure from Natalie
Hennedige's flamboyant and radical style. As Hennedige herself puts
it in the post-show dialogue, y grec does not feature "twenty
different costumes and twenty different wigs" – what someone
familiar with her work might come to expect. Instead, its setup is relatively
simple, comprising two voices (Noorlinah Mohamed and Karen Tan) evoking
the poetry of Madeleine Lee and Eleanor Wong on a whitewashed stage.
However, this is not to say that y grec is any less fascinating
– or bizarre – than any of Hennedige's other productions.
In fact, she finds new ways to express her creative madness in y grec,
fashioning exquisite theatre from the poets' meditation on love, longing,
modernity and travel. Retaining all the energy and boldness that characterises
her past work, Hennedige blends cleverly constructed dialogue based
on Lee and Wong's poetry with audio snippets of technology, haunting
close-ups of Greece's most famous ruins and an intricately designed
set of Greek-inspired furniture in her novel interpretation of poetry
on stage. There is so much to hear, see and feel in this gorgeous, vitally
intelligent performance that you will leave the theatre moved and enthralled.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /