The Splush of Civilisations
Multiculturalism. Who doesn't love it? Sure, we may be sick and cynical of the four-colour NDP tokenist-propagandistic jazz-hands buzzword version, but when it comes to the crunch, we know it's what's made our drama scene special: that casual willingness to digest different ethno-cultures/dialects/performance traditions on stage to make sense of our strange selves. Ever since Kuo Pao Kun, that oft-hallowed Father of Singapore Theatre, began to remix the language wars in plays like Mama Looking for her Cat, it's been there behind our collective ethos as makers of art, defining us: so yip-hip-hurray and hupla, mari kita and long zhong chiong, hallelujiah, alhamdulillah, chan-mali-chan-mali-chan.
Except that sometimes, multiculturalism doesn't work. Let's
look at the case of The Divine Wind and Tears Lost in the Rain:
it's a play purporting to investigate the kamikaze spirit: the
ideologies and experiences of the Japanese pilots of World War II who
performed suicide missions - pretty rich material, rather relevant to
a generation of Singaporeans that's intent on re-examining our
history. The show's devised and acted by a provoking mix of people:
Brazilian director Leela Alaniz and the graduating batch of TTRP students,
from Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Mexico, drawing on three years
of training in taichi/jingju/kudiyattam/Grotowski/
So why was Divine Wind the most insipid, simplistic and shallow treatment of World War II history that I've ever seen in my life? Why did it end up telling me nothing more about the kamikaze spirit than anyone would know who's read a couple of haiku, studied PSLE history and been through two years of National Service? Why was it, for chrissakes, just so wet and empty?
Lemme give you an idea of what it was like. We start off with a bunch of little boys playing barefoot in the sand. Suddenly, they start finding army fatigues and joyfully putting them on. One of them becomes the leader, forcing the others through a physically and verbally abusive regimen of callisthenics and war games. One of them strips off, saying he doesn't want to play anymore. The others make him continue. Roles change: now someone else is the training commander. The cycle repeats. Moral of the story: war is a deadly game played by little boys? How original is that?
To be fair, these sequences are able to offer brief glimpses into the kind of talent the actors had as individuals; Sajeev Purushothama, in particular, shows beautiful physical command of the stage, drawing on his Kathakali dance training to portray a stylised drill sergeant. But the ensemble acting just isn't good enough: actors are unable to replicate the mannerisms of playground kids and end up looking (unsurprisingly) like fully-grown acting students doing theatre games. And when the time comes for them to be soldiers - well, perhaps the sloppiness of their movements might be acceptable in a goofy revival of Army Daze, but it sure wouldn't have passed muster in the Japanese Imperial Army, nosiree.
And that's the pattern that persists throughout the play: displays of strong individual talent that collapse into mediocrity during group work. A few genuine, crystalline moments of beauty emerge as actors recite imaginary letters they might write home from the warfront: Zachary Ho, Alberto Ruiz and Sreejith Remanan each yield praiseworthy solo performances, coupling speech in English, Spanish and Malayalam respectively with deliciously deliberate choreography. Then the lights come on and the cast begins listlessly discussing the idea of the kamikaze spirit in the most flippant of terms - actual quote: "They were forced to do it! Like we were forced to do this play." Godammit, I'm astounded at how the distillation of all these brilliant people could've resulted in something so vapid.
Yes, I'm being harsh. But the fact remains that the Japanese Occupation is the most psychologically scarring event of our country's history to date, so a failure to produce anything insightful from contemplation of that period is truly disturbing.
And I suspect - this is just me theorising, mind you - that a lot of it's got to do with having an agenda of multiculturalism without really being sensitive to content, without truly understanding the import of cultural difference. The show's creators throw around all this rainbow representation - playground kids chorusing in a Malayalam song to praise their champion, video interviews with Japanese Occupation survivors from Singapore's three major racial groups in three different languages - with hardly any attempt to figure out what made the culture of the Japanese kamikaze troops special.
And yes, they were special. As anyone who's read about the Occupation years knows, the Japanese troops were shocking for their efficiency, their unquestioning loyalty to imperial ideology and most of all, their cruelty. We don't get to see any of that in this play. We see the same military training techniques used by sadistic instructors all over the world - mildly twisted, yes, but nothing exceptional. Willingness to die for your country is a pretty universal demand by governments, anyway. And sure, we're shown projections of some extracts from genuine letters from people who were (or almost were) kamikaze pilots, expressing some degree of doubt about the war effort, obscuring the fact that these voices were few and far between.
Ultimately, we're told that the Japanese kamikaze pilots were human too; they were just like everyone else. This might've been revelatory if we'd also explored the depth of wartime atrocities, but no such luck: it's a plea for understanding when we've been given nothing to understand.
(Granted, there's a moment at the end of the play which evokes a truly visceral sense of common humanity. Actors strip and dunk their heads into a pool of water, testing their ability to drown themselves: we struggle with them, fascinated by this act of self-destruction. Of course, then they ruin it all by dumping their clothes off a hill of sandbags to emphatically represent their deaths, then beginning the whole cycle again with the kids and the playground games. Where's the subtlety?)
I should apologise. I've been dumping on Ms Alaniz too much. And I should be conscious, I guess, of the fact that neither she nor any of the international cast (save for Zachary) have a first-hand understanding of what the Japanese military means to a Singapore audience. And I should credit her for maintaining an intimate sense of beauty that's evident in the presentation of the play, even during its least inspired moments.
But the fact does remain that she's been unable to yoke all the different talents in her cast together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. There's some kind of key, some kind of elusive formula to creating a fabulous performance out of actors with such profoundly different performance backgrounds as you'd find in TTRP. Ong Keng Seng managed it when he created the company's first devised work, Lim Tzay Chuen. Russell Cheek managed it to a qualified degree with The Secret Souk. Whatever the secret is, it's pretty damn essential to grasp if you don't want your play to look stupid.
I actually do have a compulsive faith in the philosophy behind TTRP (started by Mr Kuo Pao Kun himself) that contemporary actors can learn something important from traditional theatre practitioners. And I also believe that the act of devising a play together is just as valuable - perhaps more valuable - than solo creation or performance of the classics for the development of a contemporary actor.
So while I'd say it's risky for TTRP to have its students devise productions, I'd encourage them to keep on doing it. But a word to the director: yes, multiculturalism rocks, yadda yadda, strike up the band and tune the erhu. But watch out: because if you don't learn how to harness the strength of diversity, it'll kill you.
Gah. Y'know, I was pretty psyched when I heard about this production.
The Divine Wind and Tears Lost in the Rain purports to explore
"the kamikaze spirit"; shining a light into the ideologies
and experiences of the Japanese pilots of World War II who performed
suicide missions. Sadly, despite the beauty and intimacy of the performance,
the viewer learns nothing beyond what a basic knowledge of history and
two years of National Service could have taught him: humans are violent,
the Japanese were youths misguided by a military system, it could happen
to any of us, yadda yadda, yadda yadda. More problematically, the choreography
isn't always well thought-out - these acting students just
aren't convincing when they're playing children and aren't
gripping or disciplined enough when they're performing marches
or obstacle courses. Yet there is a core of beauty - in the set
design, in the exuberance of the actors, in their momentary or protracted
solo movements where you can see the products of the theatre training
they've received. Conclusion: there's some talent here,
but it's sure as hell not in the act of devising work -
and there's still quite a bit of work to be done in refinement
of body consciousness before their upcoming graduation piece.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /