The searing comedy House of Sins by playwright / director Li Xie is a masterful piece of work that truly deserves a place in the canon of great Singapore literature. Li had acted in Drama Box's 2003 version of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 which Kok Heng Leun and Quah Sy Ren had reimagined in a Singaporean context, but here, Li goes one step further: she draws on the most powerful elements of Churchill's landmark play about sexual repression while creating a wholly original Singaporean work that can stand on its own.
Both plays are about seemingly perfect families but what drives the plot of House are the actual Hell Houses in America which are staged by fundamental Christians during the Halloween period for evangelical reasons: in House, a family becomes so outraged that no one in their community behaves in as morally upright a manner that they decide to invite the local residents to their home and then act out shocking scenes of depravity and sin in front of them so that they will be scared into leading more saintly lives.
Li cues us to how self-righteous the family is by having the family members occasionally pause in the middle of a conversation to smile and give each other the thumbs-up while a bell chimes in the background as a sign of approval. This is just one of many surreal elements which Li introduces into the over-the-top, cartoon world of House. The most striking one, of course, is the much-talked about casting across genders lines that was clearly inspired by Cloud 9. Cross-dressing can be played for laughs and that is certainly the case here, especially with actress Doreen Toh as a ridiculously macho policeman. However, there is a more serious side to it as well. In both House and Cloud 9, the son is gay and is constantly being told by his father that he needs to be a "real man". In our heterosexist society, gay men have to wrestle with the constricting stereotype of gay men being effeminate and the constant pressure on gay men to pass as "one of the guys". Having this part played by a woman, therefore, actually brings vividly to life one of the central themes of the plays which is how society sometimes forces people to painfully suppress who they are and take on different roles just to survive. Similarly, the mothers in the two plays are played by men because the women desire the sexual freedom that they often perceive men to have in society but have to continue to play their ascribed role in society as dutiful wives.
Another one of the play's main themes is hypocrisy and we see that most clearly as the family members begin to get carried away in the roles they play in their Hell House. The father, for example, is only too eager to play a man who visits prostitutes and we eventually discover that he gets off on watching his neighbour engage in illicit lovemaking and see him raping his wife when she refuses to have sex with him - this, of course, is the same man who tries to instruct his son about what a "real man" is. The play is, thus, also an indictment on puritanical conservatives who try to repress the natural sexual desires of others but who themselves turn out to be only all too human, if not worse. More than that, it also shows the damage that such repression can have on others: if the family had been more accepting of the son's homosexuality, the play suggests, he probably would not have had to suppress it to the point that he ends up blackmailing one of his young students to have surreptitious sex with him.
A departure from Cloud 9 which I particularly appreciated in House is how much Li upped the intensity of the comedy. Cloud 9 does have many funny moments but here, quips come fast and furious, usually laced with a raunchy sensibility that is somehow both irreverent and playful. There is also much slapstick humour and there are some truly hilarious set pieces built on dramatic irony - for example, how the father cannot understand why his son is so insistent on playing not only a drug addict but, more specifically, a gay drug addict. The bawdy tone of the play is also complemented by a set that is very much part of the joke as well. In one of the bedrooms, for example, is an illustration of a plate of fruit which is composed so that it can easily be interpreted as more than a depiction of a banana and two berries. Sure, some of the gags aim below the belt but that is precisely the point: the play is a celebration of sex and, specifically, sexual freedom. Praise, then, also goes to Li and her production team for the colourful set design, fizzy musical interludes, fanciful costumes and vibrant lighting, all of which add to the energy of this play.
For all its humour, though, Li's script is not without its moments of darkness as reality bites in scenes depicting rape and pedophilia, but she weaves these contrasting elements skillfully into a tight narrative, using the aforementioned musical interludes to control the tempo of the production. If House drags, it only does so very slightly in the last fifteen minutes or so of the play. I must say, however, that I am unconvinced by her decision to suddenly have the characters address the audience at the play's coda as if we in the Jubilee Hall were the actual audience for this house of sins. I suspect she is trying to remind us of the culpability of society at large and our own hypocrisy: as Li points out in her programme notes, society's condemnation and outrage at Edison Chen's nude photos probably reflects more poorly on us than the photos do on Chen. We tsk-tsk at sex scandals but aren't we the ones buying buy the tabloids that document them? It is an interesting point but unnecessary in a play already so rich with ideas and deserving of more development if meant to be taken seriously.
In terms of her direction, I liked her confident and clear creative vision and especially how she used the split-level set to move people around so that the presentation never got too static. This resulted in the occasional problem with sightlines but I enjoyed the scenes of the father and grand-aunt in their cute little makeshift car set into the apron too much to complain.
I felt that all the actors turned in strong performances - even small parts like that of Li as a pregnant cabaret singer (another visual cue to challenge sexual stereotypes) and Toh as a prostitute were vibrantly played. Still, I was not entirely won over by Goh Guat Kian as the son and Toh when she was playing the policeman because their physicality as men seemed a little too put on. Toh was clearly going just for laughs which was fine but I was more impressed by the superlative performances by Julius Foo (cross-dressing as the grand-aunt), Peter Sau (cross-dressing as the mother) and Tay Kong Hui (as the father) because all three were deliciously over-the-top when required to be outrageously funny but able to engage on an emotional level as well to be more than just caricatures. There is a deep authenticity in the situations and the characters that these three actors managed to tap into and this gave their performances the weight and poignancy that the female performances lacked - although I acknowledge that Li's writing had a part to play in this as well, their characters being better written than those of the female actors. The three lead actors impressed me because they delivered moving performances that were immersed in the world of the play yet seemed to speak with a knowing sadness to the wider concerns beyond it. I particularly appreciated how Foo and Sau played their parts as women and not as men dressed as women which would have made a mockery of the play's theme since the scariest thing about hypocrisy, after all, is that it is always well-hidden.
My greatly appreciative experience of House was, unfortunately, marred by technical problems that evening which resulted in the play starting about 15 minutes late and a surtitle operator who must have been unable to hear any of the dialogue onstage because the surtitles would be flashed on screen completely out of sync with what the actors were saying. This meant that if you did not understand Mandarin at all you would have no idea which character was saying what and when he or she was saying it - a non-Mandarin-speaking Inkpot colleague walked out after ten minutes because he had no idea what was going on; I soldiered on despite not being a world champion in Mandarin since I knew I had a review to write. The surtitles also had the very odd habit of moving around all over the screen so that, quite often, they would be projected not on the flat surface of a wall but over a curved pillar, which made them very difficult to read.
These things may seem like minor quibbles but the fact is that little
things do affect one's overall experience - even though I had eventually
stopped trying to
I know the play argues that one should not seek perfection in life. However, perhaps we should still strive to achieve it at least in art. These technical problems were small sins but sins nonetheless that detracted from what was otherwise a divine piece of work.
Kenneth's First Impression
If you don't understand Mandarin, do yourself a favour and skip
House of Sins, despite the "In Mandarin with English
surtitles" tag. Yes, the surtitles are there and very well translated
but all surtitles are flashed completely out of sync with the actual
dialogue on stage (sometimes four to five lines later) so it will be
hard to figure out who is saying what and when they are saying it -
which means the story probably won't make much sense and you'll miss
a lot of the gags.
Matthew's First Impression
I walked out of House of Sins after about ten minutes and
I'm not sure why I didn't ask for my money back. The play was advertised
as being in Mandarin with English subtitles - and while the production
technically delivered on this promise, the subtitles were always at
least three speeches behind the spoken lines on stage. Consequently
I was always five to ten seconds behind the rest of the audience and
had to work out which of the characters had said the lines I was reading.
This made my brain hurt, utterly ruined the pacing and characterisation
for me and was a thoroughly frustrating experience. To add insult to
injury, the projected surtitles occasionally changed shape without warning
so that the rightmost words would suddenly be projected over a curved
surface, making them extremely hard to read.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /