You've heard the proverb "less is more"? Evidently director Benjamin Ho hasn't. Death of a Hero proceeds along a strategy of overload and excess, throwing flourishes of theatre at the audience from multiple directions - and I like it. I like the raw energy of the gigantic ensemble, I like the gloriously messy set of crumpled newspaper, I like the boom of Chinese drums and the shock of blood-'n'-opera makeup and the sexy bare chests of rippling muscle; I like the heights of fantasy, the depths of slapstick and horror that this piece contains.
But as much as I like this work, I'm dissatisfied. Ho doesn't quite achieve a sense of unity with the piece - amidst the spectacle, there's a subliminal sense of incoherence that dogs me throughout the show, that prevents me from being overwhelmed, from being drawn in, from being convinced that this is really good stuff.
Part of this awkwardness stems from the script: created as Chew Boon Leong's maiden play in 1995, it tells the tale of Ah Hock, an unemployed layabout with a pregnant girlfriend named Sherry and a nagging mother, periodically shifting into a fantasy world where he's a hero destined to save a village by slaying 99 monsters. As his standing in the real world gets worse and worse (it's revealed that he was swindled out of a large sum of money, and now loan sharks are after him and his family) his fantasy world ceases to be an escapist paradise: the villagers, awed at his power, whisper that he is the 100th monster, while the maiden he's falling in love with plots to destroy him - as it is she, in reality, who is the 100th monster.
Many viewers complain that the parallel strands don't rationally gel - the long-suffering, sharp-tongued Sherry isn't a mirror of the sweet, conniving village maiden/monster, and Ah Hock's embattled success as a monster-slayer finds no comparable fortune in the real world. I could argue that the two tales are both narratives of masculinities in crisis, describing how both inaction and violent heroic triumph contain the seeds of self-destruction - but the truth is, in my gut I too can feel the semantic gap. The stories don't add up.
But it's not just the text that's fractured. The style of performance is also pretty schizophrenic. This is partly for clarity's sake: events in the real world are portrayed by human actors, while the fantasy world is populated by traditional wooden puppets. But even in the human realm, scenes switch rapidly from over-the-top bawdy physical humour to heartlander naturalism to violent mass choreography, (with some pretty thrilling ensemble work thrown in, incidentally). The forms don't quite cohere - a friend of mine notes the disparate influence of Kuo Pao Kun, Ang Gey Pin and the old Finger Players school of pantomime, never quite unified in the same vision. In fact, Ho's funniest visual coup - the appearance of the fantasy world "villagers", in the form of colourful slippers converted into puppets - possesses a silliness quite different from the rest of the play. An inspired image, but it doesn't fit.
A third and final reason for the play's shakiness is the lead actor Rei Poh. While not actually a bad actor, he lacks that crucial stage presence that Ah Hock needed as a a protagonist to hold the audience's attention - one's tempted to assume he was cast mainly because he's able to look like a lovable loser than for more solid talents. From correspondence, I've learned that Ho had the full intention of crafting his role as one that viewers could not respect, an utterly pathetic man. Fine, then - I think this was a bad directorial move. It'd have been better, I believe, to hire a truly strong actor to perform weakness.
Mind you, the general level of acting was good - Serena Pang, Trey Ho and Patricia Toh were especially delightful in their various roles as slack-jawed Cantonese-speaking mothers, fiery-eyed monsters, haggling housewives, panicking villagers, blind tissue paper sellers. And there was so much else to enjoy in this production, standing as testament to the broad and vivid imagination of the director.
Yet the flaws of the play run through the work and prevent the critical viewer from being truly overwhelmed, from really allowing himself to be immersed in the world of the drama. They're also what stands between Benjamin Ho being seen as an interesting director and as a great one.
Death of a Hero is the inaugural production of Puppet Square, and it's hard to say what it spells for the future ahead. Compared to recent works by The Finger Players (Singapore's original adult-inclusive puppet troupe), this company's output seems to boast a rougher, messier, more dynamic texture. It's not yet a fully differentiated style, but that's normal for a company's first production.
Like Jeffrey Tan, Loretta Chen and Zizi Azah bte Abdul Majid, Ho is one of a handful of young directors who're still trying to establish an independent voice. Time will tell whether whether and how he'll distinguish himself - and how his style fits into the city's greater cultural complex.
Ng Yi-Sheng's First Impression
There's so many things I liked about this production: the raw energy of the large ensemble, the live drum music, the gloriously messy set of crumpled newspaper, the heights of fantasy and the depths of slapstick and horror that it encompasses. And yet the show did not overwhelm me - I simply could not find a direct emotional connection to the piece. I kept being bothered by the weakness of the protagonist Ah Hock - the actor seemed to have been typecast for the role rather than actually being a strong actor portraying weakness. And while I could posit a connection between the twin storylines - something about embattled masculinity - a problematic semantic gulf still remained between the two. This is a play that impresses, yet doesn't quite feel complete.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression
This is a play of two worlds - the contemporary one where our hero is saddled with unemployment, bad debts and a pregnant girlfriend, and the mythical one where he is a brave warrior who saves a village (and a fair maiden) from an army of a hundred monsters - and director Benjamin Ho's vision for Death of a Hero brought both to vivid life on stage with the help of Fiona Lim's lighting design, percussion work by the Zing-O Drum Group and a spirited ensemble cast who took on multiple roles with much commitment and discipline. The use of physical theatre and puppetry was not always the most innovative I've seen but certainly consistently engaging although I must admit that against the kaleidoscope of images, the hero's story faded into the background. Hero was an enjoyable and exhilarating work but I left unsure of what exactly it was trying to say about modern society and the myth of heroes. I'm still undecided about the set as well which consisted entirely of newspapers: it was visually very striking and there's a statement about the media somewhere in there but it was also distracting to see the actors trying to wade through the mass of crumpled newspaper strewn on the ground. ***1/2
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /