Calling All Angels
Unsurprisingly, references to angels are rife in this play. Songs like the Eurythmics' There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart and the Scorpions' Send Me An Angel are used as transition music between scenes and the central storyline of Angel-ism is that of four angels going about their daily work in Heaven under the instruction of the Almighty. The quartet, however, aren't dressed like traditional angels with halo and wings and this works nicely in the play's context as the more human appearance of the actors reminds us that the ambitious Angel-ism, while ostensibly about the divine, is much more interested in very human concerns. What makes angels persevere as symbols in art is that they speak to fundamental needs: angels symbolize not only unconditional love and protection but our natural instinct to try and make sense of why bad things happen in the world.
The Necessary Stage's seminal godeatgod grappled with similar themes soon after 9/11 and Angel-ism speaks so powerfully to us today as well because we continue to live in a world that appears to be on the brink of violent collapse. Every day, the newspapers are filled with stories about natural disasters, wars and human suffering on a scale seemingly beyond that previously imagined or endured. In such difficult times of fear, paranoia and insecurity, it is not surprising that people turn to the divine for answers, to seek protection, to find peace. Angel-ism starts off with the four actors walking up to the audience, sitting and standing among us as they take turns to recite, in soft, measured tones and bright plastic smiles, passages that sound like they have been lifted out of a self-help book, a guide to new-age living or passages from a religious text. I am discomfited because I am cynical of anything with evangelical overtones but at the same time, as I sit there, I understand especially how alluring religions, self-help gurus, or the words of a Rhonda Byrne, Paul Coelho or even Oprah Winfrey, must be in this day and age. It is, after all, so much easier to allow yourself to be placed under someone's protection and guidance than it is to have to face the harsh reality of contemporary life on your own: method can always be found in madness if one simply ascribes it to God's "mysterious ways".
Religion, however, does not have all the answers, as the bickering
angels find themselves unable to agree even on what they assume initially
is a very simple question: what is right and wrong? This is expressed
with a backlit and shirtless Helmi Fita, standing in front of a large
pair of silver wings, his mouth wide open in a silent scream, his every
muscle tense, and the words "good" and "bad"
scrawled in white across his chest, divided by a vertical line. It is
also one of the riffs that runs through the play, most poignantly in
reference to Singapore's very own guardian angel, our founding
father, who is imagined here to be at death's door. How is he
to be judged in the end? - and whom will we turn to when he is
What I personally found most fascinating about this play though is
how it continues Singapore theatre's growing interest in our country's
multilingual heritage (for example, the recent National
Language Class). Co-directors Aidli "Alin" Mosbit
and Kok Heng Leun said in a video interview that the larger objective
of Angel-ism was to create a piece of theatre that was truly
Singaporean and I think they have succeeded on two fronts. Firstly,
they have clearly drawn from the modern Singapore theatre tradition
of devised work that has marked many local productions, most notably
those by the aforementioned The Necessary Stage. Regardless of whether
this episodic play was co-created through rehearsals by the actors or
developed largely by the playwrights on their own, Angel-ism
is distinctly post-modern; it feels organic, spontaneous and alive with
ideas. Secondly, if
In Angel-ism, the multi-ethnic cast speaks a mix of English, Malay and Mandarin, and what is interesting is that, unlike many other plays since the advent of surtitles in the theatre, there is minimal translation provided. Here, simply hearing the sounds of the different languages is as important a part of the theatrical experience as comprehending what each individual word means. After all, this is a play about the blurring of lines between right and wrong, man and woman, the divine and the earthly. Is it so surprising that we should experience this breaking down of barriers in terms of language as well? It is to the credit of the playwrights and directors that they do not take the conceit so far that it reaches the point of frustration for the audience. Most of the text is still in our lingua franca, English, and live translations are usually provided where it matters. In fact, these occasional live translations (as Shida speaks in Malay, for example, Xi recites the same lines simultaneously in English) add considerably to the experience. This lyrical overlapping offers a different metaphor: languages not as clashing swords but as the winds beneath wings. It is interesting to note, however, that no translations are offered for two of the stories performed entirely in Mandarin but that the Malay story is punctuated frequently with lines in English. If another idea behind the inclusion of Mandarin and Malay text is to tear down the presumptuous tyrant that is English, it is telling then that Mandarin is presented as just as chauvinistic as English while the Malay language is more accommodating. I'm not sure how conscious a decision this actually was by the directors and playwrights but it was certainly something I found very striking.
Angel-ism reminds me a lot of The Necessary Stage's godeatgod. Both plays riff on the theme of divine beings as our guardians, and the natural human instinct to try and make sense of why bad things happen in the world. Both also place a lot of emphasis on the creation of strong visual images: most striking was a backlit Helmi Fita with large silver wings, his mouth wide open in a silent scream, his every muscle tense, and the words "good" and "bad" scrawled across his chest, divided by a vertical line. This script by playwrights Mohd Zulfadli Mohd Rashid and Danny Yeo, however, is more pointed than godeatgod and specifies the context of this multi-lingual piece as a multi-cultural Singapore where our very own "guardian angel", a certain founding father, is imagined to be at death's door. The play is rather rough around the edges and flounders at times as it makes its way across a series of short, largely unconnected scenes but there are enough moments of inspiration (for example, "The Slap of God") to see the play through and, on the whole, it strikes a nice balance between somber contemplation and playful parody.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /