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Production

The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles

Company

W!ld Rice

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

15/08/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Drama Centre

Rating

***

The Double-Headed Eagle

The Raffles name has a special place in Singapore culture. There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you have "Raffles" as part of your name, you need to provide a service or product of distinction: Raffles Hotel, Singapore Airlines' Raffles Class and the family of Raffles Schools are just some examples. Part of this is because it pays tribute to our country's founder but part of it, I suspect, also has to do with the colonial heritage implied by the name. After all, for all that we trumpet our pride in our Asian values and traditions, there is still, 189 years after Raffles founded Singapore, a segment of the national psyche that retains a west-is-best mentality, whether we'd like to admit it or not.

At the same time, like many previously colonized countries, we have also matured as a nation and take pride in our independence and indigenous culture. We certainly do not view our days under colonial rule through rose-tinted glasses either. In fact, I think many people of my generation rarely think about Singapore specifically as a former British colony at all, so far and so quickly have we come as a nation that we seem to have emerged Aphrodite-like from the sea.

Perhaps because of this, as playwright (and Inkpot writer) Ng Yi-Sheng noted during the talkback session, within the Singapore theatre canon, there has not really been a distinctly post-colonial play. We have plays about nation building and what it means to be a Singaporean but they do not necessarily address these issues in the context of our colonial past. If anything, it is the paternalistic PAP and its figurehead Minister Mentor Lee, rather than the British Empire, who is the forefather that we children rebel against. This, I would argue, is also because, at least according to our history books, the British did not particularly oppress native Singaporeans. It is, in fact, the Japanese Occupation rather than British rule which is usually framed as the great blight on Singapore's past. Also (unlike in India, for example) the departure of the British was relatively smooth and not marked by violence. Compared to say, the history of exploitation and slavery brought to Africa by American and European colonialists that has been a preoccupation of black artists for decades (and arguably remains one), what has there been for us to rally against or tear down in terms of our relationship with our colonial rulers?

It is to Ng's credit that he is able to see what is truly relevant about Raffles' story for Singaporeans today. Temptation, a theatrical biography which mixes historical facts with dramatic fiction, does not take a simplistic post-colonial stance to fill the gap that he has identified. Instead, Ng leap-frogs over it and adopts a post-post-colonial stance in Temptation, bringing together two different readings of Singapore's past to unveil a Raffles who is both laudable (a colonial reading) and flawed (a post-colonial reading). Ng presents a Raffles (whose family crest aptly sports a two-headed eagle) who is against slavery and makes the effort to learn the indigenous language of Malay, but who also believes in colonization as a means of accruing material wealth and power for the British Empire and who abandons Singapore after having spent less than a year on the island. Of course, a protagonist who is a complex and fragmented figure rather than a saint or sinner is not exactly groundbreaking but it does provide an apt metaphor for what Ng feels are the many tensions faced by middle-class Singaporeans stuck at the crossroads of the modern and the traditional. In the play, an addled and dying Raffles looks back on his life as an explorer through fevered visions and is torn between ungardened, earthy temptations as represented by Patricia Toh dressed as a big, red rafflesia, and the civilized world of British law as represented by a completely whited out Ian Tan who is supposed to be a statue of Raffles come to life.

Similarly, young Singaporeans today struggle with difficult choices as well. We have to choose between staying in Singapore or leaving for supposedly greener pastures overseas. Because we know our government is watching over us, we sleep soundly in our beds but, at the same time, we worry constantly that this same government is slowly suffocating us. Ng has been particularly astute in using the rafflesia as one of the play's central motifs: it is hailed as the largest flower in the world - but it is also one of the smelliest. This works well as a symbol for our country and its people: we are so proud of Singapore ("a top-ranked port, a world-class media, a stable society where every creed and every race has its role and has its place") and yet we know that much of her success and power are illusory - we remain a ridiculously small country with no natural resources and seem to take one step backwards for every two forward in terms of social progress. What, then, do we, the contradictory children of a contradictory nation, make of ourselves and our place in the world?

So the play is less about presenting an emotionally engaging narrative or a historical account of Raffles' life than it is about what it means to be Singaporean in the 21st century. Even on those terms, however, I must say I was still disappointed because I felt that the script merely held a mirror to this issue rather than shedding new light on it. I kept waiting for the play to go to the next level but it never quite happened: Temptation showed the situation without really probing it.

Having said that, Temptation does work well as a theatrical presentation, especially when it is exploring the dichotomies of Raffles' life - for example, when Toh is literally set against Tan in a surreal scene in which the two wrestle with each other. Director Christina Sergeant also helps to stir up some drama with smoke machines and shadow puppetry, which battle for our attention against pretty period costumes and a creative set that transforms ingeniously yet simply from the bed the aged Raffles is resting in to the boat he travels on as a young man. Unfortunately, such theatrics, along with the abundance of historical factoids and a lack of ambition in exploring the issues of the play also make Temptation come across like something commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board rather than a fully fledged play.

Another problem with the script is that some sections are dry because they rely on too much exposition and a presumed interest on the part of the audience in learning the little details of Raffles' life (he loved animals and set up Singapore's first zoo!). Thankfully, these are occasionally saved by the sharp wit of the playwright: in answer to the query, "Is it very easy to lose things on a ship?", Raffles' first wife Olivia quips, "Naturally. The last time I went to the East, I lost my virginity."

The script also has other strengths. My review of Angel-ism, another play in the Singapore Theatre Festival this year, ended with my writing about how the play emphasized not only Singapore's multiculturalism but also its multilingualism. One of the things I liked about Temptation was how similarly strident it was in this regard. The script weaves in both the Malay folksong Di Tanjong Katong as well as lines of verse by Shelley and Shakespeare, and there are lines in Malay and Tamil spoken by Chinese and Caucasian actors. The play takes pains to remind us of the multiethnic origins of the characters (we are told that Farquhar's wife, for example, had a Malaccan mother and a French father) and celebrates a symphony of accents including Jamaican and Scottish. This forces us to acknowledge one of the few indisputably beautiful things about Singapore: the fact that people of different lands, cultures and tongues co-exist harmoniously (if we want to be optimistic) and certainly without open conflict (if we want to be unnecessarily cynical). This point is particularly poignant in this case as Raffles, for all his uppity Englishness, nonetheless made the effort to learn to speak Malay so that he could better integrate with the people of Singapore. How many of us Singaporean Chinese can make that claim?

There are other little flourishes that further enrich the play. Raffles' life is described as a "broken mansion" at one point and set designer Wong Chee Wai has taken this to heart with an oversize but slanted set that evokes both a careening ship and a life in decline. If we look carefully, we see another clever detail: the steelwork that decorates Raffles' bedroom back in England draws inspiration from tropical flora. A feminist perspective can also be brought to bear on Ng's decision to have Sophia, Raffles' second wife, as the omniscient narrator of Temptation. In the programme notes, Sergeant emphasizes that Sophia, though pretty much unknown in history, should be commended for fighting so hard to preserve Raffles' memory: she wrote his memoirs and commissioned a statue of him to be placed in Westminster Abbey. This, then, is perhaps the playwright's way of lighting a candle for Sophia, the unsung hero, the woman behind the man. If so, I personally find his decision a little trite - but it does add another layer to the play nonetheless. Much better were the costumes by Moe Kasim. Tan, head-to-toe in plaster-white body paint as Raffles' statue, was certainly striking but I liked Toh's rafflesia costume even more. Pairing the large red cut-out of the flower with a black pair of ripped fishnet stockings was the perfect touch to bring out the raw sensuality she is supposed to represent.

The ensemble cast, however, provided few surprises. Though perfectly competent, none of the actors had the spark to truly set their characters alight - although, to be fair, I suspect that this was largely because the script consisted mostly of caricatures. I found Claire Devine (Sophia) and Candice de Rosario (Raffles' sister, Mary Anne) to be very one-note, for example, but then the script gave them little to do besides play the suffering wife and the comedy sidekick respectively. Rehaan Engineer as Raffles and Jo Tan as Olivia left more of an impression as their roles were more fleshed out and mixed moments of high drama with touches of light comedy. Still, neither performance seemed internalized enough to be wholly convincing. The standout for me was Toh, whose effervescent personality suited her role perfectly, especially when, in the opening scenes of Temptation, she teasingly moved around the bedroom so that Raffles could always see her but his wife could not. Having said that, while Toh is certainly an entertaining and charismatic actor, she does need to work on her word stress, which can be quite odd in places and thus distracting.


"What do we, the contradictory children of a contradictory nation, make of ourselves and our place in the world?"

Credits

Playwright: Ng Yi-Sheng

Director: Christina Sergeant

Set Design: Wong Chee Wai

Lighting Design: James Tan

Sound Design: Shah Tahir

Costume Design: Moe Kasim

Hair Design: Ashley Lim

Makeup Design: M.A.C.

Puppet Makers: Candice de Rozario, Ian Tan

Producer: Tony Trickett

Production Manager: Purpink Chung

Stage Manager: Toh Lin

Technical Manager: Teo Kuang Han

Assistant Stage Manager: June Wong

Stage Assistant: Farina Bte Sidik

Wardrobe Mistress: Nurhidayah Mahadi

Wardrobe Assistant: Sophian Sazali

Cast: Fazli Ahmad, Claire Devine, Candice de Rozario, Rehaan Engineer, Tony McGill, Ian Tan, Jo Tan, Tien Devine and Patricia Toh

Photography: Albert Lim KS

Second Opinion
The Founder Founders by Naeem Kapadia
More Reviews of Productions by W!ld Rice

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.