>TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT by Creative Arts Programme Alumni

>reviewed by arthur kok

>date: 10 jul 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>MATTERS OF ORIGIN, SELF AND DESTINY

TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT marks the 10th Anniversary of the Creative Arts Programme (CAP) that began as a pilot writing programme in 1990 open to only three secondary schools in Singapore. It has since burst its elitist bubble to embrace students from secondary schools across Singapore. The performance on Saturday evening wraps up what the programme stands for: vision from among the best and freshest.

The opening piece, "Redhill Blues", is a mythical tapestry which allows Ng Yi-Sheng to weave together many unlikely threads. Set in 15th Century Singapura, there is a feudal system, education for both girls and boys, a very polished media network as well as trains for rapid transit. The folktale of how Redhill obtained its blood-red colour is also worked in. Essentially, the play centres about a clever boy, Nadim, who (because he contains the murderous swordfish problem) is eventually murdered by his insecure Raja Sri Maharaja.

Through the course of the play, Ng highlights the disparity between ideals of national good and actual political agenda. For example, the ruler of Singapura appears supportive of educating the next batch of leaders, but is actually worried that the youth "think too much." Also, and more importantly, the play continuously reminds us that it is itself a construct, and has the characters query the beginnings of every notion, including that of Singapura. By deliberately making none-too-subtle comparisons between his Singapura and present day Singapore, Ng manages to interrogate how we accept the political system as well as the story of our nation's genesis.

To reinforce self-questioning, the Brechtian method of heightening the audience's awareness of theatrical artifice was made to figure prominently. So there was the now usual (if you consider recent offerings such as Eusoff Hall's "The Good Woman of Szetchuan" and Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble's "Fanshen") changing of costumes on stage. Added to this, the characters were conceived as cardboard caricatures, laden with stereotypes, whether racial or occupational. Thus, the audience is keyed in to the falsity of the roles the characters inhabit, that these roles are literally things that can be put on or cast off.

By taking her time to dress for different roles onstage, Sharon Ismail stood out from the relatively greener cast when she toggled between racially different characters with practiced ease. Thoroughly confident in playing Puja Purushothaman, Mrs Loo and Nadim's grandmother, she was as winsome as she was deft.

>>'The performance on Saturday evening wraps up what the programme stands for: vision from among the best and freshest.'

Other actors and the characters they played were uproarious simply because they triggered off certain 'shared' notions which we keep hidden for the sake of PCness. A particular example was the motor mouth Indian student Prem Purushothaman (played by Joel Tan). Walter Theseira and Koh In-Chuen, who played Raja Sri Maharaja and Prince Parameswara respectively, were however clumsier. They came across more as teens role-playing "Magic: The Gathering", all spit and gnashing of teeth, but nothing you would care to take seriously.

But as long as actors delivered their lines with a certain level of attitude, the play continued to soar, thanks to the searing script. Under Ng Yi-Sheng's poison pen, nothing is sacrosanct. Potshots were taken of the Monica-Bill affair, local newscasters, political campaigns and speeches ("we must be one people, one nation, one tribe!"). Politicians and media emerge corrupt and essentially two-faced. Stifled under paranoid leadership, the citizens of Singapura eventually flee to their 'lands of origin'.

Through political commentary, myth making, and the method of alienation, it becomes obvious how we should appraise the local government, what we are to make of the history we receive and the many roles we take on in Singapore.

In contrast, the evening's second piece "The Chief's Son", invites the audience to look into the singular issue of filial duty versus personal fulfillment. How should Kim, the chief's son, decide between being the next village chief and to run off to the city puppeteer Manolo speaks of? While "Redhill Blues" was all attitude and posturing (we are talking rap music and an ungainly swordfish dance), this second piece had wistful flute strains to prepare the audience for a 'quieter' and more stylised affair.

Close attention was paid to stage aesthetics: a candle lit altar held court in a corner, the set pared down to a spartan three benches and surreal flames teased out of stage lights. In keeping with the minimalist mood, the ensemble had painted white faces, essentially identity free, and played puppets, villagers, furniture and even turbulent waves. Every movement was deliberate and purposeful. While ingenious and well conceived, it suffered because of the ensemble's obvious lack of confidence, limbs a-quivering.

Worse, some of the recycled actors from "Redhill Blues" made too many slips in this second piece to forgive. While most were obviously won over by Kim's (Lee Yanshu) boyish charm, Lee should have spent more time practicing his lines. Constantly tripping over their words, this second cast seemed more eager to wrap up the night than give the script the emotional pacing and intensity it required.

Ultimately, Kim gains his freedom through the death of Manolo. All we know about Manolo is that he had to run off from his own destiny as the next village chief to pursue his dream of a puppeteer. The latter's sketchy past points to a shrouded personal history, something that is tellingly unexplored. This is almost suggestive of a fuller character that has yet to emerge. Perhaps to write one's future, it is necessary to erase one's past. To over-write.

Benjamin Ng had sought my comments for his play even before it was first staged as a 35-minute play. To see it finally realised in Jubilee Hall is nothing short of heartwarming. Initially, it was easy to compare "The Chief's Son" to TheatreWorks' "Lao Jiu". However, Benjamin stands out with his keen eye, and demonstrates both heart and restraint in how he attends to every minor detail.

The two plays in TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT seem to prefigure the bifurcated direction that local theatre is taking. On the one hand, witty play of theatre practise and theory will force us to always think as we watch; while on the other, the story and its staging remain central and issues are left for post-performance introspection.