>DESDEMONA by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 2 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>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.

>>>>>say my name, say my name

What is DESDEMONA? Is it an interpretation of the age-old Shakespearean play? Or is it Ong Keng Sen's project to unite Asian talents in one postmodern juggernaut of deconstruction? Or is it a subversive political commentary on Singapore? Or is purely an exercise in minimalist aesthetic masquerading as a play? So exactly what is DESDEMONA?

The answers are endless, as many as there are people, as numerous as there are opinions - this cacophony of strident voices arguing that DESDEMONA is this, DESDEMONA is that. The best Art comes from conflict, from provocation and it is to Dessy's credit that the most controversial play in the Arts Festival has to be DESDEMONA.

From the word go, the audience were warned that it wasn't going to be an easy experience. From the Cliff Notes explanations to the Idiot's Guide to Understanding Abstract Plays notes in the programme sheet, those expecting a cushy time in their seats were in for a rude rude shock. And most certainly people left half way, scratching their heads and muttering in bewilderment. And admittedly at midpoint the arty-farty indulgence got tedious and tiring. But to discount DESDEMONA because of that is akin to dismiss Star Wars as merely a kid's fantasy - reductionist rejection of any work is not only unfair but also essentially myopic.

DESDEMONA is a success for the same reason many people would think it is a total failure - nobody could be entirely sure what the play is really about. In the ambiguity springs a wealth of emotions, a richness of interpretations. On one level, the play was a complete revision of a favourite Shakespearean play. A total subversion of the male-orientated Othello, DESDEMONA propelled the once tragic figure Desdemona to Super Hero proportions. Still enslaved by Othello (the opening scene had her transfixed in a fragmented "O", surrounded by his phantom presence), she fights for her identity to survive, seeking a past and future that is her own. Most of all she seeks to assert her name - "My name is Desdemona".

>>'It is not only pedantic but also ultimately useless to try to frame DESDEMONA - the richness of texture is what gives the play the pulsating sheen that shone so brightly that night'

And on the other level, it is a feminist war cry against the domination of man, the need to reach deep into your soul to find your female psyche. From Desdemona's lament to her mother to Othello's own remembrance of his own mother, DESDEMONA cries out for the mother's womb. Desdemona's need to come of her own sees her finding her own partner Sword - and it is her who gives him a name, not the other way around. The final revenge lies deliciously with her as Sword delivers a poisonous kiss to Othello, a complete annihilation of Othello's claim to masculinity.

Or is it a political vehicle, a commentary of Singapore's PAP-style mastery over her citizens who are striving for an identity beyond economic numbers? From one colonial master to another, the people of Singapore might have got rid of the Western colonialist but are still held captive by another. At the same time, this daring deconstruction of the Western world's most treasured playwright is testimony to the rising Asian consciousness in the face of Western hegemony. Western ideology is replaced by traditional and modern Asian art forms that reject the need to be modern, the assumption that being Western is better. The puppet that eventually cuts off its strings, Asia is ready to be heard.

For the confused and annoyed, this review will probably be of little help. It is not only pedantic but also ultimately useless to try to frame DESDEMONA - the richness of texture is what gives the play the pulsating sheen that shone so brightly that night. By deconstructing the whole processing of deconstruction, Ong Keng Sen talks to the followers who resonate with DESDEMONA. To reward the pilgrims, Ong dishes out the postmodern knowing wink Mona, the surrealistic appearances of installation artist Matthew Ngui, the über-deconstructionist exercise of deconstructing the play within the play - playful tricks that filled the already layered play with even more texture.

Again the set design by Justin Hill (as in LEAR) was a clear winner amidst all the nebulousness. Using mainly a stage made of wooden strips, the sterile, minimal set reminded the audience not to immerse themselves too hard in the play - that it is not the entirety that matters but rather the process.

Yet it is also this cleverness that drags the play down in the middle. With the purple prose blabbering on the screen while obscure lines floats by the audience, it is not surprising that many of the audience couldn't fathom what the hell was going on. Sometimes pretentious and other times overly indulgent, DESDEMONA showed in a span of 90 minutes what a good play should do and what it shouldn't do.

Ong was utterly correct when he said "some people will absolutely hate [DESDEMONA]".

Yet for all those who think DESDEMONA was an airy fairy piece of theatre excess, there will be others who appreciate her for what she is - misunderstood beauty, wild flower, defiant temptress, divine martyr, mother courage, sister grace and the phoenix arising from her own ashes. The twain might never meet but really theatre is all the richer for this diversity - Desdemona has indeed risen from her ashes!