>THE PAINTED HOUSE by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 19 feb 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: telok ayer performing arts centre
>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.


Noh is an ancient Japanese art form dating from the 14th century. It incorporates dance, poetry and music into a highly codified and disciplined whole, and its traditional and stylised forms of expression are ones which I, a humble and untutored Westerner, am woefully unqualified to criticise. It's fortunate for me, then, that THE PAINTED HOUSE by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre, although it was based on Noh dramas, eschewed the purities of the antiquated form in favour of its own more experimental, pan-Asian style.

The action took place on a stage constructed around the audience. Five miniature galleries served as bases and symbolic homes for the actors, and these were connected by walkways, suggestive of distance and exposure. Thus a sense of being "inside" or "outside" was created; and the audience, seated in the middle of this inverted amphitheatre were the most inside and outside, the most included and alienated, of all.

>>'The entire work evoked a sense of the essential rather than the temporal. Everything was distilled into its purest form'

This was immersion theatre. Totally surrounded by performers, one had always to choose where to look. And often, the choices were not as simple as deciding between obvious lead and supporting roles. I am sure that I missed many nuances of plot and character by looking the "wrong way" at several points, but in truth there was no right way to look. There were only choices, and the impossibility of understanding everything - but then that was the point. This was about mood not meaning.

For this was not a showcase of intellectualism or theatrical subtlety, and the usual "realistic" interplay of dialogue and emotion was not invited. What we were given instead was feeling stripped raw. Words were poetic in their bluntness, and faces, in the Noh tradition, became masks - grotesque archetypes of agony, adoration or terror. It was commendable that the performers betrayed no fear of appearing ridiculous: although a snapshot of their frozen faces would have seemed laughable, their performances in motion were gripping, vivid and freakishly memorable.

Indeed, the entire work evoked a sense of the essential rather than the temporal. Everything was distilled into its purest form. Plot, as well as emotion, had all its superficialities burned away and emerged as a dark fairytale, resonant with purpose and power and speaking to something within rather than something without. The stories were simple: a woman waits for her long-ago lover; a man searches for passion in dreams and waking; another man's prostitute-lover scorns him - but they were all fortified and made mythical by the fervour of the performers and by the constant drumming of repetition. For example, the first time Hanake looks among the crowds for her beloved Jiro in abject terror of not finding him, the effect is interesting. The second time she does it, although she retreads exactly the same steps and does the very same things, the result is absolutely mesmerising and more than a little disconcerting. The night was full of such patterns - the rhythms of fate and failure all conveying the message that we are doomed, not by some mystic or godly being but by our own pathetic inadequacies.

The music, skillfully chosen and arranged by Neo Kim Seng, at times reinforced the sense of dread with dangerously hypnotic melodies and at times escaped it in ambient transcendence. Much of the time, however, the simple beating of two sticks together to produce an erratic rhythm was all the performers needed to transform their bizarre bodily contortions into something very close to dance but more primordial and broken.

THE PAINTED HOUSE is apparently only a minor project for Asia-in-Theatre, falling between two more major ones. Having seen the quality and style that director William Teo has produced without really needing to, I can't wait till he pulls out all the stops.