>aesop queried by the theatre practice

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 9 nov 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>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.


The theatre scene in Singapore has seen a good number of classics dramatised on stage yet few have come out blustering with such idealistic fervour, impassioned by a cause but mediated with thought. Fashioned like a Greek drama, AESOP QUERIED is an especially cathartic piece, rousing strong emotions for an audience accustomed to stability and platitudes and perhaps vicariously feeding off these ideals which are performed but not lived. Steered by simple, identifiable themes such as love, freedom and dignity and familiar elements such as the life of Aesop and his fables, AESOP QUERIED is an ostensible dramatic "fight" for freedom against oppression, putting up a brave front against a cynical world and laughing at the world for all its vainglorious folly. It is a play that tries to keep finding relevance for itself in post-modern world which has found it archaic. It would have been easy to ride on these broad strokes if not for the inherent distancing in the structure of the play; the reason why it is not a pure realist drama called 'The Life of Aesop' but AESOP QUERIED. As the Socratic saying goes: "An unexamined life is not worth living".

Derived from a 50s play by Brazillian writer Guilherme Figueiredo, the story tells of the legendary life of Aesop, a wise slave who strives to earn his freedom from his philosopher-master who repeatedly repudiates his commitment to free him despite Aesop helping him out of difficulties time and again. His freedom is finally attained when the philosopher's wife (who has fallen in love with him and wants to leave her husband) chooses to stay behind in exchange for Aesop's freedom. But he is brought back to his master again when he is accused of stealing from the temple. In order to escape the death sentence meted out to a free man, his master suggests that he lies about his status. However, Aesop chooses to die a free man and not admit to being a slave. The play is structured two-ways, with Beijing director Ma Hui Tian directing the straight drama and Kuo Pao Kun and Nelson Chia attempting to deconstruct segments and sentiments with off-script interjections from the cast.

>>'The theatre scene in Singapore has seen a good number of classics dramatised on stage yet few have come out blustering with such idealistic fervour, impassioned by a cause but mediated with thought.'

Though in many ways a conservatively staged period drama, the play provokes you to look at its extra-textual details. The setting is pared down but evocative of the age, where the vastness of the stage space appears incongruous to the individual free space enjoyed by the slave Aesop and at once you feel the oppression of the pantheon-like stage set is at tension with the sense of the expansion of individual potential. Temporally, the play also shifts constantly. Resembling a dress rehearsal, the play divides itself between a performance time and an off-performance time. With the performance of what is not usually performed, the play looks like a process without end (and at the same time injecting some contemporary levity into it). AESOP QUERIED is also a compression of referential time frames as it stretches from 600 B.C. to 1950s Brazil to 1960s China and now to Singapore in 2001. Yet each period has different response and context in the continuum. For a play that is driven by the strength and wit of its dialogue, it is also ironically self-referential about the nature of language, tongues, speeches and voices. These are the cornerstones of civilisation but ridiculed by Aesop as the reason for the spread of lies and malice. Republican voices call for openness and honesty but words can be twisted and the masses easily choose to believe in lies.

Yet the success of the play also depended upon the linguistic dexterity of the actors. With seasoned actors at the helm, repartees, jibes and stories rolled off their tongues with ease, especially so when watching Johnny Ng (Aesop) and Ng Wei Min (the philosopher) cross words. Although the play's characters are meant to typify a certain trait and not
characters in the round with great psychological depth for portrayal as the querying treatment of the play has allowed the actors to make the
characters their own and shade in the nuances. Judy Ngo gives a sympathetic portrayal of the haughty philosopher's wife's anguish caught between duty and love. Johnny Ng's stoic reticence in the querying scenes that give contrast to the voluble Aesop is as subtle as his display of emotional tenderness for the wife despite his monkish disposition.

AESOP QUERIED layers itself with a palimpsest of references such that we can read AESOP QUERIED and its inset fables allegorically where one fable is applicable to many different contexts, revealing other meanings. As such you will see the superimposition of figures who are symbolically linked: Aesop with other freedom fighters like Mandela and Gandhi, and even a wheel-chair bound Kuo Pao Kun who did a guest appearance on stage. The play works philosophically and politically, putting forth the ideals of liberalism and democracy where the freedom of self-determination is our birthright, despite dictators rescinding on their word to grant freedom. Is freedom a right in itself? What is it that makes self-determination so compelling that if you cannot move the Virgilean Gods above, you must move the masses below? Then why is Aesop so hesitant about taking the opportunity to escape and claiming his birthright by force? Is it then to say that your freedom must be recognised by the other and deservedly earned, as Aesop repeatedly says his freedom must be reaped with his knowledge, labour and avoid harming others? The figure of Aesop thus oscillates across the thin lines that separate the idealistic persistence of a fool for his dream of Eden and that of heroic and exemplary perseverance. Should we find Aesop's death exemplary, locating value in that sacrifice or should he be more than an example?

The queries also put forward the conundrum faced by colonised states or post-colonial nations struggling to find stability. An argument in the play asks if one is better off under the benign rule of another, is it still foolish to ask for freedom: when a country is having better governance from the outside, should the people have a voice? Are there still persons or nations undeserving of freedom because like a child, they might not know how to wield it, such as when the Philosopher tells Aesop that because he is ugly, freedom and riches can never give him any comfort. Also, Aesop's wisdom still proves an exception rather than the norm.

Whilst the play deliberately opened itself up to many possibilities, like the interludes of "unplugged"queries weaved into the play, the execution of this suffered a feel of being over-calculated. The parts came across forced and contrived, as the actors seem trying too much to act as if they were non-acting parts, almost uncomfortable with the code switch. The queries lost their edge of spontaneity, immediacy and the face of a struggle with the options, becoming instead a trifle too slick, prepared and expedient. The references and suggestions remain fleeting and random as if they were incidental. I would have loved to see some of the speculations taken to its logical conclusion and enacted to different outcomes, exploring, for example, the nature of the female slave's (utilitarian?) love for the Philosopher. Under-deployed is also the subplot of the love between the philospher's wife and Aesop, essential to showing how freedom is underscored by love. Love secures the exercise of freedom and hatred limits it. Her love has raised his status to that of her equal and beauty is bequested upon him through the eyes of his beholder. Serious doubts too are cast about the rigidity of Aesop, who can seem cruel and frigid. Is Aesop capable of giving others happiness? When Aesop says he wants to travel the world to laugh at the world's folly, is that his hubris and vengeful streak? Is his death then the consequence of this or did he die a martyr for freedom and truth?

I suspect that the creative team would be better persuaded by the latter outcome of their hero-protagonist; with their moral and ethical intentions stronger than purported, silently tugging towards the virtues of love, faith and honesty. That said, however, AESOP QUERIED is testament to the fact that classics can be performed as accessible, realist drama without compromising on experimentation and the throwing of some spanners in the works.