>dream of the red chamber by action theatre

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 29 sep 2001
>time: 2:30pm & 8pm
>venue: the room upstairs, 42 waterloo street
>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.


You probably already know of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER as the long-running (VERY long-running) TV serial from the eighties, if not as the classic 18th century novel they kept trying to make you study at school that documented the decline of a great family into corruption and decadence. Now meet its latest incarnation: an "epic" play by the award-winning Henry 'Madam Mao's Memories' Ong.

The danger of setting out to write an epic is you start to mistake bigness for greatness; sheer length in itself does not constitute the sweeping sense of the tide of human affairs that is required. ACTION Theatre's six, count them, SIX-hour dramatised reading (translation: "There are too many lines! We can't learn them all!") of Ong's script amply illustrates the hazards of this approach.

The first hour alone is taken up with exposition. There is so much background to get through that Ong is reduced to having people greet each other on the street with lines beginning "As you know..." or "You mean you haven't heard? Well..." - and while this might be a useful way of conveying information, it soon begins to resemble the more deadly variety of history lesson as plot and character summaries, indeed entire geneologies, spill forth before our glazed eyes.

>>'This is a painful play to watch, and one can only assume that it was worse for the actors, who nonetheless gamely tackle such lines as "All this bickering is sure to aggravate her menstrual disorders" or "You are the guardian of the stone of the gods"'

Ong's unwillingness to excise anything in the way of plot means we have to have large numbers of characters described to us even though we never meet them, and the 109 that do make it onto the stage are portrayed by just 21 actors. This task is made more daunting by the odd directorial decision not to differentiate between roles with, say, a hairstyle change, so that every time someone steps on stage you spend the first minute or so trying to work out which character she is portraying at that point.

The acting itself is wildly uneven. Luanne Poh acts exactly the same whether she is portraying an imperial concubine or a lowly handmaiden. Irene Lim has a commanding stage presence but sleepwalks through her role, while Benjamin Ng is just plain annoying. Johnny Lim has trouble pronouncing long words like "magnificent", though perhaps more worrying is his statement in the press release that the play "has given me insights to the family values of my ancestors." If the man thinks systematic corruption and buggering the maidservants constitute family values, I worry for his home life.

Steven Lim, in the lead role of Pao-yu, does have his moments, but for the most part over-emotes with a worrying vigour (one of the other characters actually says to him, "Stop being so dramatic"). As his first love Black Jade, Janice Koh turns in a slow-burning, touching performance but is not given enough time on stage to fully realise her character. On the plus side Cleo Geraldine Soong and Haslynda Dahlan have fine supporting turns, and Candice de Rozario is magnificent if over-the-top as the scheming Phoenix.

The weakest link in DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER is the script. Ong's reluctance to abridge means the main Pao yu/Black Jade storyline is heavily diluted with a string of irrelevant episodes, so that the leads disappear from the stage for up to forty-five minutes at a time. A novel can afford to diffuse its focus like this, but drama needs more discipline. Worse than that, the script fails to give any sense of the wealth and position of the Chia family, of their height in the rigid social hierarchy that makes their downfall so poignant. Worryingly, director Tan Boon Hui calls the story "trashier than 'Dallas'" - in his vision the Chia family start out so close to the gutter that they don't have far to sink.

This is a painful play to watch, and one can only assume that it was worse for the actors, who nonetheless gamely tackle such lines as "All this bickering is sure to aggravate her menstrual disorders" or "You are the guardian of the stone of the gods." Something of this bladder-testing length really needs to offer more to its audience. Instead of which it stretches on, long beyond all sense - the last hour is taken up largely with killing off the characters in increasingly imaginative ways (one of them, and I am not making this up, decapitates herself).

Do anything to avoid seeing this dramatised reading, up to and including actually reading the source novel. Its vast fault lines are compounded with numerous petty annoyances - drawing cheap laughs through anachronisms; the simulated sex, both too graphic and anatomically incorrect; the translation of only some of the names, so that some characters are called Chia Sheh or Hsueh Pan, while the unlucky ones get stuck with infelicities like Pervading Fragrance.

I could go on and on, but unlike ACTION Theatre I do know when to stop.