>THE SILVER RIVER by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 3 may 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 legends we have (and I mean proper legends, none of that trumped-up merlion muck) have survived hundreds of years, generally by virtue of their thumping good storylines. This also makes them fair game for dramatists on the scrounge for plots, from Walt Disney ('Hercules') to Ted Hughes ('Tales From Ovid').

TheatreWorks has now got into the act with THE SILVER RIVER, a work that has a good claim to being 'international', with a script from David Henry Hwang (American writer of M. Butterfly), a score from Bright Sheng (Chinese), and direction from our very own Ong Keng Sen.

The legend in question is that of the romance between the cowherd and the goddess-weaver, ninth daughter of the Jade Emperor. Although separated and punished for their forbidden love, they are permitted to meet once a year when all the swallows on earth form a bridge joining heaven and earth.

>>'THE SILVER RIVER makes a good fist of creating a modern take on a Chinese legend'

In keeping with the production's stated objective of "juxtapos[ing] Chinese opera traditions with Western sensibilities", elements from a number of theatrical traditions appear on stage simultaneously. The facilitator for the event is the wise-cracking, sardonic Golden Buffalo, whose speeches border on stand-up comedy ("Oh, look, there goes Mulan. Put her in a dress and she still looks like a man"). The Jade Emperor declaims in the style of Beijing opera, while the lyrics given to the cowherd are more Brechtian ("I am a simple happy cowherd").

The results of these are mixed. While the marriage of different styles can be fruitful, as when the buffalo's one-liners provide a counterpoint to the high-operatic style of the rest of the cast, in several instances the effect is simply discordant.

Repeating a motif from an earlier production, 'Lear', Ong doubles the two lovers, so that both cowherd and goddess are played by one actor and one musician each. The cowherd mimes flute-playing while his counterpart sits in the opposite corner of the stage with a real instrument; the weaver plays a pipa while her double dances. The possibilities of this technique are, for the most part, squandered, as the interaction between the two pairs of characters is kept to a minimum.

The main problem with this production is that its director is so keen on exploring the possibilities of staging that he neglects character development - the individuals on stage become vessels for his vision rather than convincing personalities in their own right. The goddess-weaver is a particular casualty of this in that she is not given the chance to speak or sing throughout. It is infuriating that one of the central characters of this drama should not be allowed a voice, although the playwright is probably as much to blame for this.

This is more than made up for, however, by the sparkling commentary from the Golden Buffalo. Karen Kandel shines as the celestial animal, switching from effortless humour to heartfelt pathos when she is finally touched by love. She is the perfect complement to the Jade Emperor, who is presented here, startlingly, as a tinpot tyrant with a lovable side.

Christine Jones provides a superb set design, a column of water flowing down to a perspex pool with an illuminated space above it. Its simplicity suits the classical austerity of the source story while providing a number of acting spaces that make full use of the Victoria Theatre's stage. Bright Sheng's score is a knowing mixture of east and west, although some of the musical interludes go on for far too long, causing the pace to drag.

Hwang's script is witty and wise, but one could have wished for a little more articulation from the lovers themselves. It is left to the buffalo to describe their romance, "a single moment filled with the essence of a million heavens". THE SILVER RIVER makes a good fist of creating a modern take on a Chinese legend, but its focus on the theatricality of the tale causes it to lose sight of the story itself.