>SITA by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 14 dec 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation garden
>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.


When I first saw SITA in rehearsal at the back of the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, I was totally blown away. Although the show was in large part a "spectacle" - it was like watching a carnival with masked dancers and acrobatic somersaulters performing against an elaborate set of ropes and pulleys - and all that that implies about wide-eyed awe and wonder, there was also a lot of the production that I was able to connect with on a real emotional level. The story of Bophana, a political prisoner in Cambodia, who endures her torture by retreating into the imaginative and spiritual world of the Ramayana and imagining herself to be the Indian heroine Sita moved me because I felt her desperation, I felt her pain. The production moved beyond the spectacle into something very real and fundamental. Human emotions sketched on faces were not just sketches on the surface but markers to the greater depth of emotion that brimmed beneath.

However, when transplanted into the Substation Garden, something was irrevocably lost. The power of the piece had diffused across its now much bigger performance space. The actors seemed a little unsure of exactly where they were, their voices a little too loud some of the time, too soft at others, and this resulted in a very slight but still discernable slackness of movement and timing that caused the piece to lose some of its impact, its intimacy. You could see the story, you could see the representations of it, but you could not entirely connect with the piece on that crucial emotional level (or at least, I couldn't; and response from audience members I spoke to was mixed, some feeling that connection, yes, but others, like me, arguing that it slipped away too easily) - Elizabeth de Rosa's portrayal of Bophana just felt a little too lost, a little too far away.

>>'SITA was disappointing because its wealth of ideas was not tapped to its full potential'

That tighter delivery and the intimacy of a smaller, more focused venue may have been lacking but it was made up for, to some extent, in other ways. Certainly there was no paucity of ideas. Director De Rosa's background in movement training gave the piece a kinetic energy that kept your attention and was never used simply for its own sake. It was drawn from the themes in Sonny Lim's narrative: the use of rope as both a symbol of repression and also as a link to freedom, for example, or the use of circular motion (and spheres in the set design) to represent confusion, desperation or even the divine. The choice of musical pieces to accompany the production was also noteworthy. De Rosa had said that her focus was Bophana's strength and how she wanted the production to transmit that feeling of hope and inspiration to the audience, and the music was a big part of its success in that area. It was by turns reflective of Bophana's desperation, joy and majesty, and it drew upon ambient-techno, hard rocking beats and playful diva ditties to achieve this, creating a surreal, beautiful and uplifting dreamscape. Sets and costumes were equally otherworldy and both in colour and design complemented the recreation of Bophana's world.

However, the actual narrative tended to then become lost within this Dreamtime. Characters often came across as caricatures, which may have been fine for the supporting cast but when the central figure Bophana herself is reduced to a symbol rather than an actual person you question the validity of submerging the narrative within such an aural and visual feast. Asia-in-Theatre has always prided itself on its narrative rather than its abstractions and, indeed, in the past, the visuality of its work helped flesh out the nuances and emotions of the inherent narrative while the narrative was still key. Here, however, the narrative is given scant airtime and therefore the production comes across half-formed; the focus is on image, is on symbol drawn from the narrative but is rarely on the narrative itself. It is not simply a case of more text in the form of words. The lines that were used from the original text by Lim were often only a mantra-like reiteration of the present - perhaps an attempt at myth-building, so as to echo the story of Sita - and themselves did not further plot or character either. It is a case that the narrative itself from which all else sprung had been removed. Mood and atmosphere remained, and powerfully so, but the narrative that should have been there - that which would have made Bophana a living, breathing human being rather than a metaphor - was lost.

SITA, then, was disappointing because its wealth of ideas was not tapped to its full potential. But frustrating as it was that the delivery did not always match the promise, it was at least satisfying to see ideas that were, at their core, rich both in imagination and meaning, something a little more rare in theatre than one might expect.