>the Woman in a Tree on the Hill by W!ld Rice

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 2 jun 2001
>time: 2:30 pm
>venue: the jubilee hall
>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.


W!ld Rice has done it again. In collaboration with Korean percussion group Gong Myong, the company which find their mission in "revitalising the existing Singapore repertoire" have turned their attention to Ovidia Yu's award-winning THE Woman in a Tree on the Hill. It would take a brave soul to tamper with such an established text (although the company has chosen, bizarrely, to bill this as a world premiere) but W!ld Rice emerges with credit.

Some violence is done to Yu's text in the process, but then you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. Her fragmentary structure lends itself well to director Ivan Heng's deconstructionist approach, gaining in the process a touch of sophistication that its simplistic analysis of gender politics badly needed.

The stock Ovidia Yu characters are all present and correct - frustrated teachers, unfulfilled housewives, convent schoolgirls - and played splendidly by Claire Wong and Foo May Lyn. In the process, they acquire a pinch of spice which is only to be expected given a director who has previously played the first lady of Singapore theatre, Emily (Of Emerald Hill) Gan.

>>'This production's strength is not in its whole but in the details, little touches with which Ivan Heng has infused the script's orginal strident feminism with a more universal sense of loss and struggle.'

Both actresses are good physical performers, and demonstrate an amazing versatility in their multiple roles. Foo is particularly good as a chauvinistic, neanderthal husband, while Wong excels as a pouting Nu Wa, earth goddess for the pop generation. The energy on display here is infectious, and if their many accents are not always spot-on, they are at least executed with verve.

Chaos breaks out elsewhere on the stage. Gong Myong use both traditional Korean instruments and random items - water bottles, power tools - to create a powerful aural backdrop. This is a thinking man's 'Cookin' - the rhythms, stirring as they are, rise organically from the production rather than being tacked on.

Another surreal element is added by performance artist Amanda Heng, appearing from time to time as a stony-faced SIA stewardess, and stealing every scene she is in without once uttering a word or changing her facial expression. She has a magnetic stage presence, with a quiet gravity that perfectly balances the frenetic Wong and Foo.

The production charms with its sheer intelligence. Theatrical tropes are subverted with wit - such as when an actress' movements on stage are echoed on a side-screen as a techie follows her with a hand-held steadicam. Very been-there-done-that, until she suddenly runs offstage and out of the auditorium, still followed by the camera, so we see her on the screen running down the stairs of the Raffles Hotel and into a waiting taxi, which drives off. Quirky moments like this are what lifts this WOMAN above the usual sound- or movement-based productions.

Which is not to say there are no faults here. Some of the sequences are over-laboured, in particular the opening, and go on for too long. In the main, though, the scenes of Yu's text, prised apart, are crammed with clever touches. When put back together, they add up to somewhat less than the sum of their parts - but then this production's strength is not in its whole but in the details, little touches with which Ivan Heng has infused the script's orginal strident feminism with a more universal sense of loss and struggle.

In one of many video segments that intercut the play, we see Amanda Heng apparently waving to strangers on the steps of the National Library, in a Candid Camera-type stunt. This suddenly becomes poignant, when the camera pulls away, the perspective shifts, and we realise that she is in fact waving goodbye to the soon-to-be-demolished library building. Touching, and very brilliant.