>bote: the beginning of the end by the necessary stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 27 apr 2002
>time: 3pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ****

>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.


Not many plays are worth seeing just for their programmes. The programme for TNS's BOTE: THE BEGINNING OF THE END, however, deserves gallery space and an expensive frame. It is actually a series of postcards artfully depicting - of all things - domestic furniture. Glancing at these cards, you would have no idea that they are anything to do with a play (heck, even if you examined them carefully you could be forgiven for not realising) but they ooze style in a way that Ordning & Reda products used to do before everyone figured out they were just cheap plastic crap with sarcastic price tags.

And BOTE was all about style and aesthetics. Forget the plot, sideline the characters and just get ready for the next scene, the next video, the next image, the next frisson to come along and catch you unawares. Its many segments were impossibly diverse, without even as much of a unifying theme as could be found in either last year's 'Abuse Suxxx!!!' (which was pretty eclectic) or 1999's 'sex.violence.blood.gore' (which was downright anarchic). But it all held together remarkably well, and asking myself why this was so, I could come up with only one answer that I liked: the set. This answer sounds both inane and disparaging, but it is neither, for the set contrived to be visually arresting (that slightly seventies faux-wood effect has never looked so simultaneously stylish and naff), while also managing to be a perfect home for all the shenanigans it was asked to accommodate. Indeed, the set's chief strength was that one believed that what took place upon it - even the film clips projected onto its walls - could not have taken place anywhere else.

Other little touches didn't hurt either, like the subtly deranged geometry of a seemingly innocuous sideboard (if Escher had taken up carpentry, that is what he would have made); and of course, the antlers on the wall added a certain je ne sais quoi, although I don't quite know why…

But if the set was subtle, then the body of the play was anything but. Which is not to say there were not nuances to be picked up or points to be pondered, but when one is being hit on the head by a ten-pound lump hammer, one rarely pauses to admire its workmanship.

>>'Some people will have hated BOTE with a vengeance that could propel a Jacobean tragedy. I happened, for example, to glimpse the post-show feedback form of one poor woman whose reaction had bordered on anaphylaxis'

The play's humour, for example, was generally raucous and silly. A cacophonous rendition of 'Doe, A Deer' from 'The Sound of Music' joined regular shouted obscenities, occasional slo-mo kung fu and the hammy antics of a supposed support group to provide brain-free, potent entertainment. But darker, quieter laughs for those with more twisted minds were hidden away in there too, particularly in the monologues about corpse-disposal, and in a video where Serena Ho, in spite of the odds in her favour, couldn't quite manage to die.

Some of the jokes, though, just fell flat. Actually, Chen had been warned of this. At the preview I attended back in February, a running gag about (bizarrely) Hippo and Rhino drowning in the Cognac succeeded in nonplussing an entire packed house at the Marine Parade Black Box. You'd think he'd have taken it out, but in the finished version, the whole sequence remained intact. Still, if Chen had been interested in making compromises, then this BOTE would never have set sail; and indeed, the piece's idiosyncrasy is as vital a part of its makeup as its humour or visuals. (We were right, though, Jeff: that bit just wasn't funny.)

Humour was by no means all there was. In its more serious or shocking moments, the play repeatedly asked (as did Chen's 'untitled women number one' from 2000) "Can we create real, transmissible emotion without the slightest context?" And with reference to Norlinah Mohd's protracted, choreographed, yet wrenchingly affecting breakdown scene, the answer is an unqualified "yes", even and especially before we find out what evils are afflicting her. And with reference to Norlinah and Rodney Oliveiro's rape scene, which the other actors blankly assist, the answer is "maybe", for perhaps it was over too quickly and seemed slightly forced. And with Nora Samosir's impeccably timed and nuanced monologue, the answer is "no", through no fault of her own, because by this point, our brains have been so saturated and desensitised by the sheer aesthetic violence of the production - the sound and the fury as my fellow reviewer would have it - that something so low-key stands no chance of even registering, regardless of its merit.

In all these scenes, Chen used the more experienced members of the cast for their range and adaptability (especially Hennedige, who, uniquely, seemed to have almost as much of a say in forging the aesthetics of her stage time as Chen himself). The newer actors, though, had been distilled into parodic essences of what I am sure are their otherwise perfectly normal selves. So it is that I will forever associate Liu Ya-Ling with the droopy-lipped sulk of a bored little girl, Micheas Chan with a scholarly, constipated frown followed by a beatific yet vacuous smile, and as for Ang Hui Bin, I can only note that the things she did with her eyes and mouth defy description, analogy and, more importantly, the universally accepted laws of human physiology. But she was very, very funny, as were they all.

Of course, the other thing everyone mentions about BOTE is its multimedia element. Rightly so, for it's rare to see multimedia that is organically infused into a piece of theatre (just think of spell#7's recent dodgy ceiling art) and the video clips and live feeds in BOTE were at least as integrated into its whole as the live vignettes and sketches were. Again the set helped, with the grain of its wooden walls showing beneath the projected images, lending them a softness that could be interpreted as seediness or homeliness, depending on the nature of the clip being shown.

Moreover, Chen had made sure to reference the clips occasionally during the live action parts of his piece: thus at one point, Chan rants about a film he has watched that he is later to star in; and a soft toy last seen when Serena Ho jumps off a building to her strangely drawn-out death turns up, fluffy as ever, in Samosir's cupboard.

Such nods towards linkage may have been a little self conscious and often seemed like last-minute additions, but at least they provoked a knowing smile, and at best they tempted the audience to join up the scattered dots of the play's multiple and contradictory parts and attempt to construct an overarching narrative. BOTE's internal inconsistencies meant that all such attempts were doomed to ignominious failure - but then the fun's in the chase, isn't it?

Or not, as the case may be. You see, some people will have hated BOTE with a vengeance that could propel a Jacobean tragedy. I happened, for example, to glimpse the post-show feedback form of one poor woman whose reaction had bordered on anaphylaxis, and I am quite certain that she was not alone. But I liked it. I liked the humour, the sets, the idiosyncrasies, the risks it took, and, most importantly, I liked the programme postcards. I wonder if you can still get hold of them?