>one flea spare by luna-id

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 6 apr 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation
>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.


From the moment you walk into the Guinness Theatre, it is as if you have entered another world. A heavy mist seems to hang in the air and the cleverly constructed set - so plain, so bare, so brown - serves as the perfect backdrop for the hanging corpses, neatly wrapped in sandbags, that are hung from the ceiling. You taste austerity. You taste poverty. You taste desperation. And you taste death.

This is the setting for multiple-award-winning, London-based playwright / poet / screenwriter Naomi Wallace's ONE FLEA SPARE, a powerful piece of theatre that recreates a 17th century England ripped apart and disembowelled by the ravages of the plague. The wealthy Mr William Snelgrave (Michael Corbidge) and his wife, Darcy (Christina Sergeant), find that death and disease are true levellers that do not discriminate between the rich or the poor; and it is Morse (Janice Koh) and Bunce (Rehaan Engineer), a runaway servant girl and a fugitive sailor respectively that in the end survive, after ripping apart the facade of prim-and-properness so carefully constructed by the Snelgraves.

>>'A lot of planning and thought had clearly gone into this production where previous luna-id seemed, perhaps, to be running on automatic.'

Language and lines rich in haunting poetry bleed from the mouths of the characters, not only in monologues, but also when the characters are simply speaking to one another; yet it is the scenes of quiet that are more striking, and it is to director Christian Huber's credit that he is not afraid to use them, relying on the actor's actions to create moments of silent power - Bunce simulating sodomy by forcefully sticking an orange onto Mr Snelgrave's finger and twisting ever so cruelly, to cite one. He also plays with the silences by trailing off scenes rather than closing them with the subtlety of a small elephant. Which suits the mood of this lyrical play beautifully.

A well-constructed play with the focus very much on characters and story, ONE FLEA SPARE (a 1997 Obie Award Winner for Best Play and on its way to being made into a film by the producers of 'Four Weddings And A Funeral'), however, may not be to everyone's taste, especially its slower and very careful first half. It is theatre of a classical tradition and its target is very much your brain rather than your heart. I myself often felt disengaged from the proceedings in that I didn't feel that I was investing emotionally in any of the characters - which, for me, is a very important factor in my appreciation of a play - but never once did I lose interest in what was going on either. It's entertainment of a different kind, clearly steeped in a "sophisticated" British sensibility (I'm thinking heyday Merchant-Ivory here, not Monty Python, of course), as opposed to, perhaps, the politics and playfulness of local theatre (say, The Necessary Stage's 'Abuse Suxxx') or the sentimental sheen of big American Hollywood dramas.

My friend's remark that he felt like he was in the Bush Theatre in London was due not only to the nature of the play - indeed, a very untypical one for Singapore theatre - but also to the expatriate talent on stage (and indeed, the audience off stage as well). Sergeant and Corbidge were suitably majestic in their roles as the upper-class Snelgraves - one could still see the shimmer beneath the dust they now carried around them - which made their utter fall from grace all the more tragic. Likewise, Mark Waite (playing working class watchman, Kabe, who injected much merriment into the proceedings with his lewd songs and bawdy jokes) and Engineer seemed to have got under their characters' skins with relative ease. Never once did my belief in their characters waver. Koh (who shone in 'Lovepuke' and 'Machine') was a little less successful playing a 12-year old girl, being just as oddly cast as she was in the recent 'Beautiful Thing': in her mannerisms, speech and movements, you could clearly see her talent and commitment to her role but, ultimately, even Judi Dench cannot play Ah Girl.

Kudos is due as well to director Huber for his attention to detail in terms of blocking and staging and the use of lights and sound. A lot of planning and thought had clearly gone into this production where previous luna-id seemed, perhaps, to be running on automatic. It was a pity then that the dark, dirty, claustrophobic atmosphere of doom and gloom so carefully constructed by Huber and his crew was occasionally marred by the lilting music wafting into the theatre from another show outside.

Sometimes, it seems, death does not conquer all.