>the ramayana by asia-in-theatre research centre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 26 may 2002
>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.


Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre's THE RAMANYANA, while not exactly flawless, was equally not without flair and flavour. It managed to sidestep many of the pitfalls that cynics associate with the genre.

When it comes to the craft of storytelling, particularly the retelling of stories of mythical proportions and also particularly in an outdoor setting, it's said that the performers can get away with a lot of things that their theatre-bound peers cannot. Somehow, such productions are excused for their bad dialogue, worse poetry and the sort of hammy acting that requires the actors to basically stand there and shout their lines like they're taking hamburger orders in a crowded McDonald's restaurant. This Asia-in-Theatre avoided to some extent.

Another issue, however, is the presentation of the magical flights of fancy woven into the hearts of these epic tales which are a bugger to reproduce on stage if one wants to achieve a realistic presentation, as Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre does here. Blazing chariots swooping across the skies is a tad difficult to do without the special effects team from Industrial Light and Magic by your side - and even then, George Lucas' 'Attack Of the Clones' was not without its dud moments.

>>'In a piece that explores the themes of heroism, virtue, loyalty and passion, it was particularly powerful to see the coming together of these various artists, all performing their hearts out with such love and fervour in tribute to their fallen comrade and leader, the late William Teo.'

Sadly, it was in this area, that this English-language adaptation of the seminal 4th century BC Sanskrit epic poem 'The Ramayana' by Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre at the Substation Garden encountered its greatest problems. The spectacle of myth and magic wonderfully created by the classical Indian dance performances by Priyalatha Arun and Jaynthi Siva, along with percussion by the Ankara Music Group and the dramatic use of lighting, lamps and fire, found little support elsewhere, despite the company's best efforts. The use of video-projection came across only as rushed and superfluous, if not distracting, and the use of martial arts was an interesting novelty, but one whose interest value could not be sustained for its extended sequences, especially when the choreography was often (although not always) underwhelming.

Having said that, by way of strengths in other areas, Asia-in-Theatre did manage ultimately to create a solid, energetic and engaging retelling of 'The Ramayana'. While some of the actors were unable to elevate their performances beyond pantomime, others like Subramaniam as Prince Rama were able to bring a striking depth and dignity to their roles which gave much substance to the production as a whole; Christina Sergeant was also a particular joy to watch as the playful Monkey, Hanuman. The script, while clichéd at some points, was also interesting both in its slightest departures from the original text, which added lightness and texture, and in its most significant - the reinterpretation of Prince Rama's reconciliation with Sita, this time from a feminist angle. Moreover, some of the dialogue was in places truly poetic and moving.

Playwright Sonny Lim said before the show that he was confident THE RAMAYANA could be accessed by anyone, whether a seasoned theatregoer or a child and, indeed, most crucially, the narrative and characters of the epic poem came across clear and strong in this production, my own personal concern after Asia-in-Theatre's more inaccessible earlier work. It should also be noted that the show was greeted with much excitement from the children in the audience who, perhaps, enjoyed the thrill of the martial arts sequences and video projection more than a jaded old cow like me bred on 'The Matrix' movies.

Sonny himself impressed as an actor as well with his performance as Lakshmana who sacrifices himself to stand by his brother's side when their father's second wife banishes lovers Rama and Sita into the forest for 14 years. In his case, it was the power of his presence on stage that was particularly mesmerising. It was as if this man's passion and love for his work was manifesting itself on stage in physical form.

In fact, in a piece that explores the themes of heroism, virtue, loyalty and passion, it was particularly powerful to see the coming together of these various artists, all performing their hearts out with such love and fervour in tribute to their fallen comrade and leader, the late William Teo (this being Asia-in-Theatre Research Centre's first show without its artsitic director and founder). It was hard for the audience to distance itself from that and not be caught up in the spirit of the work. Did it affect my objective reading of the play? Perhaps. But what is successful theatre if not a means to be able to channel and share such humanity with the audience?