>balance by theatreworks

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 27 aug 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the black box, fort canning centre
>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.

>>>>>walk lola walk

Multi-disciplinary used to mean that you whack a video on the end of act three, get someone to rustle up some electronic noise, and express your characters' emotional turmoil through Korean court singing. But times they are a changing. These days it means something different, at least according to Low Kee Hong, director of BALANCE: SPACE. TIME. MOVEMENT and 'pulse. i am alive'. These days it means that you stick your choreographers and your particle physicists together and wait till they achieve fusion.

For example, in the BALANCE programme notes, Low challenges us to "Imagine a scenario where future R&D projects in the life sciences will draw inspiration from how a performance is dramaturged or conversely how a performance is structured based on the growth patterns of a germ culture." Hmm. Now call me reactionary, but Mummy told me that the men in the white coats are for curing your herpes and the the ones in the designer sarongs are for selling you dreams. And aren't there enough psychotropic drugs without giving playwrights a free hand with the pharmaceuticals budget?

But then perhaps I just lack vision - the kind of vision it takes to trademark the word "VERSIONTM", as the programme indicates Low has done. (Since TheatreWorks now has a monopoly on that word, allow me to suggest some alternatives: "form", "type", "variety", "kind" and "style".) But I digress before I even begin, and the long and the short of it is that one arm of TheatreWorks is into science now, and while I might not appreciate the hypothesis, I can't deny the proofs, as both 'pulse' and BALANCE are quality products.

Gerald Chew, playing the Man, had understood the performance perfectly, describing it in the programme as, "A search for beauty. In love and its twin, longing. It's about finding the sweetness in memories; the light at the end of the dark night; the sensuality of the passing moment. A man and a woman, coming together and parting, letting some meaning in: it's about not relinquishing the things that make us kind." Well, there it is: BALANCE in a nutshell - and expressed so beautifully that it makes me think Chew should take up a second career in copywriting. Or rather a first career, because despite clearly knowing what the play was about, he was not very good at all.

Chew was uncomfortable with the rhythmic requirements of spell#7 honchos, Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae's writing. He only had one speed, and he used it regardless of whether the spell#7ers were doing their choppy thing - where sentences get bitten off before they get started and it's all about chemistry and sparks - or their deep thing, where the lines flow and ripple and snap, rich with poetry. Indeed, throughout his performance, Chew seemed like a bemused MC or TV reporter, whose unrehearsed lines were appearing on the teleprompter of his mind, demanding interpretation too quickly.

To be fair, the script contained a substantial number of Britishisms (such as, "It's a date, mate"), which I can't see most Singaporeans pulling off - although Emma Yong, playing the Woman, did a reasonable job.

>>'In places the writing was heart-stoppingly beautiful. In other places it was very beautiful. In yet other places it was just beautiful'

In fact, the best-acted dialogue in the play was not dialogue at all - it came when Yong was on stage alone, pretending to speak to Chew and imagining his responses. Able to set her own pace in this scene, she showed an assuredness and timing that had been largely absent from her interactions with Chew. Her face lit up and she suddenly seemed to relax; it looked like she had let go of a heavy weight.

But it was not in the dialogue - real or pretended - that the strengths of the writing, and consequently the play, lay; instead it was in the monologues and soliloquies. Whenever there were enough lines strung together to get a groove going, so to speak, Tan and Rae's writing shone, and in places it was heart-stoppingly beautiful. In other places it was very beautiful. In yet other places it was just beautiful. Every line was a gem - some were a little ostentatious and some perhaps only semi-precious, but all were gems nonetheless. Because of this, we were left with an embarrassment of riches and, I would argue, a diminished capacity to appreciate the beauty of the writing due to our having been drowned in it. As criticism goes, this is the highest praise, but just once, I would like to see a traditional, linear play written by someone less talented who employed Tan and Rae to supply flair whenever required. In short: they could do with a foil to make it more interesting.

But this is silly speculation. The only real flaw in the writing came when Yong stuck snapshots of her lover on the wall and worried that her feelings would come across as clichés. Well, the minute you start worrying about that, it happens. Moreover, the cliché infection spreads, and the audience starts realising that pretty much everything in the play is a huge, glaring, antediluvian cliché. This is a shame, because if Yong had never brought it up, we would never have noticed and would have remained caught up in the magic of the moment. It seemed that Tan and Rae did not trust themselves to be fresh and captivating and authentic, and a part of them was sitting on the sidelines, saying, "Look, we're smart people, we know that all art is artifice and nothing is new under the sun. And we know you know. And you know we know you know..." I wish they had had more faith.

In 'pulse', performed earlier this year, Tan and Rae had done wonderful things with repetition, eking different meanings and moods out of the same lines repeated in different weeks by different actors; in BALANCE the repetition was more immediate and less complex. Whereas in 'pulse', the mood had changed with each iteration, in BALANCE it did not change but it was reinforced: revisiting the speeches and fragments helped them articulate regret and possibility, memory and longing, and made them more real and permanent. (If you want a much clearer expression of what I am trying to say, read the first three pages of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' by Milan Kundera, where he talks about the idea of "eternal return". What Tan and Rae achieved here was exactly the kind of anchored airiness that Kundera discusses.)

BALANCE's mood was helped immeasurably by an inspired set design and some equally impressive direction, both from Low. The set was a green rectangle of AstroTurf with white walls and two clouded glass doors. The audience sat on the floor. Dotted around the floor in a roughly cross-shaped arrangement were pots of chi-chi-grotesque plastic roses, lit from within, which slowly and arrhythmically writhed, their petals oozing outward and then coyly retracting, all the time creaking discreetly like bedsprings. They lent an unexpected smell of sex to an otherwise sterile arena. The whole space simultaneously conjured up artifice and nature, purity tinged with corruption, and above all (helped by an unobtrusive soundscape from George Chua and some kind of scented oil) a sense of tranquility. The space looked exactly like Tan and Rae's words sounded.

Low's strength as director lay not in his blocking or line direction (he pretty much seemed to let the actors get on with it); instead, it lay in quirky little flourishes which commented on or enriched the words we were hearing - a change of lighting, for example, or the decision to have a scene played from offstage. Indeed, one such directorial flourish ranked among the most effective I have seen. It came when Chew's character, worrying that he is more loving than beloved and that his partner might leave him, breaks down and collapses, sobbing. Yong's character immediately goes to comfort him, but when they become more still and lose your attention, your eyes wander and you realise that she has not come to him entirely - she has (through some kind of lighting trick) left her shadow on the wall where she was standing. This image says more about the couple's uneven relationship and about the grounds for Chew's fears than even the most eloquent of the spell#7ers' soliloquies, and it hits you with the kind of cold, slow-creeping shock that one must feel upon realising that someone thought to be sleeping is in fact dead. It typifies Low's approach to this play, which is cool, assured, original and subtle.

But I'm still not gonna trust him with my DNA...