>bui xuan phai by The Fun Stage

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 25 jan 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: singapore art museum
>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.


An art museum must seem like an appropriate venue in which to stage a play about an artist, but the room we are ushered into looks more like a chapel. We are nonetheless invited to view the "exhibition" - which, as it turns out, consists of bits of paper stuck to walls carrying quotes from Bui Xuan Phai, one of Vietnam's best-known painters. There are two giant opera masks propped up against the far wall, but we never find out why they are there.

Edric Hsu plays the artist as a kind of shuffling malcontent who thanks us for coming to his "exhibition", then harangues us for the next hour and a half about how horrible his life is. He is oppressed by the Vietnamese government, who want him to censor his paintings. He refuses, of course, on the grounds that he will only paint what he sees.

>>'We never feel like we're getting to know the man'

Hsu has one of those mellifluous voices that politicians and lawyers tend to possess, and he is all too aware of this. Every line is delivered with virtually the same inflections, and he only seems to have two modes - brooding and angry. It doesn't help that a large portion of his lines consists of sound bites like "It is when I do not think about art that I am truly free to paint" or "The very essence of modernism is youth."

This is in fact the single biggest problem with the play. The script is put together by David Chew from Bui's dairies, and while it's nice having the man's voice there, we never feel like we're getting to know him. There's no biographical detail provided, and we're never even shown one of his paintings. When the artist strides across the stage proclaiming, "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going to?" the audience is asking themselves just the same questions.

It's never quite clear what is happening, or where in time we are. One minute Bui is on the brink of exile from Vietnam, the next he is at his own solo exhibition - we never find out how. He mentions his "wife and family" often, but never tells us anything about them. Benny Lim's direction does not help, being insipid enough to turn an already flat script into a piece as featureless as a desert.

Although Hsu is the only one to speak, four silent actors appear from time to time to enact scenes from traditional cheo opera. They are not the best physical performers, but manage to be reasonably convincing during their time on stage, especially Ang Hui Bin as a communist out to break up a pair of lovers, and Vivien Chan as one of that pair.

There are a couple of nice moments in this production, such as towards the end when dried leaves slowly fill the stage while elegiac music plays, but for the most part it is like being at a lecture on a not very interesting subject. Hsu complains at one point that "everyone here is enjoying this but me" - but it really is more like the other way round.