>cloud nine by drama box

>reviewed by ng how wee

>date: 23 mar 2003
>time: 2:30pm
>venue: theatre studio, esplanade
>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.


If 'Descendants of The Eunuch Admiral' was The Theatre Practice's landmark production, 'Off Centre', The Necessary Stage's, 'Beauty World', Theatreworks',' Titoudao', Toy Factory's, then CLOUD NINE could possibly be Dramabox's signature play. Directed by Kok Heng Leun and co-translated by Quah Sy Ren, CLOUD NINE is Dramabox's Mandarin adaptation of feminist playwright Caryl Churchill's audacious assault on gender, racial discrimination and social oppression. Re-contextualised and weaved into Singapore's historical milieu, the play spans from 19th century to the present time, confronting racial and sexual repression with a gender-bent cast of characters who traverse 100 years while aging only 25. As Churchill's plays always have been, the original script of CLOUD NINE is an extremely challenging feat, not only in terms of reader study but also of theatre performance in practice.

While Dramabox's rendition faithfully follows Churchill's original plot, the production is still refreshingly incandescent of powerful and poignant direction. An impressive leap from Kok's last two works, 'Fugitives' and 'White Songs', 3 ½ -hour long CLOUD NINE is a test of the audiences' patience and the cast's versatility and stamina. Actors play at least two different characters, cross-acting over gender, sexual and racial borders, with Ray Lee as Zhang Liguo/ Martin, Li Xie as Wang Yongqing/ Lin Yumei, Low Kar Wai as Old Mdm Lin/Lin Huiqing, Jean Ng as Xiaocui/ Mrs. Situ/ Lin, Ng Wei Min as Ahmad/ Gerry, Gordon Tay as Wang Zhiyuan/ Peipei/ Soldier and Danny Yeo as Lin Yumei/ Wang Yongqing. The first act depicts characters struggling to conform to society's rigid expectations and stereotypes, with patriarch Zhiyuan terrorising all in the household with his phallocentric oppression and vindictiveness. He subjugates his good friend Liguo, a gay explorer and lesbian governess, Xiaocui into marriage so that the former may be cured of his homosexuality. Even his mother-in-law, Old Mdm Lin is subdued into taking orders from him. All except Mrs. Situ, a widow staying as a guest at the Wang family, are paralysed in a deep spell of overwhelming tyranny and helplessness. Mrs. Situ is the only person who dares to defy Zhiyuan and stands tenaciously by her principles (her name speaks for itself). Though a little compromised by over-enunciated Mandarin, Jean Ng's cross-acting of Xiaocui and Mrs. Situ radiates with excellent versatility and composure. It is also worth noting in terms of its significance from a feminist reading: Whereas Mrs. Situ scorns the patriarch's initial demands to wed her with Liguo, Xiaocui is helplessly interpellated into the heterosexual institution of marriage after her profession of love is rejected by her mistress, Yumei. This dual-role-by-same-actress juxtaposition not only raises questions of female role playing and subversion, but more importantly, it challenges social constructs of gender and sexuality.

>>'If 'Descendants of The Eunuch Admiral' was The Theatre Practice's landmark production, 'Off Centre', The Necessary Stage's ... then CLOUD NINE could possibly be Dramabox's signature play.'

With his immaculate hairdo and elaborately embroidered Chinese dress, Danny Yeo holds his poise convincingly playing Yumei, the subservient wife and damsel in distress who exasperatingly yearns of love from Liguo. Yeo moves on to switch roles with Li Xie to play Yongqing, Yumei's gay son in the second act. By this time, the characters have started to redefine their identities and reclaim their rights as they endeavor to find themselves in the changing sexuality and cultural norms of modern-day Singapore. The lines in act two are slickly adapted into Singapore's multilingual living environment. Low Kah Wai makes her comeback after a long break from her last major production 'Invisibility' (Taipei) in 1997. Playing Huiqing, the bisexual daughter, Low captivates the audience with her commanding presence and delivery. Meanwhile, Jean Ng continues to rouse the audience with her performance of a divorced butch and lowly-educated lesbian mother, Lin, who unflinchingly professes her love for Huiqing. Contrast her actions, or pro-activism, if you'd rather, with that of powerless Xiaocui and even economically-independent woman, Mrs. Situ, who cannot resist the patriarch's carnal pleasures and chases after him for more when tantalised with oral sex.

Li Xie's acting is also praiseworthy, never failing to invite laughter from the audience, as she sings her lines effortlessly with clear diction and musicality as Yongqing in the first act and Yumei in the second act, albeit her delivery being a little too punctuated and engineered at times. Ironically, she could perfect her technique by being less conscious of technique. As for Ray Lee who sounded awkward in Mandarin playing the effeminate explorer in the first act, he pulled his part off with fluent English in the second as the new-age, sensitive-to-women's-needs-and-feelings husband. After shredding off the persona of an overbearing authoritarian, Gordon Tay provides comic relief in times of rising tension between other characters, by playing the menacing little girl, Peipei, with a mischievous demeanour. It is uplifting to see how Kok's production has breathed new meaning and dimension into the three women of Churchill's original Betty, Lin, and Cathy.

Though written 24 years ago, the play is still refreshingly relevant with themes that question the conventional role of the "domineering-husband" and "passive-wife", even in a gay relationship, as well-represented by the tumultuous love between Gerry and Yongqing respectively. Ng Wei Min dishes out credible acting by playing Ahmad, an oppressed Malay servant who fights back by gunning down his Chinese master in the first act. He then turns oppressor by playing the domineering, adulterous, self-centred Gerry. However, Gerry feels asphyxiated by submissive Yongqing's devotedness to and unconditional love for him, causing him to dump the latter. This however induces Yongqing's own emancipation as he seeks solace from his sister. Empowerment of the characters is achieved when these rejects of society live together with Huiqing's girlfriend, a lesbian single mum, Lin, and the latter's unruly little daughter Peipei, thereby constructing a totally new family order that essentially challenges heterosexual establishment.

While some may think that the play wraps on a satisfactory note with Li Xie playing Yumei "coming to terms with herself" by embracing her former self, played by Danny Yeo, I beg to differ. Though the Yumei in act two is seemingly liberated with her newfound financial independence and makes her first love advance to a guy who is unfortunately gay, her intense loneliness and perpertual unease is telling of a woman's never-ending, turbulent struggle with ghosts of the past and social norms for the rest of her life.

The production is not without some minor faults though. Firstly, the Teochew dialogue between Lin and her brother, a soldier, however pleasingly refreshing, was a little too abrupt and poorly articulated. The set design successfully created a colonial Southeast Asian ambience in the first act and crafted a feeling of rawness and disorder of a city in the second. It could however be improved with more subtlety by coming up with alternatives to the blatantly monolithic yellow banner of a dragon and the palpably huge, halved British flag.

Nevertheless, the play is excellent and provocatively entertaining with a great script, directing, acting, costumes (both ancient and modern), and lighting, evidently depicting improved production values overall. Effectively evoking questions of gender, sexuality, morality and oppression, Kok's CLOUD NINE is likely to be remembered as one of Dramabox's best productions for a long time to come.