>the global soul: the buddha project by theatreworks

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 21 jun 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: victoria theatre
>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.


'Search Hamlet' has recently concluded its run in Denmark (August 2002), and 'The Flying Circus Project', featuring 3 Shakespearean Tragedies staged as interweavings and negotiations of Asian (and Western) cultural forms, has seen its eventual finale. But before theatre-goers could assimilate Ong Keng Sen's brand of avant-gardism, the artistic director of Theatreworks has mounted his intercultural hobbyhorse yet again in this production, conceived for the Singapore Arts Festival 2003. THE GLOBAL SOUL - apparently a "meditation about travel - time travel, travels in our imagination, travels in our heart, travels in our memory, travels to find the meaning of life, travel for business, travel for leisure" (Programme notes, p. 6) - is yet another theatrical experimentation of multicultural art forms in interaction. Similar to what was attempted in 'The Flying Circus Project,' an act of staging the juxtapositions of artistic discourses, Western and Asian theatrical forms, and different language mediums, Ong collaborates yet again with world-class performers, each accredited in their own country and internationally for being masters of their respective arts. The performance sees a staging of modern dance, traditional Thai Khon dance, Liyuan Opera and Korean Kagok.

Perhaps a hazy citation of Pico Iyer's novel 'The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home' (2001), THE GLOBAL SOUL, can be considered a series of individual performances held loosely together by an exceedingly ambiguous and indistinct theme of travel (and Buddhism). Each performer enters the performative space enacting and performing their ascribed role. Throughout the 75 minute performance, the five performers, supposedly assume personae (but this was certainly absent in their portrayals due to the fragmented nature of the performance) and 'play' out the travels of five different characters, these being: Millie, Miss Ping, The Woman, The Singer, and He. These characters have little or no interaction apart from the occasional vocal overlapping of Korean Kagok tunes and Liyuan operatic song.

>>'While one can say that postmodernism in art discards grand metanarratives and the linearity and coherence of narrative itself, the production's general formlessness made any sort of understanding virtually impossible.'

But perhaps that is Ong's artistic intention - each performer comes on stage, as individuals, and performs his/her own art, though doubtlessly to the highest standards. Kang Kwon Soon (The Singer), a national cultural treasure in Korea, fills the theatre with her powerful, enchanting Kagok tunes. Though lyrically unfathomable, Kagok's spiritual tunes, founded in a "deep philosophical foundation" (programme notes, p. 13), carry the listener on a journey. Unlike other performers on stage whose 'travels' are performed as and through the body, its gesture and movement, The Singer's journey is musical and her body remains completely still. Accompanying this traditional art form is an equally archaic Chinese theatrical style of Liyuan Opera. Zeng Jing Ping, who plays Miss Ping, is an accredited national artist who performs her art with grace and precision. Her traditional headdress and facial make-up stand in juxtaposition to her more contemporary track suit, perhaps in an attempt to portray the conflict of tradition and modernity.

Pichet Klunchun's Khon dance was perhaps among the more captivating sequences of the performance ironically due to its unhurried, deliberated movements and precise stances. The intensity, concentration and meditation of each movement and step taken (especially so when he ascends a platform backwards) demonstrate his exceptional skill as a Khon dancer. In contrast to these traditional art forms are modern dance movements, with their rhythm and energy, vigorously performed by Sophiatou Kossoko. She plays French-speaking Millie whose travels are portrayed via strenuous athletic actions. Charlotte Engelkes, who also recently collaborated with Ong in "Search Hamlet," plays The Woman who recounts her travel experiences. Her ability to inhabit a character convincingly and credibly shows through, and her versatility as a performer is seen as she breaks, on occasion, into song and dance.

While each performer captivated the audience in their own right, THE GLOBAL SOUL failed to come together as a "play." Though the programme offers a detailed synopsis, perhaps having learned from the distasteful experience of "Desdemona," the performance remained thoroughly alienating and incomprehensible with its lack of form and coherence. While the programme notes such things as Millie "suffers from jet-lag" and "He refuses to eat," the audience fails to see, or recognise, these moments (and we are certainly uncertain if the narrative corresponds to the performative moments on stage). In the light of such a fragmented form(lessness), a detailed synopsis holds no meaning. Like the play itself, there is no identifiable referent. Furthermore, apart from the occasional gestural and narrative references to Buddhistic philosophy and beliefs (for example, He rests in the famous sleeping position of Buddha and later transforms into an image of stillness as a lotus above the water, and The Woman speaks of how she carries a small Buddha in her bag), there was hardly anything "Buddhist" about the play.

While one can say that postmodernism in art (if there is a shared definition) discards grand metanarratives and the linearity and coherence of narrative itself, the production's general formlessness made any sort of understanding virtually impossible. Though renowned performance theorist Richard Schechner classifies all genres of theatre, dance, music, sports and ritual as a single coherent group of "performance," one wonders how performance, in the context of THE GLOBAL SOUL, is drama. It was significantly dance and song with much abstraction but an absent referent. THE GLOBAL SOUL by any other name would have smelt as sweet - and it would certainly have been more appropriate to entitle the play "Studies in movement and sound" or "Fragments of song and dance."

Perhaps the value of such "cutting-edge" styles of performance lies precisely in their ability to question the assumed structures of theatrical performance. And yet the spectator constantly seeks comprehension, the mind seeks sense and coherence. In such cutting-edge intercultural performances where holistic understanding seems impossible since we are constantly alienated, in the condition of otherness, from other cultural forms and cultures (and in this case where individual performances are artistically and aesthetically gratifying yet perplexing), what happens then when we do not understand?