>iron by action theatre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 20 nov 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>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.


The thing about IRON is that it is set in a Scottish jail. The thing about Singapore is that it is not.

ACTION Theatre has consistently chosen to neutralise the foreignness of the plays it produces, turning them into theatrical everymen, largely devoid of class or cultural associations. This is a rather different approach from other local theatre companies that tackle foreign plays, such as W!ld Rice with its "glocal" approach, which insists on localisation, and SRT, which most often chooses to attempt to stay true to a play's original culture. Each approach has its strengths and drawbacks, depending on the play in question, but I can't help thinking that the neutralisation approach was the wrong option for IRON. It had worked for ACTION before - 'W;t' and 'Proof', two of their productions from recent years, may have been set in America, but they worked just fine in Singapore, probably because they were set in cosmopolitan, middle-class, academic parts of the US and the cosmopolitan, middle-class, academic stratum of society is pretty much the same wherever you go in the world. IRON, though, is set in a British women's prison with a lower-working-class, middle-aged Scottish protagonist. That doesn't travel.

To be fair, Karen Tan in the lead role did about as well as could be expected considering that she is demonstrably not a lower-working-class, middle-aged Scottish housewife turned incarcerated murderess. She found a way into her character through the emotions and she played the role honestly, with fire in her belly. She rounded out the Scottishisms of the play's language into a more-or-less natural-sounding neutrally accented English, and in many parts of the play she succeeded in presenting a believable character. But culture and especially class are extremely important in IRON because they make the characters who they are, and whenever Tan recounted the details of her youth (fish and chip shops, nights on the town, domestic fracas) one could not help remembering that she is a middle-class Singaporean and most certainly did not do any of these things.

>>'Why choose to do the play at all, when you won't be able to get the culture or the class right and when you won't be able to add much visually?'

Emma Yong as the estranged daughter visiting her mother in prison to recover her missing memories fared better simply because she had less work to do. Her character has escaped her proletarian roots and taken several firm steps up the social ladder, becoming an HR professional who has spent time working in several different countries. She is the kind of global citizen that cosmopolitan Singaporeans do not struggle to portray. Not that the role was easy, and Yong exceeded her remit by bringing a remarkable fluidity to her character's speech and a translucency to her feelings that made you want to reach out and touch her because she was real.

Serena Ho, playing a prison guard who at first trusted Tan but has since learnt to do otherwise was by contrast constrained and opaque: directorial decision seemed to have confined her to a slow drip of bitter aggression. And while this was indeed the defining trait of her character (which Ho portrayed convincingly), it was certainly not the only trait, and so a character with the potential for complexity was flattened into two dimensions.

Remesh Panicker's character had little more than two dimensions on the page, but he rounded them out admirably, and his older, father-figure prison guard had an edge that the script can only have hinted at. He seemed to have lowered his voice for the part, and when this worked, it lent him an air of earthy wisdom and comfortable authority; when it didn't work, it sounded like he was choking the low notes on a rendition of 'Old Man River'. Fortunately, it worked most of the time.

The set provided a much-needed sense of claustrophobia with its high rake and awkwardly angled walls, but it was in many places undermined and overridden by some very odd projections onto its walls from multimedia artist Casey Lim. Lim was taking a very abstract approach, with blotchy, strangely coloured images looking for all the world like torn up Rorschach tests in dribbly watercolour. Additionally, there was sometimes a blank blue screen that looked like the projector had not been turned off properly. Very little of this seemed to have any relationship to anything that was happening onstage. Lim has done some excellent work in the past (most notably in 'Occupation') but he didn't do it here.

But that wasn't the main problem with this production. The main problem was this: the play is essentially a radio drama, of the type you can hear on the BBC World Service on a Sunday evening. Granted, it is a very good radio drama, with engaging characterisation and dialogue, but its potential for visual spectacle is limited thusly: the characters sit and talk or they stand and talk; no one goes anywhere; no one does anything. Director Krishen Jit tried to liven it up as best he could - by taking some of the acting away from naturalism, by reenacting flashbacks, etc. - but even then there wasn't much scope for movement. Also, Jit did not introduce these little set pieces consistently: they tended to come in fits and starts, and there was a particularly uncomfortable moment about halfway through when incarcerated mother and visiting daughter, who up until that point had been sitting facing each other as one really might in a prison, got up and started walking around. Where are the guards, we all wondered.

There were places where Jit's more abstract choices really paid off and the play came alive as a result, but frankly there were not many of these, nor could there have been in this overwhelmingly verbal script. This begs the question: why choose to do the play at all, when you won't be able to get the culture or the class right and when you won't be able to add much visually. I have no idea, but at least ACTION made the best they could of an ill-considered job.