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Furthest North, Deepest South


Mime Unlimited and The Finger Players


Matthew Lyon






The Asian Civilisations Museum Auditorium



The World on a String

Take out your books, children, and open them on page 15; the subject, Chinese History. Eunuch Cheng Ho assists his master, Zhu Di, the emperor's second-born son, to stage a coup and usurp the throne. Zhu Di's ambitions are not satisfied, however, and he sends Cheng Ho off in the largest fleet the world has ever seen to discover new worlds and collect tribute from their leaders. Cheng Ho gets to America 70 years before Columbus, but the expedition bankrupts China, Zhu Di is deposed, and all records of the voyage are lost. Remember to revise, children, as there will be a test next week.

Now on to the play. Furthest North's opening was very worrying. Fanny Kee, playing Cheng Ho, the Eunuch Admiral, intoned sententiously at three puppets: a book representing Virginia Woolf, a toy astronaut on a stick, and a vaguely anthropomorphised shoe representing Imelda Marcos. The puppets responded with the broadest, most juvenile comedy. The reason for this uncomfortable stylistic clash was unclear, because it was very hard to work out what was going on - obviously this segment was supposed to stand outside the play's main narrative, and probably it was intentinonally oblique, but it added nothing except confusion, a couple of cheap laughs, and ten minutes to the running time.

When the segment finished, the confusion level went down, but it never went away. It soon became clear that writer Chong Tze Chien had attempted to cram too many themes into his play. It felt like he was at a buffet table, tasting everything, leaving bite marks on the edges of each dish, but never digging in. As a result, the play was often tasty but not filling, and the desserts often seemed to get mixed up with the main courses. On the thematic menu were: the need for a eunuch to prove his masculinity; the argument that we are, even the most powerful of us, slaves to our alloted roles in life; the need to travel in order to appreciate one's home; the price a nation pays to secure its place in history; the role of scholars in the state; the tensions in a friendship between a servant and his master; and so on.

And it wasn't just that there were too many themes, or that they were too cursorily explored, it was also that the dialogue jumped around so much that you sometimes couldn't even tell which theme you were listening to. It seemed that the links between the different topics existed in Chong's mind, but he hadn't been able to translate them to the page. Perhaps the actors had had the links explained to them, because they spoke their disjointed lines with conviction and apparent understanding, but that just increased my feeling of dislocation when the dialogue jinked again.

On top of this, the play tried to tell too much of its story, or at least told it too clumsily. Most of the time it was fine. Through apt dialogue and effective staging, we understood the pressures facing Zhu Di and consequently his reasons for sending Cheng Ho to discover new worlds, and we understood the tensions this action brought about in the pair's friendship. Scenes of the voyage enabled us to empathise with Cheng Ho as the years dragged on and he missed his homeland, and this empathy intensified when his homecoming proved no end to his journey. So was the essence of the story successfully conveyed. Where the play fell down was in its attempt to add the facts and figures of Cheng Ho's voyage into the storytelling mix. Historical factoids are not easily conveyed in naturalistic dialogue, so Chong had scripted voiceovers which interrupted the play's action to deliver what sounded like encyclopedia entries detailing the evidence for Cheng Ho's achievements. Granted, he tried to dress them up a bit, surreally passing them off as the MC's commentary on a Miss World contest that unfolded as the admiral visited the various contestants' countries - but this was too glib by far, and rather than disguising the clumsy and unecessary exposition, drew attention to it.

Chong also told too much story when he refused to let the play end at its natural point (Cheng Ho's setting off to voyage once more, having returned to a dead Emperor and a China in ruins) and instead wrung ten more minutes out of it, seemingly just to show off some arts and crafts pop-up paintings of famous cities that the props people had made.

But the script had lots of strengths too. There were moments when complicated emotions were conveyed with clarity, there were regular spurts of witty lines, and, most importantly, there was a sustained awareness of the need for visual potential within a playscript.

Director Christina Sergeant clearly enjoyed exploiting this potential, gleefully emptying her bag of directing tricks upon the stage. The acting ensemble became a furnace; a dancing concubine turned into a storm and wrecked Cheng Ho's fleet; characters became mannequins and mannequins became characters, all of this seamlessly. It was all very accomplished, and it was pleasing to see Sergeant handle the play's puppetry elements as confidently as she handled her speciality, physical storytelling. She was particularly good at using Chong's set (three tables on castors - one wide, one medium, one tall): it always seemed an integral, and often dynamic, part of her tableaux, never a constraint.

The acting was strong too. Fanny Kee walked a careful tightrope between masculine and feminine, between authority and self-doubt, and she delivered her lines with a measured understanding. Perhaps she lacked the passion of a man who discovered new worlds, but then perhaps the script did not call for this. Subramaniam, playing Zhu Di, got the most out of his impressive charisma and looked every inch the emperor - everything he said was a command. But his role also required moments of less forceful persuasion, of petty frustration, and even of tenderness, and these were at best only adequately portrayed. Gene Sha Rudin brought infectious energy and a warmth the play otherwise lacked to his clown's role. And a versatile ensemble managed everything else (and there was a wide variety of else) with aplomb.

Furthest North is the first collaboration between The Finger Players and Mime Unlimited. It should not be the last. The two companies' sets of skills augment each other and result in theatre divertingly different from anything else in Singapore. And Chong, with his strong visual sense, is exactly the right writer for these visual companies - he just needs to pay a little more attention to when enough is too much.

"It was pleasing to see director Sergeant handle the play's puppetry elements as confidently as she handled her speciality, physical storytelling"

Second Opinion
Journey West by Musa Fazal

More Reviews of Productions by The Finger Players

More Reviews by Matthew Lyon

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.