>the lover and the dumb waiter by luna-id

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 9 jan 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>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.


Considered avant-garde in the 60s, the Absurdist movement in Theatre has seemingly come to be deemed as 'classical' - at least in the local theatre scene where performance practices appear to have moved 'beyond', and experimentation from various theatre companies has spawned various and identifiable performance styles.

It was thus an invigorating and stimulating experience to have watched luna-id's production of prominent Absurdist playwright Harold Pinter's THE LOVER and THE DUMB WAITER. Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall proves that existing dramatic texts can be explored with contemporary relevance without resorting to bland pastiche.

Absurd originally meant'out of harmony' in a musical context but is often understood as 'ridiculous' in common lingo. The 'absurd' in Absurdism is however a unique definition that, according to Ionesco, is "devoid of purpose … [where] actions become senseless, absurd, useless." It is a constant self-reflective deconstruction of sense and meaning established through form and performative structure.

At first glance, Pinter's plays appear to be simple and uncomplicated but in the transformation from page to stage, their depth and concordant inaccesibility become apparent. Absurdism can often be an alienating and confounding experience (I heard the phrase 'I don't understand what's happening' being chanted during the performance by neighbouring spectators). Similar to Beckett's, Pinter's plays require an active engagement with the dramatic (in)action and often try the audience's patience with their use of silences, repetition, and cryptic humour.

THE LOVER, first written for television in 1963 and later transferred to the stage, revolves around a middle-class couple Richard and Sarah (Pinter plays are often two-handers) living in a suburban part of England. The dramatic action takes place in a 'room-like' setting in a house (yet another recurring motif of Pinter's) of which the middle-class claustrophobia is effectively captured by Sebastian Zeng's set design of tall wooden panels and neat but tight spaces. Both husband and wife are aware of each other's illicit affairs: As the husband leaves for work every morning, he enquires if his wife's lover will be visiting. When they meet again in the evening, Richard enquires if Sarah had a good time with her lover and reports casually his own pleasures with a whore. As the play progresses, we discover that the lover is Richard who is now called Max.

>>'What etched a lasting impression in this production was perhaps the realist mode of staging the play in contrast yet conjunction with the ideals of the Absurdist movement'

THE LOVER centres around fantasies and identities, social repression, sexual displacement, and wish-fulfillment. Richard and Sarah play out their wanton and lustful desires by assuming alter-egos. But as the play progresses, both characters are forced to confront the difficulty of keeping up their alternate lives as their alter-personalities seem to be taking over. This complex yet humorous spousal relationship engages and captivates only if both characters are strongly portrayed. Tan Kheng Hua, who plays Sarah, was able to switch between identities yet in a 'fluid' manner that did not seem disjunctive. Although one felt that she could have played more with the alter-role of the whore, Tan delivered a convincing performance as Sarah. Richard, played by Lim Yu Beng, faired less well in comparison, though his performance was still sufficient. Beyond the superficial change of costumes, Lim's transformation into lascivious lover Max lacked a certain depth and convincing power though his performance as Richard was coherent and consistent.

The performance was entertaining and provocative, and a good rhythm was achieved in the couple's verbal exchanges, which is important not only in establishing tension in the play but aklso in demarcating the transformations of Richard and Sarah. Furthermore, the interesting use of sound, particularly in the final confrontation between Richard and Sarah, added to the multi-dimensionality of the performance. Richard, having discovered a hand-drum that Max uses to arouse Sarah, begins to play on it at which time the sound effects create a reverberating echo that accentuates the surreal quality of the performance by fusing live and mediated sounds.

This surreal quality should not be understood in 'Dali-esque' terms but one that is 'more-than-real'. The realist set design and modes of performance accentuated this quality of Pinter's work. For Pinter, the contradictions between the desire for realism and the absurdity of the situations do not exist - a purpose acutely noted and effectively staged by Scott-Blackhall. The (absurd) humour, in what is not an easy play, was alive and active in the performance.

The surreal and bizarre quality extends further into THE DUMB WAITER whose direction was by far bleaker and darker. Ben and Gus are hired assassins employed by a mysterious boss. They are assigned to wait in a basement (the room motif yet again) later discovered to be the kitchen of a restaurant that is seemingly no longer in operation. In accordance with the 's.o.p.' of all killers, no questions should be asked - but Gus, played by Lim, begins to question - "who cleans up after we are gone?" Questioning leads to further mystery as food orders arrive down to the two killers via a serving hatch with a 'dumb waiter' and instructions sent via a speaking tube. As Gus leaves the room, Ben receives orders from a speaking tube (a.k.a voice of 'God') to kill the next person that enters. In a tragic-ironic twist, the person that enters is Gus.

Reminiscent of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot', the tragedy and comedy are fused in the conceit of the two 'dumb' killers, creating a discomforting experience. The absurdity employed makes a meta-narrative commentary on the existence of man and God, of heavenly powers and dictates, free-will and rationalism. Its seriousness is counterbalanced by the mundane humour of Ben and Gus's small-talk created to fill the time. This humour is perhaps the strength yet weakness of THE DUMB WAITER. Its culturally contextual humour of football teams and ball games on a Saturday night is, at times, untranslatable to a Singaporean audience. Humour (and comedy), it is said, is often culturally specific. Despite this, the tension between the tragic and comic elements was evident in the direction. Gerald Chew's portrayal of Ben - a controlled, domineering, and 'wiser' hitman, was compelling and persuasive with the subtle (and dramatic) changes in mood and attitudes being distinctive.

The real-time waiting, boredom, and seeming nothingness, created a tension that was keenly felt throughout the performance and was heightened every time a new order came down the serving hatch; some-thing - the possibility that something might happen - constantly threatens the monotony of the no-thing but never quite successfully breaks it. The running lights through the slits of the wooden panels (now transformed from Richard and Sarah's house to a run-down basement with just the collapse of various panels and a change of furniture) and the hollow sounds echoed through the auditorium further accentuated the dramatic tension.

What etched a lasting impression in this production was perhaps the realist mode of staging the play in contrast yet conjunction with the ideals of the Absurdist movement. It was done tastefully and effectively, proving that avant-garde theatre can make meaning and sense. THE LOVER & THE DUMB WAITER represent perhaps then a revived interest in The Theatre of the Absurd and it is indeed encouraging and all the more pleasing to know that these two plays are merely the first in a series of Pinter's works to be produced by luna-id.