>MARDI GRAS by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 29 jul 2004
>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.


MARDI GRAS was bad. A script which seemed constructed simply to drag the audience from scandal to scandal was anchored by an improbably dreadful central performance from the inflatable Garrett Hoo, who wandered round the stage as if he were looking for the light switch and said all his lines like he was practising them in the mirror. His dreadfulness was matched by equally appalling work from Jimmy T as his boyfriend, whom for some reason everyone pretended was a normal person and not what he clearly was: a serial killer waiting to happen. Occasionally a lesbian newsreader came on and was pelted with insults, because that is what happens to lesbians in plays about gay men. She didn't fight back or run away, possibly because she gave the impression that she had forgotten how to move her legs. Hossan Leong and Natalie Hennedige's campery and an abundance of witty lines went some way towards numbing the pain, but when a disease is terminal, there's only so much you can do.

But these criticisms are so 2003 (see Kenneth's in my opinion over-generous review here) and one year on a new version of the play has arrived to right the wrongs, paper over the cracks and set the story gay. And it's actually very good.

Perhaps the most important improvement is apparent from the very first line because Garrett Hoo is not speaking it. Instead, we have Zahim Albakri playing closeted teacher Ben, who is attempting to organise Singapore's very first mardi gras. Zahim's solid, unaffected performance gave the play the gravity its many issues required without bringing down the comedy his co-stars provided. Importantly, one believed that despite his straight-acting demeanour, he could easily be friends with the flaming fags and hags who surrounded him. If Zahim didn't quite have the emotional depth that would have enabled him to pull off a scene in which he had to break down unconditionally after his boyfriend of seventeen years walks out on him, then at least he played the scene with a neutral dignity which let one imagine what he might have done rather than reminding one of what he had failed to do.

>>'Sharma achieved much greater control over his material this time. Even though the play was just as jam-packed with issues as it had been last time around, the play seemed more like a character-driven narrative than the self-conscious exercise in sensationalism we saw in 2003'

Other cast members were even better. Natalie Hennedige returned to her role as Su Marican, SPG and friend to fags extraordinaire; and whereas previously her deliciously funny caricature - a whining, screeching, cackling take on insane socialite Karen from the sitcom 'Will and Grace' - had seemed like a poorly fitting suit whenever she was required to switch from broad comedy to pathos, this time she had managed to round out the character into a believable whole and one could see the heart beneath the artifice. And Hossan Leong put in a wonderful, mercurial performance as Faith, the bitchy sidekick. Ostensibly nothing more than a comic stereotype (flamboyant wannabe stylist with a penchant for one-liners) Leong challenged the audience by reminding them that regardless of stereotype, such people exist, such people have feelings, and the feelings they have are no less real than anyone else's.

Leong was helped by Haresh Sharma's writing, which was at its best when it laid down this kind of challenge, pushing the audience to look past what should be funny into what is actually serious. As well as the finely crafted scenes with Leong and Hennedige, Sharma had scripted a set piece where a lesbian couple are married by a transsexual who begins the makeshift ceremony with the phrase, "By the power invested in me because I am beautiful..." The transsexual is played by Kumar, possibly the only performer in Singapore who can get a laugh just by being mentioned in the programme, and the first time round, the scene is played for big laughs, which it gets in spades. Then the wedding is interrupted, and when we return to it, the tone is subdued, the lines we have only just heard take on new meaning, and the wedding is more than just the spectacle of two cardboard-cut-out dykes getting hitched in a funny gay play. Nonetheless, because the "priest" was played by Kumar, because the lines were intrinsically funny, because the play had traded in every conceivable stereotype of homosexuality, many people laughed. Some, including myself, didn't. The contrast of intention and reception made the moment poignant, memorable and, yes, beautiful.

Sharma also achieved much greater control over his material this time. Even though the play was just as jam-packed with issues as it had been last time around, Sharma had cut, changed and added where necessary to make the play seem more like a character-driven narrative than the self-conscious exercise in sensationalism we saw in 2003. So even though we still had the bald activism, the pansexuality, the various other instances of pink politics and, most troublingly, the incest, it all pretty much worked this time. For example, the lesbians were more than just a laughing stock, because a ballsy, commanding, if slightly stilted Koh Chieng Mun helped to bring to life a part that had existed last year only as an incomplete sketch. Similarly, the brother-to-brother kiss was this time uncomfortable for all the right reasons instead of all the wrong ones (though I still think the incest subplot was an unnecessary distraction).

And Alvin Tan's direction was also much improved, partly because he now had a pair of lead actors who could walk and talk at the same time, and partly because he was no longer inclined to over-egg the pudding: whereas previously he had given us awkward histrionics, he now showed a much more eloquent restraint.

A couple of problems persisted from the 2003 version: Tan still had a heavy hand with background music - it was too loud, too frequent, too reminiscent of an American daytime soap, and it detracted from the emotional impact that it was intended to underscore. Also, while Sharma never has a problem writing witty, funny lines, a couple of them seemed a little too precious, overwrought and out of place. And Paerin Choa, who reprised his role as Brian, the would-be incestuous closeted policeman brother who is about to get married to his long-term fiancée (see, I told you the play was issue-packed) retained the weak-kneed, over-earnest monotony that had limited his performance last time.

It was always going to be difficult to do MARDI GRAS again. Not because the original was flawless, but because redoing it risked compounding the errors the original had made, or at least failing to correct them sufficiently to redeem the production. But in fact the second attempt has succeeded so well that it has changed my opinion of the first: instead of seeing it as cynical, exploitative, tabloid fluff which had been assembled for the sole purpose of milking the pink dollar, I now see it as a thoughtful, spirited piece which was let down by some woeful casting and the need for a second draft. I am very glad to be so corrected.

Note: Matthew Lyon acted in The Necessary Stage's 2002 production of 'godeatgod', so you should only trust him as far as you can throw him. (He weighs 75 kilos.)