>obsessive repulsive madness by in source theatre

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 22 apr 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: the singapore art museum
>rating: *1/2

>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.


Yukio Mishima is one of Japan's most eminent writers and novelist whose works have been widely translated, studied and analysed both in the East and West. Apart from being politically and socially provocative, Mishima's works have often been critically acclaimed for accentuating the collision between modernity and tradition. His adaptation and modernisation of Japanese theatre archetypes of Noh and Kabuki have also made his work unique and inimitable. In Source Theatre's OBESSESIVE REPULSIVE MADNESS is an attempt at staging two of Mishima's popular modern Noh plays - 'Hanjo' and 'Sotoba Komachi'.

While the attempt was laudable, little else could be said about the performance which became, quite inevitably and aptly, a somewhat repulsive experience. Perhaps in a meta-theatrical sense, the 'madness' and 'repulsion' were intentional on the part of the director.

The first play, 'Hanjo', a modern Noh play, is about a peculiar love triangle between Jitsuko, a female artist, Hanako, a mad girl, and Yoshio. The dramatic tension of Mishima's unadorned, slow and simple plot lies in the tension between Jitsuko and Hanako - an unreciprocated love tainted by lust compounded with genuine concern. Mishima's powerful and provocative script of entrapment and mania is, however, not fully realised in this adaptive production.

Low Yuen Wei's portrayal of the obsessed Jitsuko was praiseworthy but insufficient. Despite having highlighted the complexity of the female protagonist in the programme booklet as someone who is frail, egoistic, possessive and emotionally impoverished, Low came short of achieving this complicated character with her performance. It appeared that a naturalistic form had been intended in the presentation of the character, but the performance fell short and there was an unnaturalness of style and movement. The at times oddly jerky and abrupt bodily movements contrasted with an intonation that lacked variety. Diction was generally poor with consonants being markedly exaggerated. While such features should not be the focus of any performance, they were nonetheless a constant distraction, particularly because Xann Tay's Hanako complemented Low's weak characterisation. Her enunciation lacked clarity and one could almost sense that she was making a considerable effort to speak fluently and enunciate accurately. In addition, Hanako's innocent and beautiful madness were also nowhere to be seen. The portrayal remained flat and uninspired with a monotony found in both voice and body.

>>'OBSESSIVE REPULSIVE MADNESS clearly lacked a performative translation; the piece suffered from insufficient dramatic interpretation.'

In a quasi-stylised performance where the stage is relatively bare (a white cloth was draped across the stage with flower petals strewn from corner to corner) and the costumes simple (Low was in undergarments while Xann was swaddled in red cloth) the focus inevitably is on the embodiment, interpretation and presentation of character. A minimalist mise-en-scene draws attention to bodily movement, the voice, and the rhythm and tempo of performance. This is what OBSESSIVE REPULSIVE MADNESS clearly lacked: a performative translation; the piece suffered from insufficient dramatic interpretation.

The forlorn attempt at proper diction and intonation, and the generally awkward acting styles and movement, followed through to the next play, 'Sotoba Komachi'.

Mishima's 'Sotoba Komachi', is a modernisation of a traditional Noh theatre piece: a 'Rojo-mono', or Old Woman Play. It is about a 99-year-old bag lady who haunts a twilit park full of lovers and is questioned by a drunken writer. She reveals that she was once a great beauty who was courted by a handsome captain. Although she is now old, ugly and wrinkled, the writer, his vision transformed by love, is able to see Komachi as she once was. Despite knowing that all men who tell Komachi she is beautiful meet their death, he is overwhelmed by love and is unable to resist the temptation. The end is predictable. Embodied in this play are the notions of modernity confronting tradition and the obsessive power of physical appearance. 'Sotoba Komachi' is not only about the loss of physical beauty but the loss of self - identity caught in the dialectics of memory.

In Source Theatre's adaptation became a fragment of Mishima's original. With a threadbare narrative, the experience of 'Sotoba Komachi' was painfully repetitive and quite literally repulsive. The Old Woman Play, as it was staged, became an exercise in lamenting and wailing to the point of abhorrence and nausea. In Source Theatre's 'Sotoba Komachi' removed the dimensional depth of Mishima's modern Noh play and replaced it with a physicalisation of the grotesque. The Old Woman, played by Low, merely croaked in a low tenor and was seen waddling across the stage picking up red roses. Though the act of gathering these roses may have seemed significant, the action crossed the line between the symbolic and the clichéd. The Old Woman's 'repulsive' lamentation was augmented by the mad woman from Hanko (not in Mishima's text) who was chanting a poorly enunciated line: "sitting on a 'meta' (matter?) chair waiting". Perhaps the wailing and croaking were directorially intended but they nonetheless translated into an unbearable aural event.

Repulsion, be it aural or visual, can often be aesthetically and artistically enjoyable (as paradoxical as this may sound) if it is done 'tastefully'. However, this was clearly not happening here. The profundity that is so integral to Mishima's Old Woman was totally absent. The absent narrative of 'Sotoba Komachi' was further supplemented by the use of a slideshow of video images of old people aimlessly roaming Singaporean void decks and performing mundane, routine tasks. This side show discredited the performance further as it served little purpose other than to bridge the two plays and allow time for costume changes. There was no 'dramatic effect'. The only laudable and dramatically effective performance text was perhaps the use of music - the incessant whistling of the Sakuhachi - which created a placidity that contrasted with the madness on stage.

Perhaps a learning point that could be taken away from the performance is one about (cultural) translation. Japanese theatre and its multifarious forms have often fascinated the West but have never been successfully staged in western hands - particularly the demanding traditional forms of Noh and Kabuki. In culturally dislocated Singapore, where the theatre scene naturally heads towards interculturalism, the issue of translation is inevitable. Translation, however, clearly does not merely mean changing the language but means a performative translation of cultural texts and contexts, along with the styles and modes of performance. 'Madness', 'Obsession', and 'Repulsion' are achieved dramatically in vastly different ways in Japanese theatre. What In Source theatre needed to find, perhaps, was an appropriate performative and linguistic language in which to speak the issues of both plays.