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Experimental Theatre Club


Ng Yi-Sheng






DBS Arts Centre



Night of the Living Head

How do we judge the dead come back to life?

You have to ask this question as you're watching Horseface. It's staged by the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC), a group formerly active from 1961 to 1991, once a stronghold of quality theatre in Singapore. The play itself was first staged by the group almost 20 years ago, directed by Chandran Lingam and starring Gerald Chew and T. Sasirathan. It received rave reviews from the press, is mentioned in Clarissa Oon's Theatre Life: A History of English Language Theatre in Singapore, and is recalled fondly by theatre veterans who were present at its run.

The script, an English translation of Girish Karnad's Hayadavana, tells the story of the good friends Devadatta and Kapila, both in love with Padmini, a beautiful woman wedded to the first man but infatuated with the second. The two men behead themselves out of passion and honour for the other - but Padmini's prayers to Kali succeed in bringing the two back to life, albeit with transposed heads. There's a very strange love triangle that ensues, questioning the dichotomy of mind and body and the nature of love itself, and the story ends with a doubly fatal duel between Devadatta and Kapila, twin Frankensteins, unable to solve their tortured love for the same woman in spite of the admixture of their bodies. Their imperfect resurrection, far from saving them, dooms them once again to self-destruction.

Now, 15 years after its dissolution, ETC is also risen from the grave - but its reanimated body walks awkwardly, headed by Chandran in his renewed capacity as director. Horseface is alternately amateurish and excellent, both promising and undeserving of mercy. Its production is a reflection of the drastic changes in the theatre scene over the past decade and a half - changes that ETC just wasn't equipped to handle.

First, with so many opportunities from competing theatre companies, the best actors weren't all going to ETC for auditions. Consequently, the standards of acting in Horseface ended up spectacularly polarised. The central cast of Richel Xie, Alan Anand Johnson and Zoe Christian were a dream - their clear, compelling portrayal of the Devadatta, Kapila and Padmini touches the heart and moves the soul. Christian convincingly shows a maturation of her character from a sprightly, intelligent young woman to a driven, tortured wife and mother caught between duty and passion. Xie and Johnson handle the change in their relationship from friends to rivals with similar grace - and are more than equipped for handling their exchange of roles, as they switch masks to symbolise the misgrafting of their heads. The measured pace of the three actors' performance recalls Shakespeare or Greek tragedy at its best - it's an epic sequence, approaching perfection.

Yet most of the supporting cast was disappointing. Certainly, the female chorus did a decent job with the limited demands placed on them: they pranced on as living props and delivered commentary on the legend. And yes, the Narrator had strong stage presence, but the nasal tinge to his voice annoyed the hell out of this reviewer, and the haughty pompousness of his portrayal, untempered by irony, endeared him little to the audience.

In particular, the framing story, involving a man cursed with the head of a horse, fell utterly flat - neither of the two supporting players in this sequence could handle their difficult roles as figures beyond the artificial circle of the play. These scenes, though brief, were crucial to the success of the drama - above all, a good production needs a good beginning and a good ending. Barely relevant to begin with, this framing story spoilt all my delight at the play's glorious middle section. Even worse, it extended a very long play - the show took three hours, and it felt like three hours.

Given this judgment, one could claim that ETC has a gifted head, but is weighed down by the ungainly body of an inadequate cast. It's not that simple. Chandran made several very poor directorial decisions in the course of the play - who the hell instructed the horse-faced man to sing a Bollywood song in the final scene, after all?

Horseface's visual style was, in a word, unremarkable - the beautiful period costumes simply didn't sit well with the minimalist props and set. And while I'll applaud the attempt to stimulate multiple senses through the use of religious incense - this could have greatly enhanced the theatrical experience in the intimate environment of a black box theatre. The proscenium stage of the DBS Arts Centre, however, created a deeper sense of distance and remove between the action and the audience, and the sumptuous saris and kurtas that swished across the stage only made us desire more elaborate visuals.

But even before curtains parted, Horseface was already condemned to insolvency due to a set of gross logistical blunders. The first, most costly mistake, may have been to schedule the play for the long Deepavali/Hari-Raya weekend. As a friend pointed out to me, the great Indian playwright Girish Karnad is renowned primarily in his home, so Indian expatriates would have come in droves to watch the play - provided they hadn't all already booked on holiday trips in the subcontinent.

This problem was compounded by the lack of good publicity. Where a media machine could have worked up a buzz about the return of a historically important theatre company, there were only a few summary emails and an uninspired flyer image to publicise the event. Add to this the fact that the same weekend, Theatreworks was staging Pichet Klunchun and Myself at the nearby auditorium of 72-13 - by all accounts an extremely good production, with free ticketing. Small wonder that on the Saturday night I went, only three rows were filled in the entire auditorium. Untempered by the heat of crowds, the air-conditioning nearly froze the nipples off my chest.

I have to apologise for my misguided expectation, expressed in my "First Impressions" column, that ETC would be invested in theatrical experimentation. In fact, sources indicate that the group was one of the more conservative theatre clubs that made a name for itself in the 80's. Chandran's lifelong devotion to drama involved producing plays in good English, though not necessarily by the colonial overlords. He was not concerned with creating a groundbreaking new vocabulary of theatre, but with doing theatre well. With Horseface, he's almost succeeded, but too many flaws remain evident in the production for me to give wholehearted applause.

What's the future for the revenant theatre club? ETC has no plans to go commercial, so it's likely to continue in the league of amateur theatre groups, much like The Stage Club, though without the advantages of corporate connections. I respect Chandran's decision to pursue a decolonised English language theatre - our drama scene is replete with local writing and British and American imports, after all; a new source of texts might be refreshing. Perhaps MCYS could take him under their arm.

ETC has potential - the solid centre of Horseface is proof of that. What's clear, however, is that if the club wants to make an impact on the scene, it has to receive a jolt of new life in its leadership. It must understand the context of its performances well, and be unafraid to reclaim the world of hype. Otherwise, it'll exist as a living fossil - a walking corpse, due anytime soon for a second suicide.

"Horseface is alternately amateurish and excellent, both promising and undeserving of mercy... a reflection of the drastic changes in the theatre scene that ETC just wasn't equipped to handle"

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

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