Back in 2001, Inkpot writer James Koh witnessed W!ld Rice's first staging of Blithe Spirit. In his review, he describes how impressed he was with the interpretation - a "seamless transposition of 1940s London to present-day Singapore", as the company excelled in their adaptation of an apparently dated, thoroughly British text to the local stage, still flush with its native wit and lightness.
Six years later, I'm watching the revival of Noel Coward's famous play, with many of the top-notch original actors from its previous run reprising their roles. Once again, Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin play the married couple Charles and Ruth Koh (originally Condomine), exhibiting their natural chemistry as husband and wife. Once again, Tan Kheng Hua plays Elvira, Charles's deceased ex-wife, conjured up by a medium, now haunting the household and wreaking mischievous havoc on her husband's life. And once again, these actors spout Coward's tongue-twisting lines in the uncontrived, believable local accents of upper middle-class Singaporeans, communicating both the sense and humour of his intricate banter and repartee.
And yet - something's not quite right. There's an odd, off-centre je
ne sais quoi about this staging: our laughter falls out of rhythm
on occasion; the humour feels uneven, mismatched. Like many a production,
this adaptation is haunted by its original.
The clash is crucially visible in the figure of Madame Arcati, the
eccentric medium who is responsible for summoning Elvira's spirit during
a séance, and one of Coward's best-loved characters. This time
the role's given to local comedienne Selena Tan, a member of the Dim
Sum Dollies trio. Selena plays the character with gallons of jolly earthiness
and solid gusto - but seems quite insensitive to her role as a bridge
between the worlds of chaos and order; to the extremely English way
her character insists on the dignity and logic of her singing baby songs
to her disembodied spirit guide. Sure, her use of Singlish gets some
laughs, but she alters the very balance of the play - without real pretensions
to refinement, her character is not truly absurd.
These flaws in Blithe Spirit are by no means particularly glaring - in fact, I'd say the show functioned extremely well as a vehicle for entertainment - one must appreciate how it gives license to Swee Lin to play a sophisticated lady, when she's so often typecast as a motherly figure. It's also imperative to commend Kheng Hua for her intoxicating charisma and seductive mischief in her rendition of Elvira, delivering a jolt of energy to the stage every time she wafts in dressed in gauze and daubed in blue make-up. Indeed, several of the play's flaws seem to lie with the classic script itself - I find the resolution unsatisfying even in print, and I commend the director for his minor cuts to the lengthy text. I write of these imperfections because they intrigue me, being illustrative of the tricky game of adaptation.
Glen Goei writes in his Director's Message that W!ld Rice's performance of Blithe Spirit ties in with the company's aim "to reclaim classics and make them relevant to contemporary audiences". And it is good for a theatre company to function as a medium - an entity that conjures up dead, difficult texts of the past and manifests them live in the theatre. The apparitions of such efforts may be changed from their original form - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but usually carrying with them a hint of magic.
Still, it's a little out-of-date to applaud the company for a feat of creative adaptation which they accomplished all the way in 2001. So go on. Don't rest on your laurels. We want a different trick.
As expected, Blithe Spirit is a barrel of laughs - but it's not quite the perfect W!ld Rice comedy. Noel Coward's thoroughly English script survives a Singaporean adaptation decently - Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin are generally believable in their roles as an upper-class middle-aged couple, haunted by the ghost of the husband's former wife. However, at times the eloquent words and stiff British register elude the mouths of the actors, and become still more contrived in the speech and antics of lower-class characters such as Pam Oei's Filipina maid and Selena Tan's more Singlish-spouting medium, Madam Arcati. There's also an odd mix of comedic styles in this play - measures of literary wit and heavy-handed slapstick which don't quite work together. Thankfully, Tan Kheng Hua boosts the energy onstage with her every entrance as the ghostly Elvira, handling the coy, amoral and mischievous character with grace and aplomb. In total, it's a worthwhile night of entertainment - just not the best the company's achieved.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /