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Cake Theatrical Productions


Amos Toh






Esplanade Theatre Studio



Nothing Ventured, All Gained

Natalie Hennedige might have rankled cynics when she declared rather vaguely that Cake's season opener would be "an intimate observation on love and death". However, those familiar with Cake's productions will know that "cliché" is not in Hennedige's vocabulary. In fact, she often errs to the other extreme, threading the fine line between inventiveness and illogic. One persisting criticism of Cake is that its hodgepodge of disparate pieces sometimes leaves its audience struggling to even follow the play in the wake of dangerously solipsistic expressionism.

However, despite occasional lapses, Nothing is a glorious theatrical experiment without being excessively indulgent. Three relationships, which recur in three cycles, dominate Nothing: introverted daughter and crabby father Daisy (Goh Guat Kian) and Fang (Peter Sau), fast disintegrating couple Linda (Siti Khalijah) and Lan (Rizman Putra), and shy new lovers Dog Lady (Nora Samosir) and Mosquito Man (Sau). Random vignettes of other relationships - between World War II soldiers Ali and Louis, and toilet cleaners Cik Tipah and Hui Ling, for example - intercut these scenes, mirroring, and hence reaffirming certain aspects of these continuing stories.

These vignettes, in addition to their actors, are also the vital glue of the production. In one scene, two aid workers clash over life's priorities in the midst of a fierce storm. While Aminah (Siti) considers her grand humanitarian ambition to be the true embodiment of life, Lakshmi (Samosir) settles for "a middle-aged man" ("ugly also can", she comically qualifies), daily trips to Vivocity and other aspects of domestic bliss. Immediately in the next scene, Samosir plays the neurotic Dog Woman, vacuuming the floor of her flat like any other housewife. Here, the continuing theme of domesticity, and Samosir's faultless transformation, makes for a seamless transition.

Nothing weaves the bizarre theatrics that have become the hallmark of Cake's productions into more intimate, meditative moments on love, life and death. The result is a brilliantly calibrated work. In a conversation between Cik Tipah (Siti), a jaded toilet cleaner and Hui Ling (Goh), a pregnant teenager considering abortion, Siti's deadpan humour infuses one of the play's bleakest sequences with a touch of the comic surreal. Goh's Hui Ling, clad in a platinum blonde wig and baby doll dress, skips around Cik Tipah dreaming of Disneyland, tempering the leaden morbidity of the scene with a stroke of fantastical whimsy. Even in such melancholy, Hennedige mines an unwavering sense of liveliness, reinforcing her vision that life is an intrinsic part of death.

Just as the lines between life and death are faded, there is also no real beginning or end to the play. Instead, they merely bookmark the Nothing experience. What opens the play closes it: with Brian Gothong Tan's black and white film methodically charting Singapore's economic success in the background, a group of travellers form a line across the circular stage, pick up their suitcases, and swing them robotically to the beat of Philip Tan's claustrophobic soundscape. The brightly coloured costumes and gaudy suitcases provide these sequences with a wickedly satirical edge, thus urging us to resist widely accepted, yet restrictive definitions of life and death, and draw new meanings from them.

At its best, Nothing burrows deep into the human psyche to explore our reactions of death. In a scene charting the final stages of Dog Woman and Mosquito Man's relationship, the latter, who suffers from a terminal illness, is finally hospitalised for treatment. Samosir's Dog Woman is a picture of complete desolation, kneeling on the floor packing Mosquito Man's belongings and weeping, her face contorted in misery. A dispassionate voiceover articulating her thoughts plays in the background, methodically listing the medical procedures Mosquito Man has to go through, the things she has to pack and the "three difficult questions" she has to ask before he dies. The stark contrast between Samosir's raw emotion on stage and her emotional detachment in the voiceover is deeply affecting, and magnficently captures the powerful mix of emotion and rationale inherent in our response to tragedy.

One of Cake's most admirable qualities is that while its productions may verge on abstraction, they are also wildly entertaining. Part of Cake's massive appeal is its bold, unnatural staging. In Nothing , an eclectic mix of costumes (even the stagehands don tight-fitting fluorescent suits), butoh dance moves and compelling use of multimedia (courtesy of a particularly talented Brian Gothong Tan) coalesce into a multi-sensory feast. Under Hennedige's direction, these elements deliver a series of sharp visceral shocks that both thrill and unsettle the audience.

A virtuosic cast is also crucial to sustaining the intensity of the play. While the actors gel together marvellously for the ensemble scenes, each actor also holds his or her own on stage. With the help of some clever props, they switch flawlessly from one role to another at lightning pace. The director and actors' ability to improvise on stage is especially valuable in scenes that involve little movement or speech, like that of Mosquito Man spying on Dog Woman vacuuming the floor of her flat. Instead of cutting an awkwardly static figure staring at Dog Woman, Sau circles Samosir with a portable section of the window grills pressed to his face. Not only is Sau's predatory movement engrossing, it also adds a dash of farce to the scene.

While the cast consistently delivers, young thespian Siti and veteran Samosir are particularly brilliant. Playing a gamut of roles from an aid worker to a jaded wife, a neurotic woman who falls in love to a suicidal woman at the beach, both demonstrate excellent dramatic range that distinguishes them from their stage counterparts.

However, what is puzzling about this production is its excessively cynical tilt. In Lan and Linda's sequences, for example, the latter continuously berates the former with tiresome observations like "The room stinks. The cup of coffee is still sitting there." before issuing the flat one liner, "I'm so tired, Lan." These scenes do better when they reveal the subliminal power shifts in their relationship: while Lan's idleness saps Linda's energy, her mention of a certain handsome doctor at work jolts him from his sleep. Also, is it necessary to begin and conclude with throwaway lines like "we are all but...shadows and all our busy rushing ends in nothing."? Such melodrama hardly captures the spirit of the play; instead, it detracts from the remarkable restraint Hennedige has exercised hitherto.

While Nothing frays slightly at the edges, it is a seminal production in Cake's burgeoning repertoire. This dreamlike pastiche of variously dysfunctional relationships realises Hennedige's theatrical ambition, sparkling not only with clear, distinct ideas of life and death, but also in the way it conveys these ideas. More importantly, Nothing travels well between veteran and inexperienced theatre goers. Hennedige has shown tremendous skill and courage in refining her artistic direction, trimming away the excess without betraying her artistic ideals. The effect is stunning. With such a full, powerful work, there is no denying that Cake has arrived.

"With such a full, powerful work, there is no denying that Cake has arrived."


Playwright and Director: Natalie Hennedige

Multimedia and Set Designer: Brian Gothong Tan

Sound Designer: Philip Tan

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Producer: Sharon Tang

Production Stage Manager: Joanaa Goh

Assistant Stage Manager: Yap Seok Hui

Sound Operator: Aaron Koh

Multimedia Operator: Gabriel Chan

Subtitle Operator: Shang DianJun

Crew: Hatta, Ian Loy

Creative Designers: Brian Chia,
Nicholas Chee, David Lee, Natalie Hennedige

Cast: Goh Guat Kian, Nora Samosir, Rizman Putra, Peter Sau, Siti Khalijah

More Reviews by
Amos Toh

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