Tree Duet is not drama, but theatre -
Tree Duet is not theatre, but performance -
Tree Duet escapes even performance. While other shows rumble, quack and roar, this show simply is.
Writer/director/actor Paul Rae hosts the evening. Playing off the central image of the tree, he presents us with a series of gently provoking ideas about heritage, rootedness and humanity.
He draws on personal anecdotes: a visit to an ancient tree at the Jin Long Si Buddhist temple, a journey to Britain to cremate his grandmother. He recalls history and legend: the tembusu tree at the Botanical Gardens, the bodhi tree of the Buddha.
These stories are told without the trappings of theatre: neither with the fourth wall of re-enactment nor with the forced informality of a dramatic monologue directly addressed to the audience. Paul does not even completely memorise a verbatim text: he wants to share, as if among friends.
Early on in the play, he notes that one of his early ideas was to physically bring a tree onstage to talk to, but that this was quickly abandoned because "the tree will always out-perform me". The piece thus becomes an unspoken investigation of the aesthetics of a tree's performance - how well do we value, or even comprehend, that which is old yet still alive and silently growing: aged people, historical sites, nature itself?
The audience is thus quietly tested - forced to rethink our perspectives on art and the world, encouraged to listen in a new way. Just as we have grown comfortable with Paul's nonchalant speech, he engages in the highly performative act of throwing 22 rubber balls - three at a time - across the space of Guinness Theatre. This, we later realise from his tales, is a reference to the fact that Botanical Gardens Director H. N. Ridley jump-started the whole of the Southeast Asian rubber plantation industry with just 22 rubber tree seeds in the 19th century.
Other little moments keep us off our guard - Paul plays a piece of music at the end which he has confessed that he cannot quite grasp for more than a few seconds: we find ourselves in the same position hearing the arrangement; soothed but unable to complacently relax. Paying homage to a heritage of more conventional drama, Paul refers to sections of Kuo Pao Kun's famous play The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree, a meditation on how Singapore's modern pace of life lays waste to the slow organic wisdom of tradition. Just as intriguingly, several speeches are delivered by Kaylene Tan, Paul's wife and artistic collaborator, reading from a table stage left, just outside the lighted area. A largely silent feminine counterpoint to Paul's monologues, she reads a Straits Times forum letter by a woman in support of saving an ancient tree from destruction, an extract from Virginia Woolf, in addition to lines from Kuo's play. She keeps the balancing act of dialectics in play - the little girl answering the tree in return with her own reflections and stories.
A bit of background, I think. The Duets series itself was conceived by Paul and Kaylene in 2005 as a proposed annual production, exploring and documenting their relationship as a couple. In 2006, with Kaylene pregnant and on sabbatical, Paul had to perform Duets 2 as a solo item, to significantly reduced critical acclaim.
One would have expected Tree Duet to emerge as another two-hander, drawing off the dialogic energic of the first Duets that was so missing in the second. So it's particularly admirable that Paul's chosen the more risky option of paring the production down rather than padding it out. The work is now a meditation, less about people than about abstract ideas, plucked almost bare of speechifying and theatrical gesture.
In fact, it is quite troubling to be forced to assign a star rating to this variety of production, because it resists our conventions for judging excellent theatre - clearly, it's good, but it does not want to be mind-blowing because that denotes a brusque, violent aesthetic entirely foreign to the subject at hand. Much of avant-garde theatre today is epic, operatic, brutal - this work pushes the boundaries also, but with a steady, welcome grace.
One further note. Paul admits another reason he chose not to bring a small tree onstage, as every potted plant he has owned has died in his care. Having visited a website that calculates the environmental cost of our activities, he proposes that following the show's final run, he will donate $445 of the production budget to reforestation projects in South America to offset the show's ecological footprint.
There is thus a strange optimism that permeates this production - and a fair dose of humour as well - which is unusual in theatre pieces dealing with themes of old age and historical decay. One more facet of this deceptively, sincerely simple work of not quite performance.
This is a show that eludes you, that charms you but does not seduce you, that stirs you and awakens you to a new level of consciousness while never quite binding you in the same spell, that speaks softly and is radical without being radical at all...
I am quite certain I will have the right words, given time.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /