It Could Never Happen Here
We're in a revivalist era: every theatre company on the island seems to be digging through its archives for some iconic production from its past to restage. In the past year or so, we've seen TTRP's Mama Looking For Her Cat, Toy Factory's Titoudao, The Necessary Stage's Off Centre and Experimental Theatre Company's Horseface; next month, W!ld Rice is up for a big reprise of Beauty World. Why all this nostalgia, you may ask; isn't it enough to do stage one thing and be done with it already? Isn't it time to say new things in drama, to go new places?
Not quite. Mad Forest, first staged by TheatreWorks in 1991, is a case in point. By all accounts, it should be a dated piece, written by Caryl Churchill in 1990 as a description of the 1989 Romanian Revolution; the fall of a Communist era that had crumbled before a good lot of us began to shave. Yet it still remains a tantalising, dangerous play if done well - and, remarkably, this is precisely what Young & W!LD manages to do.
Director Jonathan Lim's gone with a spare Brechtian staging, well suited to a black box theatre - overhead projections of the Romanian/English scene titles, chairs upstage where the ensemble sort through their costume changes out of shoeboxes, sparse lighting. There's a keen sense of focus in the brief, almost wordless scenes of act one that communicates the oppressiveness of the Ceausescu regime, a constantly changing stage picture, a dreamlike confusion of characters that you simply have to accept rather than understand systematically.
Then everything breaks up for act two: the events of the December revolution themselves, with the actors each playing a witness, recounting his story in direct address to the audience while the ensemble mills behind in black, murmuring or chanting, diving for cover when machine-gun fire periodically broke the flow of monologues. Lim has the guts to actually call the several rows of the audience to shift their seats specially for this scene, altering the stage dynamic, underscoring our role as second-hand witnesses to the violence.
I'd like to stop here and talk a little about the ethos behind Young & W!LD. When W!ld Rice decided to assemble a youth company, they made the conscious decision to create an acting troupe: a family of inexperienced but dedicated actors whom professional directors could develop by pushing them to their limits again and again. It's therefore somewhat inevitable that actors will fail live up to the text: each script selected must take them beyond their comfort zones to force them to grow.
Thus the mixed reviews for their maiden show On
North Diversion Road; and thus again here. In a few cases,
actors cannot pull off their roles convincingly: Hang Qian Chou does
not have the age or gravity to portray the tired, cynical mechanic Bogdan,
Audrey Luo does not have the elocution to play the student protester
More importantly, there's an emphasis was placed on the cultivation of ensemble movement: deeply necessary in scenes where only a single line of text is spoken in the midst of a rationing queue. And it's this intense consciousness of movement that's most often missing from the repertoires of actors here - a skill that's key to moving from narrative to conceptual performance.
Of course, when we get to act three, the whole dynamic of the play changes. The less stylised, more realist scenes depicting post-revolutionary Romania are easier to follow, but also expose the actors to greater scrutiny in their roles. Judy Ngo and Daphne Ong, for example, were believable in their respective roles as the sisters Florina and Lucia, but failed to add real depth to their characters. Eleanor Tan, on the other hand, handled the role of Flavia beautifully, allowing the suffering of this uptight, middle-class teacher to bleed through her collected exterior. Certainly, this act was less tidy than the two that preceded it, but it's typical of Churchill's plays that they're messy in the second half - this is the very point of the play: not to simply lampoon the problems of society but to talk about them, quarrel and fight over them - and true to form, a powerful pugilistic scene of chaos happens in the final scene, making the most of the physical acting skills studied by the troupe.
But enough of appraisals. The fact is, Young & W!LD could have pulled off another script with twice as much aplomb and not had the impact they had with this one. Mad Forest strikes home less because of the strengths of its direction and performance than because of its content: the description of a country's revolution against a dictator, told in intimate, moving, believable human detail.
This is a powerful story to tell right here, right now. In these past few months, we've watched Pakistanis rallying (vainly) for Bhutto as a democratic alternative to the Musharraf regime; we've watched Malaysian Indians marching for HINDRAF against UMNO's ethnic and religious policies; we've watched Myanmar monks and civilians getting gunned down by their own government, while their expatriate workers in Singapore gather by temples and embassies, urging our government to take a stand.
In the meantime, we live in a country where over 50% of us have no vote, where the same party has ruled since independence, where detention without trial has remained in place since the 50s. There is nothing to suggest a revolution is brewing, nothing that suggests a real regime change in the near future: only jibes and snipes from our bloggers and rights groups and opposition parties. No change.
But there is always the dream of what if - just what would happen if we rose up tomorrow and overthrew the government? Mad Forest conjures that possibility, captures the delight and danger of that fantasy, which is what makes it such a powderkeg of a production for a viewer who sees it on a good night. (I use this last qualifier because some friends of mine attended the show on opening night and reported that half the audience had been nodding off in their seats. I myself caught the last show, which is often the best.)
I'd even argue that Mad Forest is more meaningful than an obviously political made-in-Singapore play like Homesick or The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ or 251. Aside from the high quality of its writing, it's completely serious about its politics - it doesn't smack of cheekiness, winking at the audience with local references, thumbing its nose at censors. And it's easy to see how the script could have slipped by the much less tolerant censors of 1991: after all, it's not about revolution in this country, it's about bloody Romania, for chrissakes.
And yes, sometimes it's important for a play to be foreign. Mad Forest is suffused with the flavour of the other: besides the strangeness of its form and content, actors speak in Romanian accents - a nuance which would usually be cast aside as difficult and distracting, but here terribly well-used. Though unavoidably inauthentic, and at times meandering into Filipino or Japanese tones, the quasi-Romanian voice remains as a convincing shadow on the piece, a real force of alienation that expresses the oppressive culture of a world so like and unlike our own.
It's not the norm for us to hike up our ratings for a show just because the company chose an excellent script. But so often, revivals happen simply because of an anniversary date, or the advent of a festival, or simply out of the force of nostalgia. Here, a play was brought back because it mattered, because a new generation needed to be reminded of the ideas it had communicated back in 1991 (when I'm sure the impact of the show must have been mind-blowing). Against the backdrop of our region's recent turmoil, the play could not have come at a better time.
Mad Forest teaches us many things: that a foreign play does not have to be placed in a local setting to be resonant; that a foreign play can describe our circumstances better than a new play; that young companies should dare to stage plays with a political conscience; that our playwrights (including myself) really ought to stop navel-gazing and spouting inside jokes and start describing the extraordinarily violent times of our world.
I've no inkling of whether Young & W!LD will be able to top this in a future production. After all, they're a small company, still emergent, looking in different directions to perfect themselves. What I'm hoping against hope, however, is that this tiny, black-box show performed in the boondocks of Sembawang can stimulate a more intelligent, more ethical brand of political theatre here. Otherwise, it'll be as if it never happened.
Hot damn! You come to the end of the year expecting nothing more than
mediocre Christmas pageants, and then you get this – possibly
the most intense play I've seen all year. Jonathan Lim's made some inspired
decisions as director here, not least in his choice of this specific
script: Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest describes the prelude,
course and aftermath of the Romanian Revolution with intimacy, strength
and complexity, lending keen insight into the psychologies of contemporary
social uprisings – the Buddhist monks in Myanmar, the HINDRAF
rallies in Malaysia, and God knows what in Singapore. With insane energy,
the young troupe manages to carry the brief, truncated vignettes of
act one, the abstract ensemble and monologue work of act two, and (with
slightly more difficulty) the more protracted, more naturalistic scenes
of act three. Plus, their semi-authentic Romanian accents really work
in favour of the production, enhancing the oppressive strangeness of
the piece and never appearing forced. It's clear that the actors' skills
have developed radically since their maiden production, On North
Diversion Road – Young & W!LD is becoming that rarest
of rare things, a young people's theatre group that can hold its ground
with professional companies.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /