In Sickness And In Health
For any other dedicated and inexperienced group of thespians, The Hypochondriac, Moliere's lampoonery of the quack medical profession and self-willed invalidism, would have been a daunting play to stage. Not so for young & W!LD, the fledgling youth wing of highly established theatre company W!LD RICE, which launches into one of the world's strangest plays with exhilarating comic enthusiasm.
The ensemble delivers a rollicking, irreverent version of this classic 17th century farce, which is finely balanced between grim truth and surreal looniness. Argan, a man so obsessed with his imaginary ailments, willingly sacrifices his daughter's happiness for constant medical attention from a troupe of absurdly inapt doctors. His preoccupation with illness renders him blind to his wife Beline's designs on his wealth, whose attempt at cuckoldry is foiled only by his discerning brother, Beralde and shrewd maid, Toinette. Beneath the play's improbable tricks and bizarre disguises is a more incriminating assault on the follies of paranoia and disease of egotism that attack hope and love.
Based on a traditional and rigorous performance style, Commedia dell'Arte, this production demands taut physical movement and precise vocal inflection to convey the script's complex interplay of bawdy jokes and scathing social commentary. An alternatively contemporary and consequently looser rendering of the characters' roles would have, as director Christina Sergeant aptly mentioned after the show, taken a tedious "three and a half hours" to stage. As a result, the ensemble is under immense pressure to adhere to a strict rhythm and timing such that every step taken, every word spoken, every interaction evokes the desired nuance and innuendo. Unfortunately, the actors' characteristic vigour and boldness, while capturing the play's outrageous mood, sometimes hinder their ability to express the script's subtle layers of irony. When Beline throws herself into a calculated outburst expressing anxiety over her husband's condition, Daphne Ong's clumsily paced delivery struggles to register the bathetic oscillations between her character's barely contained glee at the prospect of inheriting Argan's wealth, and feigned concern for his illnesses. The actors' energetic repertoire often lacks this delicacy of touch so crucial to the subversive comedy of these sequences.
Also, most of this youthful troupe do not have the elocution required to articulate Gerard Murphy's translation of the play, whose scatological puns and humorous references to bodily functions inhere a quintessentially French flair. This is most evident in Ghazali Muzakir's performance of Beralde, who never fully relaxes into Murphy's language. His distracting mix of unnatural French accents and acrolectal Singaporean English reflects a painstaking consciousness that, while redemptive in its earnestness, lends the production an air of contrivance. Mostly, the actors' movement and speech are too studied and forceful even for the highly deliberate style this production adopts. As Argan works himself into a frenzy over his illnesses, Muzakir folds his arms, sighs and shakes his head with an amusing self-seriousness that gives the impression of an actor performing Belrade, rather than of Belrade himself.
Despite such inconsistencies, The Hypochondriac mines several strong individual moments. Tan Shou Chen's tottering and sputtering on stage magnificently captures Argan's attention-seeking tendencies, even if his performance bangs on that same note and grates towards the end. Candice De Rozario and Eleanor Tan titillate in the musical interludes, their mesmerising sopranos infusing the play's songs about hope and love with remarkable depth of feeling and nuance. Ultimately, the play unwittingly finds its star in Jasmine Koh's brilliantly calibrated interpretation of sassy family maid Toinette, who easily undermines her master's penchant for enemas and the doctors' harebrained antics with an ironic arch of her eyebrow, bat of an eyelid or twitch of the mouth. With minimal changes in vocal and facial expressions, she projects more comic authority than anyone around her. This is surely the desired result of the actors' individual efforts: the ability to locate a fine balance between their flair for theatrics and more subtle sensibilities of the stage.
What the actors lack individually they more than make up for in their stunning ensemble work. Sergeant and Judy Ngo's impeccable vocal and dance choreography culminates in the play's final rough-and-tumble number, in which its hypochondriac hero is farcically elevated to doctorhood, the better to medicate himself. The actors transform into an ensemble of black-gowned buffoons that salute the healing arts in a rousing chorus of fake Latin double-talk, steering themselves into an electrifying, seemingly effortless synchronicity. The troupe's highly energetic, yet precisely executed dances also uncork the real joy of the production, exuding such generous charm that the smiles on their faces become yours.
There is a keen sense of this youthful troupe wanting to push the limits
of their experience and stagecraft to emerge from the play stronger
actors, even if they don't pull off their multiple and challenging
roles as convincingly as they would like to. What I value most about
this production is their infectious optimism, which embraces all our
artistic ideals and none of the cynicism that might seem inevitable
in a country that consistently undermines the arts. Some might dismiss
this as the product of youthful inexperience, or question its longevity
in a fickle, often heartbreaking arts scene. However, young & W!LD,
in the remarkably short space of three productions (On
North Diversion Road, Mad
Forest and The Hypochondriac), has registered critical
acclaim, scooped a major award and rivaled some of the finest plays
ever conceived here. Such tremendous growth is testament to the ensemble's
unwavering commitment to theatre; a resolve we must both encourage and
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /