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Drama Box and Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre


Matthew Lyon






The Drama Centre



Flotsam and Jetsam

Shaven-headed Patricia Toh, eyes closed and decked out in white monkish drapery, stands impassive in a large Petri dish atop the intersection of two metal girders some dozen feet above the stage. Water drips into her Petri dish, but she is beyond noticing it.

She remains up there, utterly still, for at least an hour before any of the other four actors acknowledges her. When those rootless, restless characters look up, they see an icon of oneness; they see a being so tranquil she is rooted even in midair; they see a Zen aircon - elevated, cool, white, dripping.

And this, for me, encapsulates the experience of watching Drift, an international collaboration between Singapore’s Drama Box and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre: it was beautiful, atmospheric and at times striking - but it was also more than a little bit silly.

And sometimes its silliness was greater than its beauty. Take, for example, the asides the actors deliver to apprise the audience of their characters' musings. To deliver an aside, the actor turns his head to the diagonal, lowers his gaze slightly, and speaks with a slightly quizzical lilt. The sound operators assist by turning up the echo on the mics and sometimes adding noirish, pulsating music under the vocal. The content of the asides is often trivial (and that is not a criticism: a play like this thrives on the dissection of minutiae) but the oddly formal physicality and the aura of dread the music and echo strive to supply often loads the words with more weight than they can bear, and it all comes off rather comical.

Or take how the actors change roles. Every actor except Toh plays multiple parts, and to step out of character, they take a quick step backward and focus intently on the floor where they were just standing. Sometimes this makes it clear how rootless these characters are - how restive and itinerant. Sometimes it just looks like the actor saw a mouse.

Or, worse, take the ungainly compulsion playwrights Koh Heng Leun and Nick Yu Rongjun apparently felt to add grandeur to the play by having the characters tell the audience sententious myths. Over the course of the two hours, we were made to digest a folklore platter including morsels from Africa, Greece, Switzerland and Singapore - and absolutely none of it tasted good. Particularly unpalatable was the bizarre spirit quest Victor, played by Lim Kay Siu, had undertaken to determine whether he was Sang Nila Utama or the deer Sang Nila Utama killed. Victor, let me help you out: you are neither. Watch out for the mouse.

And there was more. The back wall of the set was a huge, curved screen on which Eva Tang's video projections were shown. Occasionally she used the screen powerfully, as when, at the start of the play Toh stood alone above the stage against a backdrop of sun-touched cumulonimbus cloud. Thanks to Toh's position, her concentration and the immersive projection, she became the focal point of earth, air and water; and she became the source of a gravity so compelling that it raised the important question of why the other characters would not submit to it and find the peace their wanderings deny them. But more often the video added little. A pulsating backdrop of blurred golden lights, for example, merely reminded me of the Christmas decorations Tangs department store puts up every year. And, as Yi-Sheng pointed out in his First Impression (below), the video damaged the minimalist aesthetic of Sang Qi's geometric set - especially when its images were concrete and complex, such as the recurring fast-motion cityscape with is careening trails of lights.

But Tang had to share her screen with four other people: Vincent Wong, James Kong, Frankie Chan and Low Shee Hoe. This quartet is credited in the programme with "Interactive Media Creation", which is odd, because I didn't see any interactive media. I did note that an unseen video camera must have been recording the actors, and that the resulting video feed was being digitally processed in real-time and then projected on the screen, because there frequently appeared behind the live performers scrawled outlines of human beings which moved in perfect synch with them. But this was no more interactive than is one's shadow. And what was it intended to achieve, anyway? A sense of dissipation? We got that from the script and acting... A sense that the characters were mythic archetypes? If so, it failed as badly as the script did... But these are just guesses on my part - I really don't know what it was for.

Neither, it seems, did Chan, who gets a couple of paragraphs in the programme to discuss his intentions. He begins bombastically, mentioning "scopophilic fulfilment" (strange - I didn't notice any nudity onstage) and musing that "the introduction of interactive media to dramatic practices, thus, at first sight, appears to be problematic to me - who is interacting with what?" Well, Frankie, the answer in this case is no one with nothing. Strangely, Chan agrees, saying, "I've been searching for answers but have not found any."

It seems that Patricia Toh was not the only one paid to stand around and do nothing. She is joined in spirit in her Petri dish by the four "Interactive Media" creators and by Xiao Ke, who is credited for "Movement Design" in a play where the characters largely stand, sometimes walk, and once in a while run. I suppose Xiao Ke must have been responsible for a couple of reasonably effective but very short and simple gestural sequences - but surely these can't have required a specialist choreographer...

I wouldn't normally care how many people are involved and what they do - but Drift was very intent on thanking them all and used a 10-minute curtain call to do so. Personally, I always find extended curtain calls tacky; and for me, this one made an international exchange look like an inter-school collaboration, where all we parents were supposed to clap for everybody else's kids. But if you absolutely must have one, turn on the house lights and let us leave without feeling guilty.

And by the end I really wanted to leave. The pace of Drift was sedate at its fastest, and it slowed down considerably towards the end. If I had written this review on the night of the show itself, I would have been unrelentingly harsh, so overpowering was my frustration that a show that was giving every indication of finishing refused to actually die. But boredom is a temporary emotion and I found that the morning after I was able to retrospectively appreciate Drift's strengths.

One of these was its disciplined cast who pared away distractions from their performances and let their characters' unspoken yearnings swirl beneath the surface. The Shanghainese actors were particularly good at this. Qin Xuan as, Liang Yin Ling, a Chinese study mama feeling overwhelmed by Singapore, had a tentative grace, as if stepping on dangerous ground - always second-guessing herself, always feeling guilty for being misunderstood. And Zhou Yemang as an unwell old man keeping a forty-year-old promise to his long-lost wife had the quiet, dogged purpose of someone searching for something he cannot admit he will never find.

The Singaporean actors were somewhat more forceful, but Jo Kwek compensated for her characters' rootlessness by growing extra layers of bark: bitter irony or taut politeness or brazen artifice. And Lim Kay Siu brought sincerity and scale two poorly written roles: Victor, the screaming adulterer with the Sang Nila Utama complex, and Gerald, a questing schoolboy who believes he is the second coming of Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, Lim also brought a couple of irritating physical tics by which he differentiated his characters, so that Victor could not walk anywhere without his fist pressed into his lower back for support, and Gerald far too frequently stabbed himself in the bridge of the nose with his index finger to push up his imaginary spectacles. It's a shame Lim was not told to tone down these distracting and unnecessary tics because he was perfectly able to differentiate his characters without them.

Koh Heng Leun directed as well as sharing playwriting duties and, apart from a couple of missteps I've already mentioned, he infused the play with a distinctive and consistent mood. With the help of lighting designer Psyche Chui's washed-out twilight palette and The Observatory's plaintive, aimless guitar strumming, he managed to suggest that there is an ultimate peace, profound and still, yet elusive to those who chase it too hard. He also did good work in creating an ensemble sympathetic to the pains of all its characters, onstage or off. Most scenes were two-handers, but Koh had the non-playing actors stand only a little way back, within the diamond-shaped recess of Sang Qi's set, looking at the playing actors with gentle understanding. This sense that we all understand each other's striving, that we pity and hope for our fellow man, that the universe is kind and only waits for us to accept its love, was vital to the play - it showed how alienating it is to drift, how important it is to put down roots.

The strongest part of the script showed how difficult putting down those roots can be, however. The action moves to Shanghai and we see that the characters' hopes of a promised land that will be their home are misplaced: they carry their homelessness within them. Culturally null Singaporean schoolboy Gerald gets caught up in the spirit of a riot the cause of which he cannot possibly understand. Yin Ling finds she no longer knows how to belong to a place and that her daughter has never known how. In this part of the play there is a disturbing current - a sense that these two striving peoples, Singaporeans and Shanghainese, cannot let themselves, cannot let each other simply be. The characters, lost, look upwards for guidance - and there is Toh, suspending the Earth, orbited by the air, infinitely rooted and pure - a beautiful, tranquil aircon.

Ng Yi-Sheng's First Impression

Drift starts off slow, but it grows on you. Exploring the relationships between people of Singapore and China, it yields resonant insights into the points of contact and rupture between the two populations. Centered on a handful of fairly stereotypical characters, e.g. the pei du mama-cum-masseuse, the philandering entrepreneur and the Westernised kid who can't speak Mandarin, it ambitiously manages to extend its conceptual scope back to the traumas of the Japanese Occupation and the Communist crackdown, ultimately articulating a Buddhist-inspired sense of emotional liberation through peace. Granted, I'm not a total fan of the work - I felt the set and multimedia design damaged the minimalist aesthetic, and the digressions on Rousseau and Sang Nila Utama just didn't ring true. By and large, however, Nick Yu Rongjin and Kok Heng Leun's script succeeds, interpreted admirably by the bi-national cast.

Matthew Lyon's First Impression

This highly composed, self-conscious piece aimed for profundity but ended up splattered on profundity's windscreen. There were far too many cringe-making moments - such as when actors stepped aside to deliver portentous narrations on their characters' philosophical musings; or when the play's men insisted on perceiving themselves as the protagonists of various tonally inappropriate myths; or when the volume controls for the superfluous "interactive media" kept flashing up on the screen.

It was also much too long.

However, there was ambition in the scope of the writing, the actors were skilful, and the direction largely achieved a balance between lightness and weight that suited the play's title.

Ultimately, your appreciation of this play may depend on how much you believe pretentiousness can be redeemed by sincerity. For me, it’s six of one…

"It was beautiful, atmospheric and at times striking - but it was also more than a little bit silly"


Director, Playwright: Koh Heng Leun

Playwright: Nick Yu Rongjun

Assistant Director: Koh Hui Ling

Set Design: Sang Qi

Lighting: Psyche Chui

Video Design: Eva Tang

Music Composition: The Observatory

Costume Design: Hu Xiao Hui

Movement Design: Xiao Ke

Interactive Media Creation: Vincent Wong, James Kong, Frankie Chan and Low Shee Hoe

Producers: Ang Hwee Sim and Michael Zhang

Productions Managers: Zhang Shan Shan and Jin Guanglin

Stage Manager: Yap Seok Hui

Assistant Stage Manager: Jed Lim

Camera: Joseph Matthews

More Reviews of Productions by Drama Box

More Reviews by Matthew Lyon

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