My own experience watching a staging of Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros a few years ago left me frustrated. As with other absurdist comedies I've read, I found this play, about a town where everyone slowly turns into rhinoceroses, to be weighed down by too much philosophising and its premise simply too outlandish for a cynical modern-day audience member like me to fully accept; I could not fully invest in the world of the play and could not therefore truly appreciate its existentialist message.
I thus thought director Zizi Azah's choice for the annual Full Frontal series (where emerging directors are given a platform as part of the Singapore Arts Festival) was an odd one. However, her version of Rhinoceros proved to connect with the audience, thanks, in no small part, to her judicious paring down of Ionesco's loquacious script (of which only two-thirds remain) and her use of certain theatrical flourishes which helped the comic elements to shine more brightly. For example, throughout Act 3, she had the ensemble cast react to a conversation between everyman protagonist Berenger (Rodney Oliveiro) and his friend Jean (Karen Tan) in a series of exaggerated comic tableaux as seen by the audience through a hanging frame.
In fact, aside from some problems with sight-lines due to a moveable door frame, I thought that Acts 2 and 3 were particularly well-directed. The second act is essentially comedic with elements of slapstick while the third focuses on articulating the play's message about group behaviour and conformity - Berenger refuses to turn into a rhinoceros even though his friends, colleagues and lover have all given in - and Zizi handled both acts with aplomb, especially in terms of calibrating pace and timing, resulting in particularly effective work from Serene Chen and Melvinder Kanth.
I had problems, however, with how she handled Act 1. While Berenger
and Jean are engaged in dialogue at the front of the stage, Zizi had
the rest of the ensemble cast visible in the background for a full twenty
minutes or so, engaging in repeated motions - a funny walk, for example
- which only occasionally broke into improvised interactions with other
actors. It was useful having all of the cast onstage throughout the
scene because the ensemble cast would also sometimes interact with Berenger
and Jean, and I understand that their restricted movements served as
a metaphor for how society is trapped in a machine-like system. But
for the most part their physical presence in the background proved distracting,
especially since the cast was confined to such a small playing space;
I also felt it all came across a little school play-ish.* In addition,
when the ensemble cast did intrude into the conversation in the foreground,
they tended to break the rhythm of the play rather than flow into it
organically because the timing was a little mechanical.
Where I think Zizi really needs to grow as a director, though, is in terms of working with the actors. Some of the ensemble, especially the relatively inexperienced ones, needed more guidance as they were not always able to capture the spirit or timing demanded of this specific genre of theatre. Even a seasoned actress like Tan who otherwise turned in a strong performance sometimes seemed a little uncomfortable with the rhythms of the dialogue in Act 1.
I also did not always feel that the cast was working together to create a holistic piece of work. Rather, it often felt as if each was just doing his or her own thing and this was especially true of the more experienced actors. Oliveiro, for example, is likeable and charismatic and has good comic timing; I've enjoyed his work in plays such as The Gospel According to Mark. However, in the last couple of performances of his that I have seen, he seems to be trading primarily in funny faces and dramatic gestures to achieve comic effect; I sometimes feel as if he is striking poses onstage for still pictures to advertise a comedy rather than actually acting in one. This is a highly limited approach: in Rhinoceros, as in The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ, and in Machine from last year's Full Frontal, the audience needs to be able to go deeper into his character, and I found it difficult to do so because of this decision to adopt such a cartoonish approach to the acting. It would have helped if Zizi had reined him in a little. Similarly, while Tan's slow onstage transformation into a rhinoceros was masterfully performed, I guessed (and this was later confirmed in the talkback session) that she was very much doing her own thing rather than performing under Zizi's specific influence.
As a director, Zizi has to decide whether she wants to be a competent director, able to stage solid, if perhaps slightly anonymous pieces of work or if she wants to be an auteur with a strong vision, creating works with a distinct stamp of Zizi-ness. A good example of the latter is Natalie Hennedige whose works are unmistakably hers, not only in terms of visual aesthetics but even in the way actors work with her. Michael Corbidge is a phenomenal actor but I would not have thought he would ever fit into Hennedige's world, and it is to her credit as much as his that he delivered such a startling performance in her Queen Ping. Judging from Zizi's plays that I've seen, I believe she has the potential to be either kind of director. If she wants to be the latter, however, I feel she needs to develop even greater confidence in her not unremarkable abilities and exert greater control.
If I sound a little prescriptive in this review and if I am focusing
too much on Zizi specifically, it is because I believe that is what
the Full Frontal platform is for: it is a director's showcase
and the audience is meant to offer input and feedback to try and help
the director grow as an artist. However, let me end off by saying that,
on the whole, this is indeed an entertaining production which is well
worth watching not only for Zizi but also for the generally capable
performances and I believe it is a good entry point into absurdist theatre
for the relatively uninitiated.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /