The One Thing, then The Other
The Swordfish, then The Concubine did not know what it was. In some ways, it seemed to want to be a pantomime: it was populated by comic stereotypes; it played to the crowd; it contained song and dance numbers. In others ways, it seemed to want to be political theatre: its theme was injustice; it urged sympathy for the mistreated; it disguised serious criticisms in allegory. But whether playwright Kee Thuan Chye was explicitly trying to fuse these two genres or whether he just got a bit lost on the way to somewhere else, one thing is clear: Swordfish fell between two stools, and it fell hard.
Pantomime is a British theatrical tradition with specific conventions such as the dame (a large man dressed up as a woman), the principal boy (a thigh-slapping girl playing the male juvenile lead) and traditional interactive segments that the children in the audience happily shout along to. Swordfish had none of the above, so when I say pantomime I am using the term very loosely indeed. But I recently saw an excellent example of the kind of thing I mean in The Theatre Practice's The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife. Its director, Wong May Lan, milked Jonathan Lim's comic mugging for all it was worth; she coaxed backflip after backflip out of Gordon Choy; and she turned a spotlight on Joanna Dong for the solos her angelic singing voice deserved. She made it look like everyone onstage was doing what they were born to do, so that the fun they were all having became highly contagious and the plot became simply a reason to keep the enjoyment going.
But the plot of Swordfish was large and fussily dressed. It had a double allegorical structure (modern Singapore seen through two of its foundational myths) and it kept jumping around from scene to scene to get different perspectives from the characters concerned. It was altogether too intent on ploughing onward for a sense of fun to prevail, so its occasional forays into performative elements that should have been entertaining, such as dikir barat, masked choreography or crosstalk, often seemed forced and deliberate. And yet the play's verbose, repetitive script meant that it was also slow and boring. A pantomime, or any piece of theatre that strives for a similar effect, should be a soufflé - light, airy and fresh from the oven. Swordfish, on the other hand, was heavy, stodgy and freeze-dried.
But its political aspirations fell even shorter. Granted, political theatre is tricky to pull off here. I saw David Hare's Vertical Hour a couple of years ago in New York. The middle half hour of the play involved Bill Nighy's English doctor savagely attacking George W Bush and his foreign policy while Julianne Moore's political scientist ineffectually attempted to defend the Iraq war. There is simply no way you would get away with the equivalent in Singapore.
But there is plenty of effective political theatre here (and I'm not talking about the phony, non-sequitur-ridden The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ, the most provocative element of which was the title). Take, for example, W!ld Rice's own Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol. 3, which was angry and ardent and yet afforded itself moments of crowd-pleasing sentiment. And if you argue (fairly, I think) that pink politics are allowed greater leeway in local theatre, then take Cake Theatre's recent Temple, a Singapore Arts Festival commission, no less, which concealed an eviscerating attack on the dogmatism and hypocrisy of the powers that be behind the expressionist poetry of its text and the formalised chaos of its staging. And if you say that the only reason Temple was allowed was because the censor didn't understand it, then take The Necessary Stage's upcoming Gemuk Girls (an early preview of which I attended), which promises to ask penetrating questions of the past and examine how it may have rotted the present.
Swordfish was advertised as a "bitingly comic satire", but it proved herbivorous at best. Hell, when even untheatrical, tone-deaf Robert Yeo, who wrote his Singapore Trilogy over the course of the far less permissive 70s, 80s and 90s, packs more of a punch than you do, you've got to admit you're in trouble.
The plot of Swordfish hinges on an ancient covenant between the Sultan of Singapura and his subjects, whereby the Sultan can expect unquestioning loyalty from his people as long as he does not humiliate them. This raises a question that quite simply requires an answer in order for the satire to work: what humiliation are we talking about? In the story of the play, it occurs when the Sultan's concubine is publicly and gruesomely executed... but in real life? I've racked my brains and leafed through newspapers, but I can't think of anything that fits. And while we're at it, who does Nadim represent? And what about the advisor who betrays Singapura to the kingdom of Mahapajit? Perhaps it's too much to ask for the allegory to fit exactly, but surely there should be some clue as to the target the play's criticisms are being aimed at.
Apparently not. There was the occasional offhand reference to the allegedly dynastic nature of Lee family rule in Singapore, and there were broad, fuzzy-edged swipes at the hypocritical and self-serving nature of governments generally - but in fact, the main political criticism that sticks in my head was the bizarre suggestion that the haze is the fault of Singapore's leaders. Yes, obviously, because the PAP controls both the weather and the entirety of Indonesia.
Only one attack had enough specificity and truth to land home. At the end of the play, when Singapura may well be facing its ruin, a chorus of everyday folk chants "The kingdom thrives, the kingdom thrives; the people carry on their daily lives," thus succinctly nailing the famous political apathy of Singaporeans and ending the night on a surprisingly resounding note.
Another scene came close to making the same point, but sadly it was hoist by its own petard. To distract the nation from its troubles, the Sultan ordains a singing competition, à la Singapore Idol. But the satirical effect of this development is ruined when Alecia Kim Chua, as the emcee of the show, addresses the audience thus: "You philistines of Singapura... You lovers of fluff and froth." It then becomes clear that this play either enjoys insulting anyone in its audience who might be enjoying it, or simply cannot see itself for what it is.
This notwithstanding, I actually thought the Idol scene was the play's strongest. It was the only one where the cast looked like they were having genuine fun - and the audience, who had dutifully chuckled at the frequent anachronisms that had been the play's only real source of "humour" (e.g. someone comes on with a laptop, someone comes on wearing shades, etc.) suddenly woke up and started laughing properly. This scene, with its all-singing, all-dancing silliness, was proper pantomime.
But a couple of the blogs I read after the show said it was the weakest scene because it seemed out of place with the rest. I'm not quite sure what value the bloggers saw in the rest, but I take their point: this play did not know what it was.
But if the script for Swordfish fell between two stools, then its actors were drunkenly playing musical chairs.
A handful of them were in the aforementioned pantomime. Alecia Kim Chua and Najib Soiman as a little-and-large couple of narrators were playing to the back of the circle with a warm chemistry and punchy comic timing that got them more laughs than their barren lines deserved. Darius Tan, so moustache-twirlingly evil in The Soldier and his Virtuous Wife, seemed somewhat muted here, but worked his expressive eyes to transmit the cowardly cunning of his character. And Judy Ngo, as a treacherous servant, was a tiny highlight, giving a deliciously overplayed performance. In a courtroom scene, she nibbled squirrelishly on the scenery with a glint in her eye, before wailing histrionic accusations against Elena Wang's innocent concubine.
Wang, though, was too busy acting in Brecht's Antigone to notice. Cold and hard-edged, she was more statue than human - a graven image of injustice armed with knife-edged diction to lacerate her prosecutors. It's not that Wang acted poorly - I'd be happy to watch her Antigone - it's just that, while the aforementioned pantomimers at least had each other for company, Wang was bizarrely alone in her own little epic.
Rodney Oliveiro, on the other hand, was in a very bad school play. Twice. The first time he was a judge whose leaden, artless repetitions reminded me of a couple of student-written plays I read before the young writers had learned about pace and economy. The second time was worse. He played the military officer tasked with defending Singapura's coast against the invading swordfish - a soldier who, at every opportunity and apropos of nothing, spouts lines from Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of mining the classics for dramatic effect, but, again, I find that most students have grown out of stuffing their plays with random quotes to make themselves look clever by the time they hit Sec 3.
Oliveiro's roles were utterly unsalvageable, so it's no surprise he seemed to sleepwalk through them. Gerald Chew, however, in a move that displayed both commendable professionalism and charming naivety, turned his acting up to ten. Chew seemed to be playing Lear: as he sprawled centre-stage, beaten down by the death of his daughter, I kept waiting for him to let rip with a string of nevers. But Chew's gravitas and emotional heft were simply heavy and unwieldy in a play that had never bothered to build up its audience's sympathies - a play that lazily assumed that if a pretty young girl dies we'll forget that she was cold, dull and distant and we'll sniffle into our feedback forms.
And what deaths! Here, Swordfish, or, more specifically, Ivan Heng's direction, seemed to veer into the territory of the tearjerker musical. Granted, I'm not much of a fan of the crucifixion scene in Jesus Christ, Superstar (the Romans erect Christ's cross with him on it; Christ warbles forgiveness) but Heng's version of an unjust execution was even more indulgent and cringeworthy. After poor Nadim is killed, a tablecloth unrolls down the steps in front of him - but horror! some messy eater has spilt a boatload of reddish gravy all over it. And then Nadim makes it worse by treading the stain in as he walks along the tablecloth to the front of the stage - and all the while the naughty boy stares directly at the audience, as if daring us to tell him off.
Or was this supposed to be ancient Greek theatre, a riff on the famous scene in Aeschylus' Agamemnon in which the title character walks along a carpet of rich, red tapestries to his imminent death? In Aeschylus, we see a king setting himself up as a god and trampling on the wealth of his people; we see a conqueror wading through the gore of his fallen enemies; we see a father stained by the blood of the daughter he sacrificed; we see a husband trapped in the net his vengeful wife has woven; and we see the menstrual flow of the land he long abandoned, of the palace where a woman gestated revenge. In Agamemnon, we see a tidal rebirth of blood with the taste of new-trodden wine. This image is the single most powerful I have ever found in theatre, and the reason it is so powerful is that it is comprehensively earned: Aeschylus masterfully structures his play so that everything culminates in this impossibly rich moment. I'm not suggesting Kee should set his sights so high - but surely he could do something to make me care about Nadim's death. And in the absence of that emotional attachment, why on Earth did Heng make such an overblown spectacle of it (twice: there's yet more gravy when the concubine gets impaled)?
I can't really blame the actors for all this misfiring randomness - most (including young Syazwan bin Borhan as Nadim) were doing exactly what was asked of them. Indeed, it's largely Heng's fault for taking a weak script with an identity crisis and then throwing in a dozen more personalities. However, one performer was so strong she almost convinced me I was watching a coherent piece of theatre. In the courtroom scene, Farahliza Ong's sharp-clawed, feline amorality as the Sultan's first wife made me wonder if there is indeed a way to do Antigone as a pantomime. And much later, her unexpected, underplayed profession of faith in the ineffectual Sultan momentarily lent the scene a dignity and pathos the script had done nothing to achieve.
But this was never going to last as the Sultan was played by Timothy Nga. While the other actors were all in different plays, Nga was merely in a costume. Some actors excite you with the fire and force of their craft, showing you the hammer blows with which they forged their role (see, for example, Michael Corbidge in The Pillowman); others lull you with the ease of their performance, as if they had been sitting with you in the audience moments before jumping up onstage (see Siti Khalijah in Good People). Nga gives the impression that he kind of tries but not really - and in a play full of stranded actors desperately searching for worthwhile roles, he looked aimlessly, amblingly lost.
Looking back on this year's OCBC Singapore Theatre Festival, while it is a wonderful thing that W!ld Rice has devoted so much time and effort to the staging of new plays, it has also been clear that in most cases the production values were much stronger than the actual scripts (credit, by the way, is due to James Tan: Swordfish's lighting was its most dramatic element). Indeed, the scripts for two of the festival's marquee productions, Swordfish and Apocalypse: LIVE! were horribly, obviously broken, and even the stronger ones, such as Full Tank from Own Time Own Target could have done with a bit of a polish. Alfian Sa'at is credited in the programme as the festival dramaturg. I would love to know what constraints he was under and how much he was able to work with the writers, because it seems to me that if this festival is to play its part in providing Singapore with the new scripts we so desperately need, W!ld Rice will need to work harder to ensure their quality.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression (**1/2)
Singapore audiences will be familiar with the Bukit Merah legend of the little boy who saves Singapore from killer swordfish only to be executed by a weak and petty king. The tale is retold here as part of a larger narrative about a virtuous and favoured concubine who is similarly put to death by the Sultan because of his foolish pride. Production values are high (especially in terms of the costumes by Moe Kasim and the lighting design by James Tan) and the ensemble cast are clearly committed to their performance but the play never really works for me aside from a colourful Singapore Idol parody and a well-judged, bittersweet ending ("The kingdom thrives; the people carry on their daily lives").
The playwright swerves wildly from silly slapstick to moments of high drama without any real sense of a journey and, worse, much like Eleanor Wong in her The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star on JBJ, seems to think that taking easy potshots at the government with scattershot references to Singapore's current social and political climate means that the play is somehow relevant, daring and funny.
Direction by Ivan Heng is clean but by-the-numbers, leaving only empty spectacle (stage combat, singing and dancing, live gamelan music): little about the play, aside from a nuanced performance by Farahliza Ong, feels organic and sincere in the way that the similar-styled Ma'ma Yong by panggung ARTS did. It is also nowhere near as funny as the recent The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife which took its pantomime farce to the over-the-top levels such comedies need to be taken to. Swordfish is amusing if you like comedy beards and laugh whenever you hear someone speak Singlish on stage.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /