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The Finger Players and Cake Theatre


Kenneth Kwok






Galley Theatre, National Museum



Things We Lost in the Fire

Flare's cacophony of images and sounds is certainly vivid, as you'd expect from a partnership between two of the most aesthetically imaginative and adventurous theatre companies in Singapore. Early in the play, for example, we are treated to the bizarre sight of Rizman Putra and Mohd Fared Jainal puttering around in skintight, luminous green body suits with what look like skinless chicken thighs as flailing arms. The jarring sight of sinewy muscles, veins and arteries against neon green makes one's eyes bleed but the play's onslaught on the senses does not end there. Later, we also have a dancing, fuchsia-pink pony with curled yellow eye-lashes, comedy musical numbers marked more by enthusiasm than expertise, and an inordinate amount of melodramatic shouting and shrieking.

In stylized works of this nature, the audience is expected to pull the abstract elements together to find meaning in the madness. That is fine - we do not expect the theatre makers to spell everything out for us. At the same time, however, they need to compel us to want to make the effort and this is where Flare is less than successful.

For one thing, much of the gaudy Flare can be gawked at then quickly forgotten. Nothing here seems entirely fresh or exciting although, to be fair, that may well be because the companies have raised the bar so high for themselves with captivating and enduring work like Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea and Queen Ping. In The Fingers Players' Devil, for example, the varied and often unexpected ways in which puppetry was used created evocative images of dark fantasy that chilled the bone, especially as the play was set in a mundane HDB setting. Similarly, director Natalie Hennedige's disturbing images in Queen Ping (the towering phallic structure upon which Michael Corbidge both exalts and debases himself; the poetic video images of Noorlinah Mohamed literally and figuratively stripped bare) had a grand majesty to them that gave the work the epic scale it needed. In Flare, however, most of the stage pictures lack real daring and are unable to elicit a truly visceral reaction. Also, while Hennedige showed in Nothing that she was able to contrast flamboyant images and poignant prose to create a gripping theatrical experience, here, the absurd tone, jerky rhythms and lurid theatrical vocabulary of the play often seem to be juxtaposed quite randomly against one another as well as against the script. I felt as if I were witnessing fragments of an idiosyncratic vision rather than the considered creation of a brave, new world. As a result, I did not find myself surrendering to the work emotionally nor did I feel a great motivation to try and connect the dots or dig deep into the play's layers. In that sense, Flare reminded me of the excesses of some of Hennedige's earlier work, such as
What Big Bombs You Have!!!, which lacked a strong impassioned voice and a forceful sense of purpose.

Flare's underlying script by Chong Tze Chien similarly failed to convince. In its nihilistic refrains of loss and devastation in an almost-apocalyptic world, Flare murmurs about human relationships in the face of mortality and the passing of time. Chong has a way with words: a throwaway line like "You are allowed to be sad but not inconsiderate" has an artful simplicity and evokes surprising pathos. However, these whispers come and go throughout the production without ever really building into a chorus. Flare is a play only of moments: the narratives that compose the work lack dramatic momentum and engaging character journeys so that little of Flare actually coheres. A good example is when an elderly Jean Ng sees the spectre of death over her ageing husband (Peter Sau) and breaks into guttural cries, bloody and raw with desperation, of "Not yet! Not yet!" The moment is incredibly moving; however, there is no real build-up or follow-up to give it much dramatic weight, so it exists in emotional isolation.

I am therefore left to wonder whether, in fact, the scattershot Flare is nothing more than a theatrical experiment - an exercise in collaboration for both the playwright and the director. I am certainly not persuaded it is a work driven by any great urgency or fervour. Even the uninspired source material for y grec was infused with glorious life by Hennedige's direction, and Chong's Devil remains in my mind as one of the definitive pieces of Singapore playwriting. It does not help that Flare is quite unlike its advertising, perhaps an indication that it changed (lost?) direction along the way. The premise of showing how different groups of people react to an earthquake in Indonesia proved half-hearted and inconsistent in execution despite its raging topicality, and the play's much-hyped use of a horse motif turned out to be a red herring. It was neither poignant nor pointed and, really, any other animal could have served as the play's recurring image. Worst of all, Flare's advertising invoked the spirit of Peter Shaffer's Equus but the psychology of the play and the themes it addresses were almost entirely different.

Having said that, some of the comedy in the play is enjoyable, especially the surreal seduction scene between a Chinese-TV-drama-serial heroine (Ang Hui Bin) and a policeman (Oliver Chong). As if they too remain unconvinced by their half-formed characters, most of the ensemble cast often seems to be going through the motions. Ang, however, attacks her role with relish, investing her farcical character with all the uninhibited and unwavering shamelessness it needs. The clumsy double entendres she has to spout ("spread", "come") are redeemed by a ludicrous sequence where she continues to melodramatically wave her bright yellow scarf and scream "Help me!" as Chong, deadpan, runs her over in his makeshift police buggy. It makes absolutely no sense but by this time, when Ng re-appears in a pink tutu as Ang's mother, making sense out of the play is the last thing on my mind and I'm just enjoying it for what I see before me.

More significantly, my many criticisms do not apply at all to the intensely heartfelt final story arc. This quiet piece is Flare's saving grace and its clarity and strong sense of purpose make me wonder if it was the starting point of Flare before it unraveled. After all, it alone mines the same psychological terrain that Equus does. In this story about a woman who forsakes her family because of her maniacal obsession with a racehorse, we see how people can be cracked and broken in many different ways. There are tremors that tear apart the land and tremors that wrack the body but also emotional tremors that unbalance the mind and cause it to fall to pieces. Here, as in Equus, horses represent a wild, sexually-charged fever, and the breaking of the reins that bind us so that we may run strong and free. This is a story about the devastating cost we have to pay when we choose what to hold on to in life and what we allow to slip away, and it is told with a deep understanding of the human condition that is both cynical and compassionate.

The piece works so well because it is less noisy and harried than the rest of Flare. Care has clearly gone into the structure of the narrative and the development of the characters' journeys and this, along with less theatrical bombast and a consistent tone, allows the two actors, Goh Guat Kian and Chong (as her son), to live and breathe the characters and their story. At one point, the horse appears onstage in the form of a giant metallic structure manipulated by Rizman and Mohd Fared but the effect does not overwhelm the story or distract from it. Instead, it helps us to feel the awe that Goh's character does and this humility enables us to connect with her all-too-human desperation for something bigger than the life she has. And in the bittersweet and haunting final image of Goh and Chong facing each other, resigned to the pain of hope, slowly, silently, synchronously imitating the horse's movements, nothing is spoken and so much is said.

First Impression

Both Cake Theatre and The Finger Players are known for their strong visual style and the use of the surreal to bring a more vivid perspective to the themes of their works. A collaboration was inevitable, and fans of the companies will find enjoyment in the flashes of the truly absurd on display in Flare. It was the few moments of sincere human tenderness, however, especially between the mother and son characters played by Goh Guat Kian and Oliver Chong, that really stood out for me amidst all the thunder and lightning. More of such moments would have helped give the work the dramatic weight and sense of purpose it needed. Instead, the flamboyant but floundering Flare felt like a theatrical exercise rather than a work which had something really important or urgent to say. Diverting but unlikely to endure, especially when set against the high standards of both companies' previous works.

"Much of the gaudy Flare can be gawked at then quickly forgotten."


Playwright: Chong Tze Chien

Director: Natalie Hennedige

Production Designers: Ang Hui Bin, Oliver Chong, Mohd Fared Jainal, Ong Kian Sin, Tan Beng Tian and Brian Gothong Tan

Sound Designer: Rizman Putra

Lighting Designer: Lim Woan Wen

Creative Design: David Lee, Natalie Hennedige and Brian Gothong Tan

Chinese Translation: Enoch Ng

Make-Up: Haslina Ismail

Production Stage Manager: Joanna Goh

Sound Engineer: Eugene Foo

Prop Makers: Hazni bin Abdullah Rahim, Nizam Supardi and Mohd Fared Jainal

Assistant Stage Manager: Huang Xiangbin

Sound Operator: Brian Leong

Lighting Operator: Stephen Kwek

Surtitle Operator: Benjamin Thong

Dresser: Faith Phang

Crew: Kenny Low

Cast: Ang Hui Bin, Oliver Chong, Mohd Fared Jainal, Goh Guat Kian, Jean Ng, Rizman Putra, Nora Samosir, Peter Sau and Karen Tan

More Reviews of Productions by The Finger Players and Cake Theatrical Productions

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

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