>FANSHEN by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

>reviewed by Daniel Teo

>date: 8 jul 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: fort canning park
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


It was obviously an unintended pun that Toy Factory's newest production was titled FANSHEN. FANSHEN in Mandarin literally means "turn the body over" and in a wider metaphorical sense, a new beginning and change. After reviewing UNDER for their Blossom season, it was with great curiosity that I wondered whether this new play would be their own FANSHEN.

Written by David Hare, FANSHEN is a play set in agrarian China during the period of China's Land Reform. Amidst the political struggles of the communist party and the Kuomintang, various land reforms were carried out in a bid to elevate China from her engulfing poverty and inherent weakness. Believing that China's problems could be solved by a correct distribution of land and the people's undiluted hard work, campaigns with carried out with the slogan "Fanshen" - two words that promised a new dawn will break upon the people only if they worked hard and stride to better themselves. An extension of the country's hope of redemption, the play traces the struggles of a small village in China Long Bow in adapting to the changes that holds such sweet promise but bitterness in its reality.

Using the Fort Gate as the venue of the site specific production was an astute move for without the visual simulations of the primitive surrounding, it was difficult to see how the play could take off at all. With the Fort Gate looming in the background, the actors made full use of the naturalistic setting to their advantage. Coupled with the oppressively humid weather, it was easy to imagine the setting as a rural village in China. The grime and sweat of the actors against the derelict feel of the surrounding made it even more realistic. Wearing Chinatown singlets and baggy trousers, the actors looked the part of Chinese peasants drenched in the heat of labour.

>>'Subtle or not subtle - the key is communication and in that aspect the acting failed'

A quasi-Brechtian approach to the play was employed, creating an interesting feature as the invisible fourth wall was broken down. Brechtian such as the set was kept to a minimum with all the equipment well in view of the audience and the actors changed their costumes standing next to the audience. Yet the audience was addressed by the actors throughout the performance, being part of the cast whenever a mass of peasants was needed. The audience was seduced into the illusion that they were part of this village and they were in fact witnessing an argument between two neighbours. It was a very curious effect indeed : the audience felt involved in the play but yet detached enough to ruminate about the views the play was making.

Man's baser instincts were examined closely by the play as it explored the deep dark intricate tunnels of desire, envy and hatred. In a world dominated by hierarchy and oppression, when given a chance the bitten becomes the one who bites, the exploited the one to exploit. Polemics and diatribes filled the air as everybody tried to claw their way out of the cesspool, through treachery or deceit, one way or the other. Thus when the town leaders preached economic salvation through "fanshen", the rich word play magnified the fact that it was not the economic aspects of the reforms that were questionable but rather the naive assumption about human nature. Capturing the duality of the word "fanshen", it gave the play a rich texture of possibilities, a wide enough canvas for the audience's imagination to run wild.

Although there were indeed many commendable improvements from their previous play, it was disturbing that some mistakes seem to be like a bad stain, alarming in their persistence. Acting was still lacking in conviction with some of the actors like Ong Wei Shiong and Eugene He tripping over their lines throughout the night. It seems that the actors still couldn't inhabit their role as comfortably as they should. Their performance was competent and efficient but sadly not much more. While it is easy to hide behind theatre jargon like "Stanislavsky-influenced" or euphemisms like "subtly simple", the truth was that their performances do not move me at all. Subtle or not subtle - the key is communication and in that aspect the acting failed. The performances were further hampered by the fact that the overall articulation level was poor and their voices travelled poorly in the open air.

It's more of a pity rather than a disappointment that Toy Factory's works have not been reaching its full potential. While kudos must be given to them for being tenacious in their efforts in venturing into new adventurous forays, it is wiser to make sure that the ground they are treading on is firm before making that leap of faith in their next stunning offering.