12 August 2016

Hamlet | Collage

based on the play by William Shakespeare
in a translation by Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Lozinsky
adapted by Robert Lepage
Theatre of Nations
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

One could perhaps be forgiven for expecting something abstract. After all, this production is helmed by inventive French-Canadian director Robert Lepage. However Hamlet | Collage, presented as part of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts, proves to be a fairly faithful retelling of Shakespeare's great tragedy.

The key difference is that the entire play is performed by one person - acclaimed Russian theatre and film actor Evegeny Mironov. He takes on all the principal roles and performs on a constantly rotating, open-faced cube which features an assortment of concealed doors and compartments. A team of thirteen people, working behind the scenes, are required to achieve this feat. 

Photo Credit: Sergey Petrov

Lepage and his creative team fuse music, film and lights to create  a constantly engaging theatrical spectacle, aided by video projections that transform the bare walls of the cube into a multitude of settings. The impressive multimedia work plays out like a three- dimensional kaleidoscope. Slight adjustments to the text and the Cold War-era setting also give the production the feel of a spy thriller. One is constantly left guessing as to what will happen next. 

The play is littered with memorable scenes. During the climactic play-within-a-play, Evegeny moves along a bench, deftly portraying the expressions of all the characters watching the troupe of players. The fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes sees the men fighting against video projections of each other like a life-sized computer game. In one of the production's most arresting images, the drowning Ophelia melts into a blue cloth and disappears into a hole in the ground. As the cube rotates, we see her body suspended below the 'water', shimmering and ethereal.

The downside to all this visual splendour is that the character of Hamlet seems to be drowned out. One is so drawn to Evegeny's highly physical, chameleon-like transformations into each character - be it demure Ophelia, pot-bellied, blustery Polonius, regal Claudius or campy Osric - that one ends up losing interest in the Danish prince himself. 

Photo Credit: Sergey Petrov

There is a clear suggestion that this Hamlet is a man imprisoned by his thoughts. The play begins and ends with the image of a weary, straitjacketed Hamlet slumped on the floor and the events of the play seem to be the product of an overwrought mind. There is something sad and solitary about this version of Hamlet as the everyman. However, the sheer variety in the performances and the relentlessly inventive staging robs the play of its emotional thrust. 

With a run time of 145 minutes, the production is shorter than most versions of the play. Yet, the action tends to drag due to the constant bombardment of images. The swathes of English surtitles (largely based on the original text) also prove tiring on the eyes and one cannot help growing restless as the play ploughs on without an intermission. 

Ultimately, one cannot deny that Lepage's Hamlet | Collage is a visual tour de force and boasts a truly captivating performance that is guaranteed to enthrall. A powerful marriage of theatre, technology and technical finesse, this is a Hamlet that is both one man and all men.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

11 August 2016

The Last Supper

by Ahmed El Attar
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

In a festival typically characterized by the experimental and avant garde, this straight, talky play, written and directed by Egyptian writer Ahmed El Attar, seems a breath of fresh air.

The title and set up - guests seated on one side of a long dining table - may have obvious biblical connotations but the parallels end there. This is a realist snapshot of contemporary Egyptian society, where members of an upper middle class family gather around a table for dinner, each preoccupied with their own problems and predilections. At the centre is the wealthy family patriarch (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) who is joined by an esteemed dinner guest, the General (Sayed Ragab).

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

As the banquet table grows laden with food brought in by attentive servants, the party of urban guests reveal themselves to be both spiritually and morally starved. At one end sits Mido (a motor-mouthed Abdel Rahman Nasser), who is perpetually searching for business opportunities and cannot stop name-dropping his string of powerful connections. His sexy, dolled-up wife Mayoush (Marwa Tharwat) busies herself with make-up and talk of shopping.  At the other end, the patriarch's son (Ramsi Lehner) and his wife Fifi (Nanda Mohamed) watch their children distract themselves with expensive digital toys. A harried maid hovers around.  

The Last Supper is a powerful statement about the callousness that exists amongst members of our global elite, individuals so self-absorbed and caught up in their own lives that they are simply unable to connect with people in their immediate milieu. 

Even if the play is intended to lash out at the Egyptian upper classes who baldly sat through the revolts of the Arab Spring while holding on to their wealth and power, this hardly comes across as a political work. Indeed, there is hardly any talk of local politics at all and the conversation veers from fast cars to social media to international shopping destinations, each topic as vapid as the next. It's something one could easily expect to hear at any dining table around the world.

What comes across more powerfully is the ugliness that exists within this privileged circle. A recurrent theme is the casual inhumanity the men show towards the women. Both wives seem ignored by their husbands. There is an almost shocking disregard the men show in talking about rape and sex in front of their wives. Perhaps fittingly, the matriarch herself remains absent despite being summoned repeatedly by her husband, suggesting the idea of unequal marriages goes all round.

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

Even more chillingly, one is disgusted by the arrogance shown towards the servants who are treated as mere commodities. In a disturbing scene, the patriarch's son encourages his young boy to torment the family butler by repeatedly pummeling him. When the poor man feebly reciprocates, the whole family denounces him as a violent ingrate and he is made to kiss the brat on the head in a gesture of subservience. More than once, the General - an arrogant, bigoted and downright racist man - describes the servant classes as nothing more than "vermin".  There is very little empathy that lurks beneath the surface and it's difficult to escape the parallels to our own society which relies so heavily on foreign workers but yet frequently denigrates them. 

While El Attar's script is fast-paced and rife with detail, it emerges somewhat unsatisfying. This feels like the prelude to a much longer play instead of a fully rounded out performance in its own right. The constant stream of chatter (and not entirely synchronized surtitling of the Arabic dialogue) also makes for fairly tedious viewing. The play is frozen in various red-hued, stylized tableaus that prove alternately humorous and poignant (the reveal of a toned stomach, a wacky family wefie, everyone turning on a servant) although it is difficult to see this as more than an artistic flourish. Nonetheless, El Attar keeps us rapt throughout the hour, perversely drawn to the dynamics of this motley crew and the ensemble cast deliver strong performances. 

Overall, The Last Supper is a canny and candid snapshot of a certain class of privileged individuals that could very well exist anywhere on the planet. As the sounds of their meaningless, overlapping conversations wash over one another in the final moments, one realizes the importance of truly engaging with one's neighbours. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

17 July 2016

My Mother Buys Condoms

by Helmi Yusof
Singapore Theatre Festival 2016 (W!LD RICE)
LASALLE Creative Cube, Singapore

The thought of seniors sharing an intimate moment is enough to make most people turn away in embarrassment. Never mind the fact that we have a rapidly ageing population — silver-haired friskiness is a topic shrouded in cultural taboos.

Arts writer Helmi Yusof’s remarkably assured debut play, presented as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival and directed by Ivan Heng, makes a powerful case against such 
narrow-mindedness.


The heroes of this tale are the sort of uncles and aunties you pass by on the street without a second glance. 63-year-old retired literature teacher Maggie (Lok Meng Chue), who spends her days giving tuitions, meets Raju, a 57-year-old Malaysian repairman (Remesh Panicker), when he comes to fix her air-conditioner. She is a lonely divorcee. He has never been married and has a penchant for crime stories.

What begins as a series of lessons to help Raju read the newspaper blossoms into an unexpected romance. Veteran actors Lok and Panicker beautifully convey that mix of awkwardness and pleasure that animates two individuals who discover that not all of life’s best experiences are behind them. “Why did you touch my hand?” demands a befuddled Maggie. “I like you,” Raju replies simply. And that’s all there is to that.

It’s only a matter of time before the relationship moves into the bedroom and things rapidly go awry. Maggie’s adult son Wilfred (Joshua Lim), and best friend Nora (a scene-stealing Elnie S Mashari) are appalled when they discover the 
clandestine romance.

Photo credit: 36Frames

Nora, a bubbly fellow teacher with a liberal past of her own, is outraged to hear of Maggie’s sexual renaissance and finds herself unable to bear the thought of sending her son for tuition to the home of such a “disgusting” person.

In a manner reminiscent of Haresh Sharma’s social drama Poor Thing about road rage, mild-mannered family man Wilfred reveals his inner ugliness by accusing Raju of being a scheming “foreign worker” simply after his mother’s money, resorting to vulgarities and violence. It’s a reminder of the deep-seated prejudice that manifests itself when one is confronted with anything that does not conform with the status quo, be it alternative lifestyles or 
political affiliations.

Heng maintains razor-sharp control over the performances, allowing for a wonderful blend of slapstick and sentimentality that plays out on Wong Chee Wai’s fully realised, book-filled set.

Photo credit: 36Frames

While Helmi has a good ear for dialogue and handles the tricky subject matter with confidence, certain sequences feel contrived. Maggie’s bold 'I-am-who-I-am' declaration at the end seems rather out of character, and the inclusion of a daughter, Gwen (Seong Hui Xuan), with her own (fairly predictable) revelation does not add much to the overall theme.

Still, this honest, funny and ultimately heartwarming play is a reminder that all of us have the right to seek love. One should never be held back by something as mundane as age.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 21 July 2016.

02 July 2016

Riders Know When It's Going to Rain/ Hawa

by Nessa Anwar and Johnny Jon Jon
W!LD RICE / Hatch Theatrics
Creative Cube
LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore


This double bill, part of the opening weekend of the Singapore Theatre Festival organised by W!LD RICE, is a great showcase of new Singaporean Malay writing. The two plays are vastly different in theme and make for a long session when seen together but provide plenty of food for thought.

The evening kicks off with Riders Know When It's Going to Rain, which first appeared as a staged reading during overnight literary and performance arts showcase What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem as part of last year's Singapore Writers Festival. Nessa Anwar's debut play revolves around four friends and the one love of their lives: motorbike riding. Nessa is herself an avid rider and this infuses her writing with a fierce authenticity. Four motorbikes sit proudly onstage throughout the performance, giving us an immediate connection to this colourful world.


The play is comprised of short vignettes that move back and forth over a period of eight years. At the heart of the story is Risha (Nessa), a tough, spunky girl in this male-dominated world who has far more in common with her riding friends than her university schoolmates. These friends range from the wealthy but down-to-earth Remy (Raimi Safari), soulful, all round nice guy Nizam (Riduan Zalani) and swaggering Alep (Norisham Osman), a guy who lives to ride and pays scant regard to his personal safety.

Riders is a gripping portrait of individuals from this milieu - the tendency to define oneself by the machine one rides, the daily struggles and frustrations and above all, the infectious zest for life. Nessa is especially successful in capturing the earthy and earnest banter amongst friends. Scenes featuring the gang simply hanging out and teasing each other are lived-in and instantly believable.

Photo Credit: 36Frames

However, the numerous scene transitions (which involve a hospital bed being wheeled on and off) prove clunky. The play is also weighed down by monologues which feel incongruous to the generally laid-back, naturalistic dialogue. Indeed, I was reminded of Nessa's own turn in multidisciplinary student production City Night Songs where her character (a likely precursor to Risha) breaks into a poetic speech about speeding bikers which feels rather artificial. For all fun and banter, I didn't really see what kept these four friends together.  

Director Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit calibrates the emotions well and strikes a good balance between comedy and drama. While there is a sense of impending tragedy, this is never overplayed. On the technical side, James Lye conjures up evocative soundscapes to augment the action.

Ultimately, Riders is both chatty exposé and cautionary tale - an ode to the world of riding and a warning against the dangers of doing so recklessly. It may not always cruise along at a perfect speed but this is one road trip to remember.

Where Riders can be seen as a celebration of life and its transient thrills, Hawa remains resolutely focused on the opposite. Johnny Jon Jon's play, which enjoyed a small but warmly received staging by Hatch Theatrics last year, explores the topic of Muslim burial, something rarely seen onstage, while also touching on religion and sexuality.


The play revolves around Siti (Koh Wan Ching), a recent Muslim convert who is trying to organise the final burial rites for her female friend who is later revealed to be her lover. She faces considerable difficulty trying to get through to Ahmad (Saiful Amri), the proprietor of the Muslim burial company whom she engages. Things take an interesting turn when they are joined by Zaki (Al-Matin Yatim), a young man who routinely attends the funerals of strangers.

There are many powerful questions that Jon Jon attempts to address including religious double standards, the clash between form and substance and the importance of love and acceptance. Hawa is striking in its portrayal of a fiercely independent Muslim woman, one who is unafraid to question her religious expectations and challenge the status quo.

Koh's Siti is an entrancing presence who demands answers from her faith. In one scene, she rips off her headscarf and throws it to the floor, decrying it as a piece of cloth that does not change who she is. Yet, the same religion which frowns upon her lesbian relationship is what she turns to for solace, reminding us of that human need to believe in something greater than oneself.

Indeed, none of these characters are perfect. Ahmad, for all his religious superiority, is revealed to be a fairly mercenary character who has no qualms about hiring mourners for a fee and selling expensive funeral packages to make a quick buck. Zaki, despite reiterating his fardhu or religious obligation as a fellow mourner, has the disturbing habit of chatting up "veiled sisters" at funerals. Over and over, the play drives home the fact that outward displays of religion are no indicator of true morality.
  
Photo Credit: 36Frames

Director Faizal Abdullah (who also has a cameo as the deceased's estranged father) keeps the action flowing smoothly and uses the space effectively with simple blocks as props and curtained partitions for flashbacks. However, the play is not without its flaws. The pace slows down considerably towards the end and the narrative can certainly be tightened. Scene transitions featuring female voiceovers which describe different qualities and those involving a young Ahmad visiting his mother's grave do not add much to the plot.  

Hawa is at its most gripping when it gives us an insight into religious rituals that few may be privy to. The play's most arresting scene involves Ahmad giving Siti a long, detailed account of how to wash and prepare a Muslim body for burial, a task which can only be performed by a person of the same gender. Seeing this procedure re-enacted drives home the finality of death in a powerful way. As the characters stand to recite the final prayers for the deceased, one gets the sense that an equilibrium of some sort has finally been reached.

Riders and Hawa are important additions to the local theatrical canon, presenting alternative voices that one rarely gets a chance to engage with. These are flawed but deeply human characters whose stories deserve to be told.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

09 June 2016

Ghost Writer

by Haresh Sharma
dramaturged by Charlene Rajendran
The Necessary Stage
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What makes us who we are? What pushes us to create art? The Necessary Stage’s latest collaborative, devised production, Ghost Writer, seeks to explore these hard questions by taking us on a journey that cuts across different artistic disciplines.
 
The narrative, crafted by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan with dramaturgy by Charlene Rajendran, is broken into chapters focusing on different characters.
            
Celebrated dancer Savitri (Sukania Venugopal) has inherited her father’s bharathanatyam dance school in India and is searching for a successor. Her most-promising dance pupil Priya (Ruby Jayaseelan) emigrates to Canada to expand her craft and ends up re-discovering her cultural identity. Savitri’s academic son (Ebi Shankara), on the other hand, moves to Singapore with his new bride (Sharda Harrison), a woman who learns to find her own voice and exorcise her inner demons.
 
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
 
The tales of these three women — powerful, bold and passionate — form the heart of the show and unfurl in an adroit fusion of dance, theatre, film and music. The spirit of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and his muse Kadambari lingers delicately over the performance and provide a rich aesthetic gloss. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a series of filmed interviews about the provenance of the dance school over the years, a symbol of the artistic spirit that binds them together.
 
The theatre elements are far easier to digest and allow for rich, absorbing performances by the likes of veteran actress Venugopal and rising star Harrison. The dance aspects, however, are a little more abstruse, particularly to the casual theatre-goer. Choreographer Ole Khamchanla juxtaposes modern dance with classical movements, and this collision between styles can sometimes appear baffling. Dance artist Jereh Leong, who plays Priya’s love interest, twirls and thrashes around in a remarkably acrobatic but distracting fashion that seems to blend yoga and breakdancing.
 
It would be impossible not to credit the production team in such a richly collaborative endeavour. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design features striking textual projections and black-and white filmed sections that infuse the narrative with magnificence and melancholy. Wong Chee Wai’s mobile, utilitarian set forms a blank canvas for a variety of visual spectacles.
 
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
 
One cannot deny the creativity in the soundscapes by award-winning Bani Haykal, an arresting aural potion that blends the familiar and ethereal, and that is beautifully complemented by the live vocals of Namita Mehta. However, the almost-constant stream of sounds could quite easily have been pared down to let the visuals speak for themselves.
 
At just seventy minutes, the production does not outstay its welcome, although there is some imbalance between the generally linear exposition in the first half and the more abstract sequences that creep in towards the end.
 
Ghost Writer is a re-worked version of the company’s 2014 production Gitanjali (I feel the earth move) — a somewhat raw and frustrating work that had a similar framework and characters. The cross-disciplinary craft has certainly been refined, but is some way from being perfect. Still, this is one fusion experiment well worth visiting.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 13 June 2016.

14 May 2016

Falling

by Deanna Jent
PANGDEMONIUM!
KS Arts Centre, Singapore

SINGAPORE — In a society that valorises wealth, popularity and privilege, too many of our everyday heroes are ignored. Falling, a gripping drama by American playwright Deanna Jent, sheds light on just one such group — the caregivers of people with autism.

The Yeos are a typical family: Rebellious teenage daughter Lisa (Fiona Lim), nagging parents Bill and Tami (Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua) and a Bible-thumping grandmother who has come to visit (Neo Swee Lin). The only difference is that living among them is Josh (Andrew Marko), Bill and Tami’s severely autistic 18-year-old son.


Josh’s condition is such that he requires constant attention. He gets agitated by loud noises like the sound of a blender or a dog barking, likes routine and nothing calms him more than pulling a string attached to a box, causing feathers to cascade over his head.

A simple exercise of getting Josh ready for school is a mission — his parents have to enact song and dance sequences and deal with his daily tantrums, some more violent than others.

Marko gives a standout performance that is all twisted hand gestures, shuffles and grunts, a tour de force of character acting that is testament to the detailed preparation that has been undertaken to understand why Josh acts the way he does.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

It’s no surprise that Josh’s condition takes an enormous toll on the family. Tami resorts to alcohol to calm her nerves and is emotionally distant from her husband. Lisa just wants to live a normal teenage life without her “freak” of a brother. “You can hate him,” Tami tells her at one point. “Mothers don’t have that choice.”

Tan’s Tami is the beating heart of the show and her nuanced performance of a quietly resilient mother will have one biting back tears. Indeed, it’s nothing short of fiercely unconditional love that enables one to deal with a situation like this on a daily basis, being constantly bullied and berated. In one of the play’s most powerful moments, Tami dreams what her life would be like if Josh dies and is so consumed by guilt that she rushes to hug her bemused son, realising that there is no truer gift than him just standing there, being himself.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

Much of what makes Falling so powerful is its authenticity — Jent is herself the mother of an autistic child — and her scenes pulsate with honesty. Director Tracie Pang calibrates the emotional temperature to perfection, keeping the action lived-in and avoiding sentimentality or theatrics. The play also translates effortlessly to a Singapore setting, reminding us that autism is very much a universal problem. The production is rounded out by Wong Chee Wai and Chris Chua’s stunningly recreated apartment set and James Tan’s beautiful lighting.

It is important to recognise PANGDEMONIUM!’s outreach efforts to members of the autistic community and engaging post-show talks. Awareness is the first step to a society that will stop such individuals from falling through the cracks. Like Josh, they just need the comfort of feathers.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 16 May 2016.

09 May 2016

Playwrights' Galore (2016)

Here's the annual list of playwrights of whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Zizi Azah and (far too late) Kuo Pao Kun.

More significantly, I've finally completed more than half the Shakespearean canon following two very fortuitous theatre marathons over past year: John Barton and Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses in Kingston, London last October and the RSC King and Country series comprising the two Henry IV plays and Henry V in Hong Kong this March. 21 down, 16 more to go!

William Shakespeare (21)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x4)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-The Tempest (x3)
-Macbeth (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Hamlet (x2)
-Richard III (x2)
-Coriolanus
-Julius Caesar
-Much Ado About Nothing 
-The Winter's Tale
-The Merchant of Venice
-Henry VI Part I
-Henry VI Part II
-Henry VI Part III
-Henry IV Part I
-Henry IV Part II
-Henry V

 
Alan Ayckbourn (11)
-Absurd Person Singular
-Table Manners
-Living Together
-Round and Round the Garden
-Bedroom Farce
-Taking Steps
-Season's Greetings
-Snake in the Grass
-Life of Riley
-Relatively Speaking
-A Small Family Business

Haresh Sharma (9)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Mobile
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-godeatgod
-Best Of
-Poor Thing
-Pioneer (Girls) Generation

Alfian Sa'at (8)
-Cooling Off Day (x2)
-Homesick
-Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1
-Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2
-Hansel & Gretel
-Cook a Pot of Curry
-Geng Rebut Cabinet
-Hotel

Noel Coward (5)
-Present Laughter
-Blithe Spirit
-Private Lives
-Design for Living
-Hay Fever

Harold Pinter (4)
-The Lover (x2)
-The Dumb Waiter
-The Collection
-Betrayal

Irfan Kasban (4)
-94:05 (x2)
-Genap 40
-W.C.
-Tahan

Neil Simon (4)
-The Prisoner of Second Avenue (x2)
-The Odd Couple (female version)
-Rumors
-Lost in Yonkers

Tom Stoppard (4)
-Rock 'n' Roll
-Arcadia
-The Real Thing
-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Arther Miller (4)
-The Man Who Had All the Luck
-The Crucible
-All My Sons
-Death of a Salesman

Tennessee Williams (4)
-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
-The Glass Menagerie
-A Streetcar Named Desire
-Sweet Bird of Youth

Chong Tze Chien (4)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms
-Spoilt
-Turn by Turn We Turn

David Mamet (3)
-Glengarry Glen Ross
-Speed-the-Plow
-November

Anton Chekhov (3)
-The Seagull
-Ivanov
-The Cherry Orchard

Peter Shaffer (3)
-Black Comedy
-White Lies
-Equus

Henrik Ibsen (3)
-Hedda Gabler
-The Master Builder
-An Enemy of the People

Huzir Sulaiman (3)
-Occupation
-Atomic Jaya
-The Weight of Silk on Skin

Kuo Pao Kun (3)
-The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole
-Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
-The Spirits Play

Zizi Azah (3)
-The Gunpowder Trail
-Paradise
-Yusof

30 April 2016

Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare
Singapore Repertory Theatre
Shakespeare in the Park
Fort Canning Park, Singapore

The main challenge one finds with Singapore Repertory Theatre’s popular Shakespeare In The Park series every year is balancing spectacle with substance. Director Daniel Slater’s dynamic modern dress production of Romeo and Juliet strikes the right note, allowing for grand tableaus and beautifully private moments without unnecessary theatrics.
 
 
From the outset, we are reminded that this is no feel-good romance for the millennial generation — tank tops and ripped jeans notwithstanding. The rift between the feuding families is represented by a cleft on the stage that divides Frances O’Connor terraced set in two with conveniently colour-coded sections for the Montagues (blue) and the Capulets (red).
            
The world of religion is central to Slater’s production: stained-glass panels, crucifixes and candles are a constant reminder of the Catholic Church. The play begins and ends with the words of a hand-cuffed, guilt-stricken Father Laurence. This theme of guilt is perhaps taken a touch too far; the priest carries out an act of self-flagellation at one point and we are confronted with the image of a bedraggled Mercutio lurking in the shadows after his demise. Indeed, the apothecary who sells poison to Romeo is the ghost of Mercutio himself, although whether this is meant to suggest that death is the price to pay for following the dictates of passion is left unclear.
 
Thomas Pang is a captivating Romeo, capturing the character’s zest and energy with effortless charm and displaying an impressive confidence in his verse. The scenes between him and Cheryl Tan’s Juliet are positively electric with passion. Tan successfully conveys Juliet’s innocence and ecstasy but is less convincing in charting her mettle and determination to be with her sworn enemy. She also needs to work on her pitch and tone.
 
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
 
Among the supporting cast, there are beautifully rendered performances by veteran actors such as Daniel Jenkins as Father Laurence, Remesh Panicker as Capulet and Jo Kukathas as the Nurse. However, there are some uneven notes to the cast. Shane Mardjuki, all swagger and bombast, fails to endow the character of Mercutio with the pathos it demands. There is a stiff performance by David Gooderson as Montague, who looks vaguely perplexed as to what he is meant to do.
 
Slater’s production is full of action and drive at the beginning but there is a notable dip in energy in the second half and the pacing needs to be improved. The deathbed scene, in particular, feels almost perfunctory and there is hardly a moment to allow the weight of the tragedy to sink in.
 
Certain physical sequences can certainly be improved — one remains unconvinced by all the stage slaps — and the musical refrain for the young lovers feels monotonous after a while. However, there is great lighting work by Gabriel Chan and truly splendid costume work by Moe Kasim, whose designs blend modernity with tradition and showcase rich Asian motifs.
 
SRT has delivered a solid production of this well-loved classic that is, simultaneously, heady romance and cautionary tale. It makes for a riveting soirée under the stars.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 3 May 2016.

26 April 2016

16th Life! Theatre Awards 2016

The 16th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards were held yesterday afternoon at the Esplanade Recital Studio. This year saw the largest number of awards ever given out (fifteen) with a brand new category for children's theatre.

W!LD RICE's epic, five-hour homage to Singapore's storied history, Hotel, was the very deserving star of the show, bagging a total of four awards: Best Original Script, Best Director, Best Ensemble and the coveted Production of the Year. Shout-outs are also due for The LKY Musical and Off Centre.

Full list of winners and nominees below. Heartiest congratulations to all!


Production of the Year 
Hotel (W!LD RICE)
  • It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk) (Drama Box)
  • Off Centre (Oliver Chong; Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)
  • The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers (Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)
  • The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions/Singapore Repertory Theatre)
  
Production of the Year (Readers' Choice)
The LKY Musical (Metropolitan Productions/SRT)


Best Production for the Young
The Wee Question Mark And The Adventurer - A Children's Musical (The Theatre Practice)
  • Journey West: Web Of Deceit (Paper Monkey Theatre)
  • Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine (Players Theatre)
  • Samsui Women: One Brick At A Time (The Finger Players; Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)
  • Treasure Island (Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company)

Best Director
Ivan Heng and Glen Goei (Hotel; W!LD RICE)
  • Alvin Tan (untitled women)
  • Kok Heng Leun, Koh Wan Ching and Li Xie (It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk)
  • Ong Keng Sen (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers)
  • Tracie Pang (Tribes)

Best Actor
Adrian Pang (The LKY Musical; Metropolitan Productions/SRT)
  • Ebi Shankara (Off Centre)
  • Khairudin Samsudin (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Thomas Pang (Tribes)
  • Yang Shi Bin (The Struggle: Years Later)
 
Best Actress
Siti Khalijah Zainal (Off Centre; Oliver Chong/Esplanade) 
  • Karen Tan (Emily Of Emerald Hill)
  • Li Xie (Legends Of The Southern Arch)
  • Neo Swee Lin (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Oon Shu An (Chinglish)

Best Supporting Actor
Benjamin Chow (The LKY Musical; Metropolitan Productions/SRT)

  • Ghafir Akbar (Public Enemy)
  • Johnny Ng (The Lower Depths)
  • Norisham Osman (Ma'Ma Yong: About Nothing Much To Do)
  • Tay Kong Hui (The Lower Depths)

Best Supporting Actress
Serene Chen (Public Enemy, W!LD RICE)

  • Edith Podesta (Versus)
  • Frances Lee (Beauty World)
  • Jalyn Han (Tartuffe)
  • Yap Yi Kai (Public Enemy)
Best Ensemble
Hotel (W!LD RICE)

  • Another Country (W!LD RICE)
  • It Won't Be Too Long (The Lesson and The Cemetery: Dawn & Dusk) (Drama Box)
  • Normal (Checkpoint Theatre)
  • Tribes (PANGDEMONIUM!)
 
Best Original Script
Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten (Hotel; W!LD RICE)
  • Alfian Sa'at (Geng Rebut Cabinet)
  • Chong Tze Chien (Seed)
  • Jean Tay (It Won't Be Too Long (The Cemetery: Dusk))
  • Tony Petito (book) and Meira Chand (story) (The LKY Musical) 

Best Set Design
Wong Chee Wai (Legends Of The Southern Arch; The Theatre Practice)

  • Chris Chua (Titoudao)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Hotel)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Public Enemy)
  • Wong Chee Wai (Tribes)

Best Lighting Design
Dorothy Png (Legends Of The Southern Arch; The Theatre Practice)

  • Gabriel Chan (The LKY Musical)
  • James Tan (Public Enemy)
  • Lim Woan Wen (Hotel)
  • Lim Woan Wen (Seed)
 
Best Sound Design
Bani Haykal (untitled women; The Necessary Stage)

  • Darren Ng (Off Centre)
  • Darren Ng (The Spirits Play)
  • Darren Ng (The Struggle: Years Later)
  • Jeffrey Yue (Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral)
  
Best Costume Design
Reckless Ericka (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers; Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)

  • Moe Kassim (Legends Of The Southern Arch)
  • Theresa Chan (Hotel)
  • Tube Gallery by Phisit & Saxit (The Emperor's New Clothes)
  • Yang Derong (Beauty World) 
  
Best Multimedia Design
Brian Gothong Tan (The Incredible Adventures Of Border Crossers; Ong Keng Sen/SIFA)

  • Brian Gothong Tan (Versus)
  • Kelvin Chew (Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral)
  • Loo Zihan and Kelvin Chew (With/Out)
  • Ong Kian Peng (Upstage)

25 March 2016

Recalling Mother

by Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed
Checkpoint Theatre
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Checkpoint Theatre's Recalling Mother, a warm and wistful two-hander about mothers and daughters, is like catching up with an old friend over a cup of coffee.

This fourth staging of the play since 2006 - presented, very aptly, as part of the Esplanade's Studios season themed around The Fiction of Memory - builds upon the endearing formula of the previous productions while bringing new perspectives to the table. The production both draws from its previous iterations and valiantly looks forward; recordings from the 2009 production intersperse the narrative while entirely new segments have been added to refresh the text.

Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Lime Pixels courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Recalling Mother is about two adult daughters (Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed) chatting with each other and telling stories about their mothers, women who both speak a different language from them and who have led very different lives. While previous versions of the play had focused on the the cultural and generational conflicts between parent and child, this staging in particular emphasizes the element of age. 

There are rich and quietly moving anecdotes about dementia and the loneliness of growing old alone. We watch, rapt, as Noorlinah narrates the detailed thoughts going through the mind of Claire's mother - cooking, cleaning, family and the constant pain she feels - as she sits in front of her television set seemingly idle. Elsewhere, we are privy to the ramblings of Noorlinah's mother, intent on recounting an experience of catching fresh squid from the sea to her bemused daughter in the middle of the night.

Both Wong and Noorlinah (who also co-direct) display a remarkable fluidity and energy in their performances, moving between languages and genres with consummate ease. In a heart-wrenching scene, Claire portrays her mother scolding an errant maid in a mixture of Malay and Cantonese before ultimately breaking down when she doesn't seem to get through to her. In another moment, Noorlinah whisks us back to her childhood, recounting her giddy joy in finally finding a father-figure when she and her single mother meet a gentleman caller.
 
Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Lime Pixels courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

Too many of us these days take our loved ones for granted and never find the time to learn their stories and secrets. Recalling Mother reminds us that the most satisfying moments in life are sometimes the simplest ones: a quiet smile of contentment between mother and daughter as they share a meal or speak on the phone, by equal measure indulgent and irritated at each other's quirks. The subtle set and lighting design by Petrina Dawn Tan, stylish costumes by Laichan that capture the gulf between modern and traditional and measured pace of the production come together beautifully into an organic whole.

Checkpoint Theatre has always excelled at laying bare quiet, unguarded moments of humanity and Recalling Mother is no exception. One leaves the theatre not with the feeling that a chapter has been closed but, rather, that a new conversation is just about to begin. 

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5