Art Studio

based on the novel by Yeng Pway Ngon
adapted by Nelson Chia
Nine Years Theatre
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017: Enchantment
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

Nine Years Theatre has always shown a scrupulous attention to detail in their productions, from textual fidelity to careful, stylised performances. This discipline and craft is indeed nowhere more apparent than in Artistic Director Nelson Chia's adaptation of Cultural Medallion winner Yeng Pway Ngon's Mandarin novel Art Studio, presented as the opening production of the SIFA 2017. 

Yeng's Singapore Literature Prize-winning novel is a sprawling exploration of art and ideals, politics and perseverance through trying times. Spanning several decades, the narrative sweeps us from a group of art students in 1970s Singapore through leftist movements in the country, seedy back alleys, dense jungles and glittering European capitals. At its heart is the loneliness of the individual pursuing his own destiny and the human will to endure. 

Photo Credit: Nine Years Theatre

Things kick off at an art class run by painter Yan Pei (Tay Kong Hui) for a group of students. Diffident teenager Ji Zong (Toh Wee Peng) has been persuaded by a friend to pose as a life model for a few extra bucks. We then follow the people in this room and their significant others as they pursue their individual and intersecting journeys through life.

Si Xian (Timothy Wan) holds a torch for classmate Ning Fang (Ellison Tan Yuyang) but she gets enchanted by the world of Carnatic music and relocates to India to discover herself. Another student, Jian Xiong (Neo Hai Bin), is separated from his girlfriend Mei Feng (Jodi Chan) when the he is suspected of communist dealings, resulting in him fleeing to the jungles of Malaya for years where he lives in seclusion with a bearded recluse. Mei Feng meanwhile discovers she has cancer and eventually relocates to Malaysia to set up a vegetarian restaurant. Ji Zong moves into a career in academia and drifts apart from his free-spirited childhood friend Ah Gui.

The tale is a dark and heavy one: plenty of characters suffer heartbreak and misery and several die along the way. The narrative also lurches fitfully between the threads as we zero in on different characters. Chia manages to rein this in by keeping the scenes tight and beautifully calibrated, never expending more time on a scene than necessary.

Photo Credit: Tan Hgiap Heng, Nine Years Theatre

Chia's production leavens the emotional weight of the text with deft slices of humour. The opening scene involves a live-sized mynah whose presence distracts the embarrassed Ji Zong. There's also a cheeky meta-theatrical riff on arts censorship when he's asked to remove his underwear and the lights go out. The arrival of Si Xian in Paris is marked by one of the production's most memorable sequences, as the ensemble struts around doing characteristically French things like walking their poodles, smoking and toting baguettes. It's a bit of caricature that could not be more welcomed and keeps the narrative engaging.

He also plays with form. The narrative is spliced with an account of Ye Chao Qun, an artist who aggressively courts fame and fortune only to meet a pathetic end. These chunks of dialogue are delivered by the ensemble in a manner reminiscent of Chinese cross talk as they stand in a row and directly address the audience. The contrast between the vapid and vainglorious Ye and the earnest Yan Pei is brought out beautifully through a series of well-timed punchlines.

There are some truly spectacular performances by the black-clad ensemble, many of whom are now regular collaborators in the company's productions. Stage veteran Tay grounds the cast as idealist Yan Pei whose pursuit of artistic excellence results in his estrangement from his wife and a life of penury. Wan turns in a nuanced and emotionally grounded performance as Si Xian, a man who spends decades nursing a broken heart while quietly honing his craft as a painter. Neo likewise excels as Jian Xiong, who finds himself in desperate circumstances but  strives to make the most of his predicament.

Wong Chee Wai's set is a series of illuminated frames that float, beautifully, across the bare stage to form a variety of backgrounds. It also forms a rich canvas for Genevieve Peck's lighting and multimedia work which transforms the scenes into a riot of colour, augmenting the narrative with a crisp visual texture. 

Photo Credit: Tan Hgiap Heng, Nine Years Theatre

While one cannot fault the scope and detail of Chia's stage adaptation, the three-hour length still makes for a slow trudge. The first half of the production plods on for nearly two hours and is largely expository. The English surtitles contain swathes of text and, as I found in productions like The Lower Depths and An Enemy of the People, this makes it particularly frustrating to follow.

It's however in the magnetic second half that things really come together. Those who stay till the end are rewarded with a fantastic payoff, seeing the unrequited love story between Si Xian and Ning Fang bear fruition and the sense of things coming full circle as a middle-aged Ji Zong meets Ning Fang and sees a pencil sketch of his nude teenage self on her wall, a symbol of that artistic spirit that has proven impervious to the passage of time.

Art Studio is a wonderful and deeply sincere homage to a classic Singaporean novel which deserves to be more widely read and discussed. Yet, as much as it dissects the world of these fictional artists and dreamers, it is a celebration of another group of artists - Chia and his creative team - whose theatrical craft and contributions to the scene have only risen from strength to strength. In a country increasingly marred by disillusionment, seeing a group of people who fearlessly pursue their goals is both refreshing and wonderfully cathartic.  

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*For further insights on this production, do check out my podcast for Arts Equator on SIFA 2017 here


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