Time Out Singapore: M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2016

17 Dec 2015: Beauties and beasts roam the stages of this year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which returns with the theme of ‘art and the animal’. We pick out four productions that’ll unleash your wild side

Doggy Style

‘Doggy Style’

The Shape of a Bird

Enter a wondrous world of birds and cicadas in this new work by local playwright Jean Tay, starring Tan Kheng Hua, Brandon Fernandez, Jean Toh, Thomas Pang, and a bunch of puppets. It’s a world that’s dreamt up by an imprisoned writer who defiantly refuses to cave and make a confession – instead, she writes allegories of her situation to her daughter. As her fiction and real world collide, however, she’s forced to pick a side between the two.

Doggy Style

This wordless, hour-long production by Switzerland-based American dancer and choreographer Joshua Monten uses a mix of dance and sign language to take a playful look at the behaviour of dogs and their relationship to humans. On the one hand, they’re our loyal companions. But on the other, we’re their masters. How has this connection been forged, and where will it go?

Human Bestiary

Our friends at Time Out Mexico have said that Mexican company Principio…’s play ‘leaves a pessimistic feeling about men but [it is] optimistic about humanity’. Using technology and multimedia platforms – plus a live DJ set – this work is a documentary that examines our place within the global ecosystem. It tells the story of all the precious flora and fauna that we’ve destroyed, and questions how we got to where we are today and when it all started going wrong.

Hyena Subpoena

Hyenas have long had a bad rep – which child who grew up on The Lion King could love those ‘evil’ creatures? Yet, they are also perhaps one of the most misunderstood. This play by Canadian writer and performer Cat Kidd follows the story of Mona Morse, who left civilisation behind and go into the woods. She comes across an Ark’s worth of animals, from lions to antelopes and elephants to hyenas, and uses each to link back to some of the harshest – and most darkly comical – life lessons in her past.

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Time Out Singapore: Best of 2015 – Arts

25 Nov 2015: We round up the top highlights of this year’s cultural calendar

National Gallery Singapore 2

Photo by National Gallery Singapore

Best theatre festival

Singapore International Festival of Arts

Helmed by festival director Ong Keng Sen, the Singapore International Festival of Arts returned this year with a theme of ‘Post-Empires’, a decidedly local flavour and an ambitious mini dance festival on top of it all. We especially loved Wild Rice’s Hotel and Drama Box’s It Won’t Be Long – The Lesson.

Up-and-coming actor

Thomas Pang

He’s 24 years old and just finishing up his final year at Lasalle, but we were very impressed with Thomas Pang in his professional debut earlier this year. Taking on the role as Billy in Pangdemonium’s production of Tribes, he was quietly confident and portrayed a difficult character convincingly. We’ll be keeping our eye on this rising star for sure.

Biggest arts hero

Sukki Singapora

Sukki Singapora is beautiful, brainy and brave. Not only did she teach herself the art of burlesque by watching YouTube videos, she took on the Singapore legal system and convinced the authorities to legalise the dance form earlier this year. On top of that, she’s set up a programme to bring arts to underprivileged and vulnerable kids. Can we love this lady any more?

Best new arts series

Art after Dark

Gillman Barracks is quiet on most days, but the arts cluster comes alive at Art after Dark, a bi-monthly party that brings together visual art, music, performances, guided tours and talks. Paintings are always easier to digest with a glass of wine and a burger, we say.

Best new arts venue

National Gallery Singapore

Here’s a no-brainer. The National Gallery is without a doubt the most important addition to the Singapore visual arts scene this year. Spanning a whopping 64,000 square metres, it’s home to thousands of works by local and regional artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Another Country’

22 Jun 2015: In Wild Rice’s upcoming play, ‘Another Country’, the battle of the century unfolds: Singapore versus Malaysia. Ivan Heng tells Gwen Pew more

AnotherCountry

Ivan Heng is reading from a script, his arms flowing and eyes dancing to the rhythm of the words. ‘Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets,’ the Wild Rice co-founder begins. ‘Robes of silk, satin, brocade and white muslin, emphasised by the glitter of barbaric gold and Parsees in spotless white; Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs…’

He pauses to make a point: ‘This was written in 1879. 1879, and not a swamp in sight!’

Which makes it easy to see why, on our nation’s 50th anniversary, the colourful passage was selected as one of the 50-plus published works to be featured in Wild Rice’s upcoming play, Another Country. Lifted from a letter written by English explorer Isabella Bird to her sister during the former’s visit to Singapore, the description of the island is at odds with the version preferred by those who believe in the ‘fishing village to first world’ narrative ascribed to a certain, late political leader. Provocation – along with a good dose of humour – is the crux of the production.

Another Country is, chiefly, a story of two neighbours: Singapore and Malaysia. It explores the relationship between ‘us and them’ – and humanity as a whole – using short stories, plays, interviews and jingoistic songs to bridge the pair. The first half of the performance features texts culled from Singapore’s cultural archive while the second half plumbs from Malaysian works. And the twist: each half is performed by actors from the opposite country.

‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them,’ muses Heng, who directs the Lion City portion of the play. ‘We share so much with each other: our heritage, our culture, our stories. [The stories in Another Country are] of hope, disgust, strength, humour, love. There’s a sense of longing and wistfulness about them that’s quite romantic, quite sayang [a Malay word with dual meanings: ‘love’ and ‘with pity’].’

Through the barricades

The chosen texts date back to the 15th century. Alfian Sa’at, who curates the Singaporean works, explains that while he was led by his ‘idiosyncratic taste in both the literature produced about Singapore and by Singaporeans’, he opted for a ‘broad historical sweep’. Texts from the Malay annals, writings from colonial travellers, Singaporeans writing in exile, songs about the Little Red Dot and even the work of Catherine Lim and Michael Chiang make appearances. ‘I was very conscious that I wasn’t performing a canonising function,’ Alfian adds.

And not a rabble-rousing function, either. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin – he’s Alfian’s northern equivalent inAnother Country – insists his chosen texts serve not to mend fences but break them altogether.

‘In his poem “Salam Benua (Greetings to the Continent)”, the Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang urges us to choose not to be separated by “passports, visas and frontiers”, which are all “names for barriers”,’ recalls Leow. ‘The world would be a better place for all of us if we could follow him in sending our greetings past these arbitrary man-made barriers, to humanity, to the people of all continents.’

Heng agrees with Leow’s message of amity. He believes Another Country is, above all, about peace. ‘Peace is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand one another as human beings,’ he says. ‘We all want to be happy. It’s a utopia, of course, but we try.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Singapura – The Musical’ Review

10 Jun 2015: The made-in-Philippines musical about Singapore isn’t ready for the world stage yet, but Gwen Pew believes that it nonetheless shows potential

★★★☆☆

Photo: Singapura - The Musical

Photo: Singapura – The Musical

So we got to the party a little late for this one. Amid rumours that Singapura: The Musical was going to close earlier than expected, we decided to hold our horses. But once The 4th Wall, the Filipino company behind the production, confirmed that it will go on for a couple more weeks – although the exact closing date has been adjusted a few times since – we headed for the beautifully refurbished Capitol Theatre.

We’re glad we waited. The musical has been cast in a pretty negative light so far, but it’s since had time to settle in and for minor elements to be tweaked. And while the show we saw had its flaws, there’s plenty of promise – all hope is not lost.

Singapura tells the story of the Tan family, headed by bus driver Tan Kok Yang (Juliene Mendoza) and his wife Bee Ling (Maybelle Ti) as they struggle through the decade prior to Singapore’s independence. It centres on the smart, headstrong daughter Lee May (Marian Santiago), who goes to law school to learn to fight for what she believes in and ends up caught in a love triangle between British officer Lieutenant Flynn (David Bianco) and her Malay childhood friend Adam (Reb Atadero) – no doubt emblems for the two sides that Singapore was caught in between at the time.

By now, most people would have read the reviews, which definitely do make salient points. At almost two and a half hours, the show is too long. Parts such as the Empress Dowager drifting across the stage at the beginning, or the song during which dancers from different races that make up Singapore come together, can – and should – be cut altogether.

On other fronts, we saw things a little differently. The inconsistent accents that many have flagged up, for instance, hardly bothered us. Sure, you can tell that the mostly Filipino actors are not native Singlish speakers, and their manner of speech understandably doesn’t go down well with the local audience. But when – or if – it does travel to other countries, their relatively neutral accents, lightly tinged with traces of our dialect, will hardly be a concern.

Off to see the world, Ma!

Singapura is, ostensibly, a family drama – not an odyssey into the historical annals of the Lion City. The show demands it be appreciated as such: the Tans in the foreground, the independence of Singapore only as context and a backdrop. Unfortunately, Singapura shoots itself in the foot by cramming in too much, muddling its script and toppling its poise.

Crucially, the company hopes to bring the story to the world stage. While local theatregoers may confuse Singapura with an elementary social studies class, an international audience won’t. After all, their perception of our fair city is built upon the concrete of Marina Bay Sands and not the rubble of our pre-1965 years.

And, really, even if Singaporeans are already aware of these pivotal moments, scenes like the Hock Lee bus riots, the race riots and the Konfrontasi have hardly – if ever – been enacted so vividly on our own stages.

It’s a shame that despite us going to a Saturday night show, the audience barely occupied a quarter of the theatre. Nonetheless, the cast soldiered on. Their acting borders on melodramatic at times, but most of the show is performed through song, and the power of their vocal chords is phenomenal. They are also well supported by the orchestra, which brought to life composer Ed Gatchalian’s melodic score.

Singapura still feels like a first draft. There’s a lot of polishing to be done before it becomes a story we can be proud of. They’ve already modified little things – they told us they’ve made alterations including ‘a lyric change here, a lighting change there; a shortened intro here, a blocking change there’ – but we’re hoping they’ll eventually get around to working on the more major issues, too.

And if they do, you can bet your ticket that we’ll be the first ones there.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Tribes’ Review

2 Jun 2015: Pangdemonium’s latest offering gives a voice to the deaf community while keeping things funny and lighthearted

★★★★☆

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

Over the last couple of years, Pangdemonium has been building a reputation for being a company unafraid to stage plays that deal with difficult issues. But with English playwright Nina Raine’s award-winning play Tribes, the cast and crew take things up a notch and achieve something truly hard-hitting, comical, and tender at the same time.

The play opens with a barrage of swear words as Christopher (Adrian Pang), his wife Beth (Susan Tordoff), their son Daniel (Gavin Yap) and daughter Ruth (Frances Lee) hurl barbs at one another over dinner. No one takes it too personally – that’s just the way they are. Meanwhile, the couple’s other son, the hearing-impaired Billy (Thomas Pang), sits quietly. He tries hard to follow the conversations flying over his head like missiles, but is usually brushed off with a ‘nothing, Billy’ when he asks what everyone’s fussing about.

It takes a while to get used to this high-strung family. Most of the first act is loud and brash, and with it comes a bit of over-acting as the characters attempt to make it clear that Daniel is a whiny 20-something, Ruth is an emotional wreck, Mum is exasperated and Dad is an a**hole.

In those early scenes, the characters seem to be mere caricatures who provide laughs but little depth, and the constant F-bombs soon start to feel as though they’re dropped for the sake of it. But then Billy’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Ethel Yap), enters the household, and her sweetness sparks a change in everyone. Not only does she give Billy a voice – quite literally by encouraging him to learn how to sign, as she’s on her way to becoming deaf, too – she also brings out a softer side to his rowdy family.

The cast shines after this point. They flesh out their characters well and show that beneath their colourful language are people who care for one another. Thomas deserves special mention: he’s making his professional debut with Tribes, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell from his nuanced portrayal of the sweet yet isolated Billy. Ethel is another outstanding actor – she’s able to convincingly balance Sylvia’s bitterness and frustration about losing her hearing with her inherently loving nature.

Thanks to Tracie Pang’s expert direction, watching this group of actors is, indeed, like catching a glimpse of a tribe. We may not always agree – or even fathom – their way of dealing with things, but the chemistry that binds them together is apparent. And it doesn’t hurt that the set is a sight to behold. It may not be as loud or visually complicated as those in a few of Pangdemonium’s other shows, but Wong Chee Wai’s design nonetheless provides, in its own quiet way, a cosy backdrop for this dysfunctional family.

It’s evident the production achieves what it set out to do: give a voice and soul to a community that is largely ignored by the public. There are a lot of words that get tossed around here – either hilarious or hurtful – but by the time the curtain falls, we find that even when speech is taken away, so much can still be said.

Time Out Singapore: The Cast of ‘Tribes’

18 May 2015: You can argue that all families are dysfunctional, but the one in Pangdemonium’s latest production, ‘Tribes’, might just take the cake. Gwen Pew meets the clan

Tribes

Christopher (played by Adrian Pang)

Age 55 and proud of it
Occupation Writer
Personality People say I’m pompous, pretentious, prejudiced and basically a prat, but they’re just being nice.
Life goal To get my bloody kids to get jobs and move out of my house.
My biggest problem My older son Dan is too dumb to realise that he’ll never be a writer, my daughter Ruth is too deaf to realise she’ll never make it as an opera singer, and my younger son Billy is too blind to see that he’s got the brightest future – and he’s the one who’s actually really deaf!
Fun fact I am learning to speak Mandarin and I know how to say ‘Get a bloody job, you useless bugger!’ – although I have a feeling that last bit gets lost in translation.
My best line ‘He’s a c**t!’

Beth (played by Susan Tordoff)

Age 60
Occupation Aspiring writer
Personality Calm with an edge of exasperation.
Life goal To be permanently calm and finish my book.
My biggest problem My husband, and my kids being back at home in spite of the fact that they had all moved away (which is also secretly my greatest pleasure).
Fun fact I play the ukulele.
My best line ‘People do things for the people they love.’

Daniel (played by Gavin Yap)

Age 27
Occupation I don’t see why that should matter. I mean, what do you do? Is it important? Didn’t freaking think so.
Personality Some people might call me self-absorbed, crude, vulgar, perverted, bitter even. But personally, I think I’m just a brilliant human being.
Life goal To get a blowjob from Helen Mirren. Or maybe Kristin Scott Thomas. I don’t know, they tend to change. I wouldn’t mind writing a book, either. Maybe win a Pulitzer…
My biggest problem I live with my family.
Fun fact I can fart the theme song of EastEnders.
My best line ‘I’m sorry, something about your voice, I just stopped listening.’

Ruth (played by Frances Lee)

Age 24
Occupation Aspiring opera singer
Personality I’m a hopeless romantic. I live for the stage, and I live for love. And I would die for love.
Life goal To star in Puccini’s La Boheme at London’s Royal Opera House. I’m working on my Italian and French as we speak.
My biggest problem I actually cannot stand my family. They do not understand me, and aren’t even remotely supportive of what I could achieve as an opera singer.
Fun fact Fun? Okay. My love life is in shambles, my family is in shambles, and my career is honestly not taking off as fast as it should be. Besides that, I’m having fun.
My best line ‘Dan. I want my pen back. I know you stole it, you thieving little sh*t.’

Billy (played by Thomas Pang)

Age 22 going on 23
Occupation University graduate. Unemployed for the time being, but looking.
Personality Uh… Yellow? Strawberry? I dunno. People say I’m a good listener.
Life goal To be a film director.
My biggest problem Missed opportunities. It’s sometimes hard to communicate with people who don’t or won’t listen. As in, people who don’t work as a team, or even just small things.
Fun fact I can eat peanut butter and jam with anything. Dare me.
My best line ‘When I met her, something just clicked in my head. It was like a light being lit in my mind.’

Sylvia (played by Ethel Yap)

Age Late 20s
Occupation Events organiser at a charity for the hearing impaired
Personality Outspoken, opinionated, well-read, witty, vibrant and fiercely independent.
Life goal To achieve my fullest potential before my hearing loss completely consumes me.
My biggest problem My gradual hearing loss, and potential in-laws who are completely crazy.
Fun fact I am a pretty accomplished pianist. Or I used to be, at least.
My best line ‘I’m not deaf yet, though. Just… in denial.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘The Tempest’ Review

11 May 2015: Shakespeare in the Park returns for its seventh edition. Gwen Pew shares her thoughts on the production

★★★☆☆

Photo: Watson Lau

Photo: Watson Lau

The final rays of the sun fade into black. Moths, flies, bats and other creatures of the night emerge from the trees and flutter around spotlights. The odd pair of headlights blinks in the distance, then disappears.

At the front of the Fort Canning Park lawn, a huge open book towers over the audience on picnic mats, reminding us of the famous stage used in the 1999 performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. The book’s pages are covered in symbols and scribbles like a Da Vinci notebook, and enticingly lit. Combine all these elements and it seems like the perfect setting for the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s seventh edition of Shakespeare in the Park, The Tempest.

The story takes place on a magical island ‘full of noises, strange sounds and sweet melodies’. There, the wizardly Prospero (Simon Robson) – the rightful duke of Milan who was cast to sea by his usurping brother, Antonio (Matt Grey) and the conspiring Alonso, king of Naples (Ian Shaw) – has been living with his daughter, Miranda (Julie Wee), for the past 12 years. When Antonio and Alonso’s ship passes by the island one fateful day, Prospero sets his spirit servant, Ariel (Ann Lek), to stir up a storm that will safely bring everyone on board to shore. His plan: confront them and their past wrongdoings.

Did the production soar to the heights that we had hoped for? Sort of, but not quite. It’s enjoyable enough, but the sense of wonder wanes, and we never feel like we truly entered a ‘brave new world’. The set, as pretty as it is, does not serve much of a purpose, and quickly loses its appeal. The actors, likewise, deliver their lines as directed, but most of them don’t do justice to the beauty of the verses.

Robson’s Prospero, for instance, doesn’t come across as someone we should either pity or fear, while the chemistry between Wee’s Miranda and Timothy Wan’s Ferdinand – as fickle as their love-at-first-sight relationship may be – fizzles. The exceptions are Theo Ogundipe, who conveys with zest both the depravity and the tragedy of the deformed monster Caliban, and Daniel Jenkins and Shane Mardjuki, who make a great pair of drunken jesters as Stephano and Trinculo, respectively.

A couple of scenes are visually interesting – such as Ariel dancing between the massive blue cloth of a stormy ocean, or her taking the form of a gigantic bright red harpy to reprimand the usurpers – but they are, sadly, few and far between.

Overall, The Tempest is not much of a spectacle. It doesn’t stand out as a particularly bad performance, but it’s certainly not one of the company’s best, either. And yet, as one of the handful of annual events to encourage people to go to the park and enjoy an evening of literature under the stars, it serves its purpose.

Time Out Singapore: Paul Lucas

20 Apr 2015: It’s a play that’s adapted from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, which was in turn based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan. We are, of course, talking about the deliciously British farce that is The 39 Steps.

This year is the centenary of the publication of the original book – yes, there is more happening in the world than just SG50 – and local company Asylum Theatre is staging the play here. Four Singapore-based actors are set to take on over 100 roles between them, bringing the audience on a journey into a world of espionage, beautiful women, and dark, dark secrets. One of the cast members, Paul Lucas, tells Gwen Pew more.

Photo: Asylum Theatre

Photo: Asylum Theatre

Lucas first came across The 39 Steps in London: ‘Some years ago, I went to see the play on the West End and I was a hundred percent entertained by its slapstick, cartoon-like comic style. I’ve loved the show ever since.’

He will be taking on about 13 roles in the upcoming production: ‘That’s a whole lotta roles in one night, lemme tell ya!’

His favourite role is actually three crazy roles combined into one: ‘What do I mean by that, you ask? Come see the show to find out.’

One of the most difficult things about his roles is that he has to pick up a range of English and Scottish accents: ‘It’s not easy for a West Coast American boy from Seattle. The Scottish accents are my greatest challenge, but because The 39 Steps is a farce and a fast-paced romp, I’m pretty sure the audience won’t notice – or even care about – any “little inaccuracies” that I may stumble upon! The nature of the show is complete and utter wackiness, which almost begs the actors to struggle with multiple roles and accents – it only makes it funnier.’

He’s got more projects lined up for the rest of the year: ‘I do the occasional commercial, film, cartoon voice or TV show, but aside from those, I will appear in Holiday in My Head – also by Asylum Theatre – at the Drama Centre in November and December. It’s another fun, light-hearted comedy.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Ragnarok’ Review

17 Apr 2015: Skinned Knee Production’s show takes us to some pretty dark, dirty places within the LGBT community, but Gwen Pew appreciates that it dared to go all the way

★★★★☆

Ragnarok

We’ve been to our fair share of productions that claim they will shock, and be dark, and talk about taboo subjects. Most of them end up being about as gritty as a smooth vanilla ice cream cone on a balmy summer’s day, but Ragnarok follows the talk through with actual action – plenty of it, too – and takes us all the way to the darkest corners of the LGBT community. Presented by Skinned Knee Productions, the play’s ending is somewhat predictable, and the journey there is not a comfortable one, but it does bring something refreshingly different to the local stage.

Upon entering The Substation’s black box theatre, we realised that we had walked straight into Asgard, a tacky gay club that borrowed its name from the home to the Norse gods. The show’s title, likewise, is a reference taken from Norse mythology – Ragnarok is a sort of doomsday that results in the death of the gods and the apocalypse, before two surviving humans repopulate the Earth. And while all the characters are also loosely based on the various deities, the actual series of events that take place is firmly rooted in the seedier side of the real world. The story begins when an aspiring writer, Dan (Tan Shou Chen), falls for the young, beautiful party boy, Alan (Mitchell Fang). Dan’s secret admirer, Lachlan (Bright Ong) – who is waiting for AIDS to drag him to the grave – becomes enraged at their blossoming romance. Violence comes in the form of vicious words, the drugging of drinks, rape and, ultimately, death.

The narrative is interspersed with monologues, as the characters take turns to embody the gods that they represent. While the constant, though sometimes abruptly-executed, parallel with the mythological world feels strange at first, it does become effective in illustrating the fatalistic, larger-than-life tale that unfolds once we get used to it. The production also covers a huge amount of ground, from the sense of rage and helplessness that many HIV/AIDS patients suffer from, to how some parents are unable to come to terms with their children’s – and sometimes even their own – sexuality, and the devastation at the thought that one will never be able to have their own child because of the disease. We do wish that some of these issues could be delved into further, but the work nonetheless delivers the hard-hitting punches that it set out to.

The script by Andrew Sunderland is sharp and witty, and we respect the director, Aole T Miller, for having the guts to never shy away from the more graphic elements of the show (which is rated R18). The cast, too, fully gave themselves to their parts: Ong makes an alluringly sadistic monster, while Fang depicts the very picture of a naïve youngster struggling to make sense of the world. Tan plays out his tragic fate heartbreakingly, and Rosemary McGowan is endearing in her role as Thora, who works with those affected by HIV/AIDS, and friends with Dan and Alan. As everything spirals out of control, a duo of club kids, called the Icicles (Sunderland and Chanel Ariel Chan), delight in adding fuel to the fire with a bunch of bitchy one-liners.

The only problem we really have with the play is the pacing. It currently stands at two hours with no intermission, but certain scenes – such as when Dan lucidly dances with Lachlan after being drugged – could definitely be cut shorter to make the whole thing even punchier. The original songs by Esther Low, who also plays the quiet bargirl Hallie, are nice, but do not add much to the production and drags on at times. It doesn’t help that another real-life bar behind The Substation started rocking out from behind the wall towards the end of the show, and completely overrides the chance of us catching the lyrics properly.

But ultimately, the production has the edge that we were looking for. Yes, it’s sordid, but we don’t feel that it’s sordid just for the sake of it – the script wouldn’t have been brought to life as colourfully if these scenes were taken out – though we will say that we wouldn’t suggest bringing someone to see this on your first date.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Public Enemy’ Review

15 Apr 2015: Wild Rice opens its 15th anniversary season with a play that challenges the inherent problem of society, but Gwen Pew is left disappointed by this watered-down adaptation of a great classic

★★★☆☆

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Staged during our nation’s golden jubilee and ahead of our next general election, Wild Rice’s take on Public Enemy – first written by Henrik Ibsen over a century ago, adapted by David Harrower in 2013 and now relocated to a fictionalised Singapore – promises to get us talking about difficult things. We went into the theatre ready to be confronted by a series of uncomfortable truths about a society bound by a selfish majority, and yet, despite this being a visually stunning production, we’re not convinced that its ambitious goal was achieved.

The plot revolves around Dr Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng), the medical director of the country’s well-renowned natural spas, who is hell-bent on exposing the toxic state of its waters. While he has his initial supporters, including members of the press and the business community, he soon gets tangled in a web of social, governmental and personal interests. Ultimately, he is thrown under the bus by a political system headed by his influential brother, the mayor Peter Chee (Lim Kay Siu).

The point of Ibsen’s iconic work is to critique the perils of a complacent society, whose inability to think for itself allows those in power to manipulate situations and sentiments in order to satisfy their own agenda. But the production doesn’t get this across, as Thomas quickly loses sight of his noble goal of bringing the truth to light once the tides and ‘solid majority’ turn against him. He declares that he loves his country in his rambling speech at the climax of the play – which was hurled at the audience with the house lights turned on – but he never shows that love in action. He declares that he is dedicated to his family, but he’s willing to put them all in danger because of his own ego. He declares that he is after the truth – but we’re not even sure whether the findings in the report are accurate. (We’re reminded by Peter that Thomas didn’t try to get a second opinion on them.) And when he declares at the end that he’s remaining in town after being branded a public enemy, he’s no longer fighting for the truth – he is, instead, fighting against his brother and the people who don’t agree with his views.

There are indeed many powerful themes and issues that the production could play with – from sibling rivalry and the responsibility of the media to a man’s duty to himself, his family and his nation – and while all of them are lightly touched upon, they are never explored to their full extent. The characters are also introduced without context, which makes it difficult for us to empathise with them. But most importantly, it’s almost impossible to root for the feeble and highly self-destructive protagonist, even though he is portrayed as a hero right until the final scene. So while we’re troubled by the fact that the nation is wrought by political and social back-scratching, we’re left at a loss about the play’s central message. The combination of these elements results in a piece that feels clumsy, convoluted, and diluted.

That said, as a theatrical performance, it’s aesthetically very attractive. Wong Chee Wai’s sleek, grey set, when paired with Lai Chan’s impeccable outfits and the cinematic lighting and sound effects, provides a very slick backdrop for the story. The cast is also composed of able actors: Heng channels the rash, frumpy and impassionate doctor compellingly; Serene Chen supports him well as his poor, loyal wife, Katherine; while Ghafir Akbar makes for a suitably slimy and fickle editor of the local newspaper. The rest of his family and acquaintances are likewise competently played, but Lim deserves special mention for filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence as the mayor, even when he’s merely glowering silently in the corner.

Overall, this is a performance that unfortunately has more style than substance. The fantastic set and good acting make for two straight hours of decent entertainment, but strip the visual appeal away and what we’re left with is a weak adapted script that never quite delivers the sting that it threatened to.