June 23, 2008

Varied Desserts

By Subhadra Devan

IT was clear to everyone at Victoria Theatre that the Chinese theme took over the new opera, Awaking, at the recent Singapore Arts Festival.

This was Shakespeare meets Ming Dynasty novelist Tang Xianzu, who lived at the same time and died the same year.

Awaking was supposed to be a melding of East and West in one show. But, I think the dramatics stole the show and since it was Chinese opera which was sort of the mainstay of the show, the Asian element came to the forefront.

Awaking's director Ong Ken Sen explained, at the post-show dialogue, that the show explored the differing yet connected philosophies on love as represented by the works of these two writers.

The "China rules" impression wasn't helped when the show ended with the Buddhist chant of om mani padme om, which Chinese composer Qu Xiao Song explained was to show that life and love will remain serene despite the natural tragedies in Myanmar and China.

Ong, the resident director of Singapore's TheatreWorks, seemed to hunch into his black turtle-neck T-shirt as he listened to the comments made by an audience member, Robert Yeo, a respected playwright who also said the "dramaturgy of bringing the elements together seems forced".

"It wasn't intentional," Ong said of the "China rules" ending. With him at the session was Britain's Musicians of the Globe's Philip Pickett, Singapore Chinese Orchestra's maestro Yeh Tsung and Qu.

Qu added that if it had been a European director, then perhaps the show would have come out differently. True.

This was the world premiere of Awaking, which was performed by 13 SCO musicians, Britain's Musicians of the Globe who are skilled in England's early music, and Beijing's Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre.

The five-act "new opera", as Ong calls it, had combined the sounds of Elizabethan music with the traditional kunqu opera.The pieces of music came from Shakespeare's plays of Hamlet and Othello, the part that dealt with love dying or dead, while from Tang came the famous Peony Pavilion. This is mainly about love resurrected.

For Awaking, the kunqu opera actress Wei Chun Rong acted and sang first, followed by the Musicians of the Globe.

The final act was when both sections came together and that's when the Chinese part overwhelmed all others. But, the two distinct music cultures did work together. So kudos to Ong and his team.

While the stage show was performed, a TV monitor - formed by eight plasma screens - showed the moon, the surface of the moon, subtitles and finally layers of makeup peeled off Wei's opera mask to reveal a modern face.

It was hard to watch both screen and stage, especially since on stage was a very evocative Chinese opera actress, in full regalia, on a stunning white sloping walkway.

Apart from Wei, the female performers wore brown-patterned batik- looking outfits with white-coloured flounces while the male performers, garbed in the same material, looked as if they were on a beach somewhere.

In the final act, as Joanne Lunn of the Musicians of the Globe intoned om mani padme om along with other musicians and singers, Wei walked down the slope and stood next to her.

Wei said, through an interpreter, at the post-show session that that was an acknowledgement of the presence of Lunn as a person. It was a beautiful ending - to look at and hear.

Awaking was co-commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and, maybe, that's why Elizabethan music and Shakespeare was used.

I think appreciating Awaking would depend on which disciplines you are more familiar with - Chinese or Anglo-Saxon.

This show is Ong's maiden attempt at directing a musical piece.

Awaking proved a conversation piece after the show, and was as experimental as another festival premiere, the King Lear Project.

This was a trilogy that tried to deconstruct the making of theatre itself, using scenes from Shakespeare's play, King Lear.

In the second part of the trilogy, called "Dover Cliff - The Conditions of Representation," the actors discussed whether this way would work better, and even the set designer, James Page, had his say.

He introduced a big black, suspended sausage, which spouted water at the right line quote by Lear (played brilliantly by Ramesh Panicker). Things got a little graphic on stage, providing all of us some relief from the king's weighty words.

The producer, seated with the audience, gave his comments in convulated language.

Directed, written and conceptualised by visual artist film-maker Ho Tsu Nyen, it was piece of post-modernist theatre that did not appeal to me. I found it dated and even academic.

When it ended and the mainly collegiate audience was trooping out of the Drama Centre Theatre, many almost stumbled or bumped into the actors who were in "frozen" positions.

King Lear was on the floor, having jumped off the Dover cliff and so on. People waited for something to happen, and nothing did. So they started clapping and walked away.

This project was co-commissioned by the kunstenfestivaldesart in Brussels.

While these two premieres fulfilled the festival's theme of being experimental, the breakdancing team from South Korea offered simple and terrific entertainment. To me, it was like sampling black forest cake to roti ais krim.

Just a bunch of youths popping and spinning away to other youths and middle-aged parents with children in tow at the small recital studio at the Esplanade - Theatres By The Bay. The Spin Odyssey had a story, and the audience screamed and clapped and even interacted with the B-Boys from S. Korea. It was fun. At the end of the day, roti ais krim rules ok!

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