Second Link (2005), Review

7 minutes read
Riding the Nice Bus
3 September 2005, 3:00pm
3.5 out of 5


Split Standards

I congratulate W!ld Rice and Five Arts Centre for delivering an impressive recital of texts, ultimately quite unlike any other I've witnessed before in Singapore.

I arrived at the Drama Centre with mixed expectations for Second Link. As a W!ld Rice production, as well as the finale event of Writer's Festival 2005, the performance was sure to be of a certain quality, yet the premise of the production seemed suspect: a troupe of Malaysian actors was to perform a selection of Singaporean literature, followed by a troupe of Singaporean actors similarly acting out a selection of Malaysian literature. I've witnessed various attempts at the dramatisation of Singaporean poems, and these tend to have decidedly mixed results, due to the sheer difficulty of translating words designed for the page into the language of the proscenium.

Fortunately for us all, the creators of Second Link weren't limiting their textual selections to poetry. The program revealed the origins of the production: the first act, Riding the Nice Bus Home was concocted as an item for the Singaporean contingent at the 2004 KL Litfest. Singaporean playwright Eleanor Wong assembled a set of excerpts from Singapore's best literary work for the Malaysian public, showcasing all three established genres of poetry, prose and drama and arranged according to theme and relevance. Last July, the show was directed by the late Malaysian director Krishen Jit and staged by the Five Arts Centre in KL Zouk's Velvet Underground.

Having decided to re-import the work back home, a companion piece was in order, to display Malaysian writing to a Singaporean audience, to be directed by Ivan Heng and brought to life by the actors of W!ld Rice. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin was invited to curate, and, opting for a more chaotic representation of her country, chose to create the second act of the day's performance as Tikam-Tikam: Malaysian Roulette, a polyphonic selection not only of literary writing, but also of song, folksong, folktale, memoir, journalistic interview, obituary, recipe, the Sejarah Melayu, and even the Malaysian Constitution - arranged in a random sequence, determined via an audience lottery before the intermission.

What emerged was a clear division in quality between the two halves of the performance. While Riding the Nice Bus Home was of a commendable, but less than exciting standard, Tikam-Tikam was decidedly excellent. This was in part due to the extremely strong Singaporean cast and cohesive direction for the second half, but also due to the creative curation of the Malaysian texts, which resulted in more dramatic themes of violence, power and ethnic tension than the often sedate Singaporean selection, which tended toward after-the-fact contemplative moments, perhaps due to the heavy weightage of poetry in its composition. Some weakness may also have arisen due to the recent death of Krishen Jit, and Ivan Heng's self-admitted reluctance to warp the creative vision of his departed friend by taking over directorial control.

Certainly, Riding the Nice Bus Home included very worthy revivals such as Ovidia Yu's The Woman in a Tree on the Hill, and delightful recontextualisations such as Tan Hwee Hwee's observations on Singlish in Mammon, Inc., restaged as a classroom lecture. The traditional use of the monologue also allowed good actors to excel, particularly in the stellar case of Anne James, who displayed her gift for comedy in her jerkily eccentric reading of Koh Beng Liang's Self Portrait, her talent for conveying pain in her description and re-enactment of spousal abuse in Elangovan's Talaq, as well as her gift for human drama in Jointly and Severably, which she performed with the similarly gifted Sukiana Venugopal. Also impressive was Edwin Sumun, whose commanding stage presence gave him the ability to elicit a hearty laugh from the audience every time he interrupted his monologue as an affluent professional in Felix Cheong's The Nearly Man in order to pose for a perfect picture with his wife, two kids and dog. However, a small number of works left the audience quite unmoved. Most tellingly, Wong's decision to open with Edwin Thumboo's oft-lauded, oft-parodied Ulysses by the Merlion proved a mistake. Even the actors seemed undecided if they should adopt a reverent or parodic tone toward the text, resulting in a slow piece with an unfocused idea of what it expected to elicit from the audience.

Tikam-Tikam, by contrast, featured clearly directed scenes with strong group dynamics, specifically designed to provoke an emotional response from the audience. The first piece immersed us in a chilling poetic account of the ethnic riots of 1969 in Beth Yahp's In 1969, which describes how this set the scene for a race-based division of culture that persists to this day; trauma was subtly and powerfully conveyed through the stylised collapse of bodies and deadpan newsreading in Malay and Mandarin from the fallen figures over the voice of the narrator. However, the dominant tool of the dramaturge was humour, through scenes such as the riotous pantomime of the fable of the clever mousedeer in Sang Kancil and a hilarious dramatisation of an outing with Raffles in The Autobiography of Abdullah bin Kadir (1754-1854).

On top of all this, the direction and acting in Tikam-Tikam were almost uniformly excellent. Jonathan Lim, Karen Tan, Lim Yu-Beng and Neo Swee Lin all performed at the high standard befitting their reputations. Of the five actors, however, it was Gani Karim who impressed me most with his versatility, displaying his stirring singing voice in Usman Awang's Uda dan Dara as well as his dance experience as a Thai go-go, flanked by the rest of the cast, in S.H.Tan's Mystery of the Attraction in Haadyai Solved. Both he and Lim Yu-Beng were also uproariously funny in racial drag as the Indian and Malay astrophysicists in Huzir Sulaiman's Atomic Jaya - a conceit that Anne James had also used to great advantage in the previous act, playing a Chinese, Singlish-speaking shop assistant in The Lady of Soul and a Chinese goddess in Ovidia Yu's The Woman in a Tree on the Hill.

The use of the projector screen in each act was a telling indicator of the difference between the two acts' production values. While used constantly in Riding the Nice Bus Home to project rather uninspired photographs of uncertain or obvious relevance, during Tikam-Tikam the screen was only used as necessary at dramatic points, displaying a controversial TV commercial as a preamble to Adlin Adman Ramlie's interview, Who's Bad?, as well as a clip from a Frank Sinatra movie as a counterpoint to another monologue. Otherwise, the screen displayed only the titles and authors, and occasionally the text or translations thereof.

In the final scene, the actors of both halves of the play appeared and began to dance the ronggeng in pairs, splitting between themselves the lines of a poem describing how the participant in this dance of zero contact longs to touch the other to create new, beautiful forms. As a metaphor for the production, this is particularly apt: Tikam-Tikam had indeed created a new, beautiful form of work by combining Singaporean acting and directing talent with the vitality of Malaysian writing, building on an existing Singaporean-Malaysian collaboration. While Riding the Nice Bus Home did indeed rise above conventional standards for performance of text-based literature, more intimate interaction between curator and cast could have lifted it further. On the whole, I'd congratulate W!ld Rice and Five Arts Centre for delivering an impressive recital of texts, ultimately quite unlike any other I've witnessed before in Singapore. Nonetheless, if nothing is workshopped or amended before it's re-exported to Malaysia, I'm worried that our northern neighbours may find Singaporean writing a trifle tedious compared to their own. Theatre, fortunately, is a text in progress. Let the words flow back between the nations.

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