WHERE: The Substation (map)
WHEN: 27th-29th Sept, 12
WHO: The Blue Statesmen
PRICE: S$20 (S$15 concession)
MY THOUGHTS: As a foreigner who arrived in Singapore less than a month ago, I must confess that I have just began to learn about the local theatre culture. It was only last night that I heard about Kuo Pao Kun – a playwright, director, arts activist, and founder of The Substation who is hailed as the father of Singaporean theatre – to whom BluePrince pays tribute.
And perhaps it is because I have yet to come across any of Kuo’s plays that I came out of Bryan Tan’s BluePrince not having understood a thing about what just took place for the past hour.
I was at first intrigued by the set that greeted me. With spiral incense covering the ceiling and a mysterious, echoey narrative swirling around the room, it was as though we were transported to some sort of monastery. Oliver Chong, the only actor in the play, sat on a wooden chair engrossed in a book. Behind him, an assemblage of seemingly random white papier mache objects were lined up against the wall.
As the play began, Chong launched into a series of monologues as he brought each item to the middle of the stage in turn. He began with a speech about how his character’s lust for survival means that he is willing to eat his own family, and soon moved on to an unfinished narrative about his wife and daughter leaving him.
A 5-minute rant followed, repeating the process of how he walked to the tap, filled a glass and sipped the water. Fluorsent light tubes flickered on and off as Chong rearranged them into various shapes on the floor.
At this point I was still frantically, desperately, trying to make sense of the play, but each sketch became more bizarre and twisted than the last. When Chong stimulated an episode of self-cannibalism and told a story of how a lizard’s shrieking brought him to orgasm, however, the final shreds of my comprehension unravelled.
I have come to the conclusion that there are three ways of looking at BluePrince. The first is that it is entirely a joke. We as the audience are not meant to take this seriously, and the ‘role of artists in society’ (as the brochure claims the play will interrogate) is merely to see how far they can push the audience’s tolerance of nonsense. Chong does, after all, stick his middle finger up at the crowd at one point. If this was indeed the intention, then the play is hugely successful in achieving its purpose – to mess with our heads as severely as possible.
The second interpretation is to take BluePrince as an attempt at serious theatre, in which case it didn’t do a very good job at all. It lacks plot, continuity, and most of all, meaning. Chong’s soliloquies sounded deep and philosophical, but they might as well have been cheap, nonsensical words. I have never been as confused about the point of a production as I was last night.
Upon some research, I discovered the third explanation – the stories and papier mache objects were actually symbolic of Kuo Pao Kun’s plays. The cat was meant to relate, I’m guessing, to Mama Looking For Her Cat; the car was a nod to No Parking On Odd Days; the story about a boy called Lao Jiu was directly taken from Lao Jiu.
Fair enough. As I mentioned, I would probably have appreciated BluePrince a lot more had my knowledge of Kuo been more solid. However, a successful production is one that could be understood even by someone who has no prior information about the subject matter. I would have liked to come out of the show with at least an idea of what Kuo might have been like as a man and a playwright, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. It was just an hour of references that were perhaps too specific for the unwitting audience to catch.
That said, Chong is no doubt a fantastic actor, as he successfully drew out his character’s sometimes stoic, sometimes elated, and sometimes downright grotesque nature. To have been able to travel through such a huge range of human – and sometimes even animalistic – conditions is no easy task, but he managed to stay focussed and convincing throughout.
I would love to hear what someone who is more familiar with Kuo’s works thinks about BluePrince (please do get in touch), but I would say that it’s not a play for those who do not have any background knowledge.
WHAT: Dance (Contemporary)
WHERE: Bradford Alhambra (map)
WHEN: 25th Apr, 12; check their tour schedule for other shows
WHO: Northern School of Contemporary Dance
MY STORY IN A NUTSHELL:
- Contemporary dance is tricky as its intentions are not always clear to the untrained audience.
- Dancers of Verve 2012, the postgraduate performance company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, are agile and passionate, but the choreography themselves were a bit of a hit and miss.
- Divided into four opening acts (two I liked, two not so much) and the main pièce de résistance – Akram Khan’s ‘Vertical Road,’ which is part of the Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire.
- ‘Vertical Road’ itself is a powerful piece, with brilliant use of lighting and a beautifully haunting musical score.
MY FULL STORY [first published on digyorkshire.com on 1st May, 12]: The tricky thing about contemporary dance is that their plots are usually a lot more abstract than traditional ones such as, say, The Nutcracker. It’s a lot harder to convey their concrete meaning, and so instead the focus tends to shift from content to form. Which is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but unfortunately it means that they are not always fully comprehensible to the standard, untrained mortal.
As far as the actual dancing goes, I was very impressed with Verve 2012, the postgraduate performance company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. The dancers embody a great sense of youth and maturity that make them wonderful to watch.
The actual performances themselves, though, were a bit of a hit and miss.
The show was composed of five individual parts – four opening acts, and the main pièce de résistance. The first sketch, Let Go by Milan Kozánek, basically had six dancers rolling and writhing on the bare floor, picking up stones and moving with them. Their movements were graceful, but unfortunately it was almost impossible to decipher what they were really doing.
Similarly, the third act, For Dear Life by Jordan Massarella, was meant to suggest that ‘Sometimes sadness is the key to happiness,’ according to the programme. That is an interesting motif, but again the choreography fell short of fully delivering its message.
But it’s not all bad. James Cousins’s Dark in the Afternoon, a duet between two male dancers, was much more powerful. The combination of their sometimes synchronised, sometimes disjointed movements suggests a desperate attempt of (mis)communication. Their strength and elegance was in perfect balance.
My favourite sketch, though, was without a doubt the final act of Part One. Choreographed by Lea Anderson MBE, co-founder of The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs dance companies, Dynamo was a blast.
It involves nine wide-eyed, lipsticked ladies in bright 1950s dresses twirling and running and skipping around the stage, taking turns to be puppets and puppeteers. Their mechanical movements resemble a series of stop-motion vintage posters come to life. It sounds bizarre, but it worked. It was fun and jarring at the same time, and definitely a very colourful visual treat.
But it was Part Two that most of the crowd had been waiting for. As part of the Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire, Vertical Road is a piece by acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan designed to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. It was inspired by the Sufi tradition as well as Persian poet and philosopher Rumi.
Light and shadow inter-played brilliantly in this performance. The use of fine powder to create an illusion of smoke gave it a magical effect, which worked well with the eight dancers’ flowing, neutrally coloured costumes. Despite not having a coherent narrative, it managed to remain captivating throughout. The choreography was strongly supported by Nitin Sawhney’s specially commissioned musical score, which was both haunting and compelling.
Although the show began with some uncertainty, it did gain momentum as the evening went on. I must admit that I was still rather perplexed by the whole thing at the end, but the dancers’ focused, agile and passionate energy nonetheless made it well worthwhile.
WHAT: Play (Comedy, Music, etc.)
WHERE: Charles Playhouse, Boston, MA (map)
WHEN: 30th Mar, 12 (ongoing)
MY STORY IN A NUTSHELL:
- I’ve heard a lot about how good Blue Man Group is, but no one seems to be able to tell me what they’re about. After watching the show, I can’t say I can describe them perfectly either.
- In short, they combine comedy with technology, music, art, giant glowing balls and a lot of toilet paper. It’s a rave dance party as much as it’s fantastic theatre.
- Blue Man Group has been around since 1991. They are innovative in trying to make sense and make fun of the world around us.
- This is a truly creative and interactive masterpiece. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I very highly recommend getting your hands on a hot ticket if you get the chance. It may well be the best thing you can do with your evening.
- My interview with one of the Blue Men will be coming soon so stay tuned!
MY FULL STORY: It’s not often that I walk into a theatre completely unsure what to expect. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Blue Man Group, but nobody seems to be able to tell me exactly what they’re about. After seeing them, I now understand why, because I am unable to give a satisfactory description of their show either. All I can say is that they are awesome, but I’ll try to elaborate.
Basically, it is a two-hour show where your senses are overwhelmed – in a good way. It combines comedy, technology, music, art, giant glowing balls and an insane amount of toilet paper. What started off as a civilised evening at the theatre turned into a giant rave party by the end, although the fact that the front few rows of the audience were given ponchos at the start should have set off warning bells. All I’ve got to say is that I am eternally indebted to the people who cleaned up the place afterwards.
Blue Man Group was first performed Off Broadway in New York in 1991, which means that it shares my birth-year. Since then they have expanded to occupy theatre spaces around America and places as far flung as Berlin and Tokyo.
It’s not hard to see why they are so well-loved. Painted blue from head to fingertips and dressed in black tracksuits, the three men continually poke fun at each other as well as the audience. Their way of trying to make sense of the world we live in is innovative and hilarious. Whether they were ‘paint-drumming’, strolling in and out of ‘GiPads’ (giant versions of iPads), or stuffing gumballs down their throats and spitting them out on a canvas, they had a way of keeping us all in stitches throughout.
Plus these guys are all genuinely very talented people. I’m amazed by how much they can communicate with just a look or a gesture. And their drumming skills are virtually super-human.
On top of everything, Blue Man Group also succeeds in achieving the very difficult task of creating truly interactive theatre. Even though I was wedged in the corner backseat, I still felt as involved with what’s going on onstage as those in the front row.
This is the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. If you are in any of the cities that they are currently performing at, make sure you grab a ticket and experience it for yourself. It may well be the best thing you can do with your evening.
* ** *** ** *
Click here to read my interview with the lovely Greg Balla, and let him tell you all about what it’s like to be bald and blue!
WHAT: Play (Comedy)
WHERE: Stage@Leeds (map)
WHEN: 27th Feb, 12
WHO: The Paper Birds
MY STORY IN A NUTSHELL:
- Thirsty is Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh’s attempt to decipher our nation’s love for booze. They had originally wanted to tell the other, less clichéd stories, but in the end they gave in and told the one that kept coming up: the one about 18-year-old girls who had just started university and were desperate to fit in.
- The way the girls built the show was very research-heavy. They set up a drunken hotline, blog, and questionnaire one year ago and waited for the stories to come in.
- There isn’t much of a structure to the play, but it is funny and raises some serious questions regardless – do we only find it funny because we’ve all been there?
- Overall it still makes for a good, sober night out. Catch them at the Leeds Carriageworks on 20th and 21st March!
MY FULL STORY [edited version first published on digyorkshire.com on 2nd March, 12]: After spending most of their research and development trying to focus on the less clichéd stories of alcohol – like how a mother of two would reward herself with a gin and tonic after the kids go to bed – Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh eventually gave up and gave in.
Henry James had insisted that ‘the story won’t tell.’ Thirsty, however, ended up telling the story that they really didn’t want to tell, but the one that they couldn’t get away from because it kept coming up again and again: ‘She’s 18. She has just started university…’
I’m not sure if I liked the way the play is physically structured – there wasn’t really much of a structure or even a plot to speak of, as it was more of an exploration of alcohol in general. But as someone who has gone through all the drink-fuelled freshers parties just a couple years ago, I could nonetheless relate to what they were saying quite personally.
‘She has just left home for the first time. She feels free. She’s having a good time. She wants to make friends.’ Besides, if she doesn’t drink, then she’ll be the odd one out.
It was quite a strange experience – watching the play was like watching a dramatised version of what I used to do back then. Although that said, I must admit I was never hardcore enough to literally drench myself in spirits, and never ended my nights out with my head in the toilet. Think of me as being more of a tipsy hugger.
The show was filled with laugh-out-loud parts, and the girls looked like they were enjoying themselves onstage as they downed glass after glass (‘I feel… I feel like YES!’), but it also raised questions. Was it only funny because they were (pretending to be) intoxicated? Were we laughing only because we’ve all been there? Do we all have a problem and are we all going to hell?
The way Paper Birds created the play was interestingly research heavy, as they revealed. A year ago, they set up a blog, a questionnaire and a drunken hotline, and waited for stories to come in. They asked participants and callers to share their alcohol-related stories, as well as give their opinions on various topics.
One gentleman whose message was played out amongst many others, for example, declared that ‘drunken women are scary.’ But most of the people who called were first year girls who confessed every dirty detail of the last parties they went to. And so Jemma and Kylie decided to base their work on those.
Consciously trying to avoid sounding like moralisers, the girls made it very clear in the post-show talk that they ‘don’t want people to watch the show and think that they should give up drinking – we still drink loads. We just wanted to debate if there’s anything wrong with our nation’s love for booze.’
Although I suppose Thirsty’s inconclusiveness was rather liberating, I couldn’t help feeling a bit frustrated by it at the same time. What was the point they were trying to make? But then again do we always need to get answers? There are times when we want to go to the theatre just for a laugh. And besides, there’s no doubt that it still made for a great, sober alternative to a popped-up night out in town.
Catch Thirsty at Leeds Carriageworks on 20th and 21st March!
WHAT: Play (Absurdist Tragiocomedy)
WHERE: West Yorkshire Playhouse (map)
WHEN: 3rd – 25th Feb, 12
HOW MANY TOBIES BARKED WITH AWE (out of 5):
MY STORY IN A NUTSHELL:
- Waiting for Godot is notoriously dubbed as the play in which nothing happens, twice, but it is also a masterpiece of the 20th century.
- It is essentially about Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) coming up with ways to pass their time as they wait for Godot, the man who never comes.
- The script isn’t really my cup of tea, but is definitely still very powerful. The brilliant cast of five brought the play to life and gave one of the best performances I have ever seen on stage.
MY FULL STORY: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play, I was told, in which nothing happens, twice. I was also forewarned that I was going to hate it, which is a fair warning given the fact that I never have much patience for plays like that – why exactly would I waste my time just to go watch someone else waste theirs? However, seeing as this is apparently one of the most significant dramatic works of the 20th century, and Ian Brown’s production (his last after a decade as the Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) has received multiple rave reviews, I decided to give it a go. Besides, I feel like I ought to be reasonable about these things: I would watch it first, and then say how much I hated it.
The play opened with a single dead tree standing in the middle of the stage. Vladimir and Estragon stumbled onto the landscape, and they stayed there. Everything stayed there. Sometimes Pozzo and his rope-chained slave Lucky joined them, but that’s all there was to it. ‘Nothing happens,’ Estragon vented. ‘Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful!’
To pass the time, they would eat, sleep, sing, swap hats, philosophise, compare themselves to Christ, embrace, laugh, cry, piss, and contemplate suicide. They kept talking, they kept quiet, they kept each other company, but ultimately, they kept waiting. And then, the following day (or act), they came back and did it all over again.
‘Let’s go,’ said Gogo.
‘We can’t,’ replied Didi.
‘Because we’re waiting for Godot.’
The strange thing is that those lines summed up how I felt throughout the performance, too. I knew perfectly well that nothing was going to happen and that I should just get up and leave, and yet I couldn’t help but wait with them. In fact, I was unable to tear my eyes away from the stage at all. I barely even blinked. I mean, what if, maybe, just in case…?
And so I just sat there with everyone else for the whole two-and-a-half hours, allowing my emotions to be swept away with the lot: I was sad, happy, angry, frustrated, amused, bored and inspired. ‘There’s nothing to be done.’ Nothing, nothing, nothing, but to watch life go by in the most surreal of ways.
With so little but so much happening, this is an extremely difficult play to take on, and take in. All we had to go by was the characters’ conversation, for there was no music, no change of set or costume to distract and detract us from it. Jeffery Kissoon’s and Patrick Robinson’s performances as Vladimir and Estragon respectively, however, were magical. Not only did they portray the characters flawlessly and breathed life into the text, they also teased the subtle humour out of it with a quirky Caribbean accent whilst keeping everything extremely human.
Cornell S John’s Pozzo was, likewise, a marvel – perfectly arrogant and charismatic at the same time. But it was Guy Burgess’s Lucky who threatened to steal the show. His transformation from a wheezing, slobbering mess to a crazy intellect who delivered one of the most difficult soliloquies in the English language was staggering.
This is the first ever UK production of the play to feature an all-black cast, but I don’t think too much should be made of it as they were all just great actors.
So did I hate the play as much as I thought I would? Yes, absolutely. I walked out of the Playhouse feeling exhausted, as though half my soul had been sucked out of me, and I couldn’t think straight for the rest of the night. However, I must also admit that it is indeed a very powerful piece of theatre, and with a cast as talented as this, it very effortlessly became one of the best performances I have ever watched on stage. Bravo.