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Classic Singapore Plays

Why Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

Life! picks the classics of Singapore's English- language theatre and tells you why they matter in this 10th of a monthly series

Play: Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (staged in June 1995 in English and in August 1995 in Mandarin)

Playwright: Kuo Pao Kun

What it is about: At first glance, the play examines the origins of the historical figure of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who was sent in the 15th century by the Ming emperor to explore the globe, from India to Arabia. There are scenes detailing the great wonders that he sees, the painful act of losing his manhood and a great loneliness of being cast adrift. But the lyrical piece is also a meditation on rootlessness, displacement and being a cultural orphan.

Director Jeff Chen is staging a revival of Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral next month as part of the Esplanade's Studios season of 50 Singapore plays. And he is feeling more than just regular nervousness.

The fiercely experimental theatre practitioner, 40, tells Life!: "I'm quite anxious about doing this piece.

"Because in our theatre community, when you ask a lot of practitioners which of Pao Kun's texts they love the most - it would be Descendants."

The late Kuo Pao Kun's lyrical, episodic play is an open invitation of sorts to directors, written in 16 parts with no characters or stage directions indicated, and entirely in prose and verse.

There is a sort of beautiful desolation to the play, which opens with: "I have come to realise of late that dreaming has become the centre of my life." The unnamed narrator(s) flit from poetic personal musings to painful, haunting stories of castration in ancient China, to sumptuous descriptions of travel and exploration.

Director Ong Keng Sen, 52, had the "very unusual" experience of commissioning a work from his teacher and mentor, Kuo, for TheatreWorks' 10th anniversary in 1995, to which Kuo had responded: "Well, I don't normally take commissions... Let me think about it."

He later agreed, telling Ong the work would be about Zheng He, but little else.

When Ong received the script, he was immediately taken by it. It was markedly different from Kuo's previous plays and as he read it, a "strange story" came into his mind, about a group of Singaporean yuppies who enter the theatre space and, as they tell the story of Zheng He, are transformed, stripping away their outer garments piece by piece. He imagined them manifesting as eunuchs, then entering a columbarium of sorts, then moving into outer space, before becoming stars in the sky.

The cast comprised Ivan Heng, Jeremiah Choy, Tang Fukuen, Casey Lim and Janice Koh, and this version of Descendants premiered at the now- defunct biennial Festival of Asian Performing Arts here in 1995. Kuo would go on to direct a markedly different version in Mandarin two months later, in August.

Kuo's daughter, Jian Hong, 47, was behind the striking set and lighting design for that production, with a vast backdrop of what looked like fish bowls (actually light fixtures) creating the feel of towering columbarium niches.

She said of his writing style: "I think he spent a lot of time brewing. And when he sat down and wrote, it would be very, very fast. It didn't mean that he would complete it - most of the time, he would have different versions of his endings.

"When he was directing his own pieces, he would ponder over how to end the play, what the possibilities were, and during rehearsals he would change it."

Kuo had originally set the play in a prison, where prisoners were about to be released and then began play-acting the story of Zheng He, but took that out of the English version. He later borrowed from this structure of the prison for the Mandarin version, while the English one had no specific setting.

In the broader scheme of things, Singapore theatre was entering into the gradual global shift that theatre across the world had been experiencing, moving from the grand ideas of nationality, of homogeneous societies existing in harmony, to the post-modernism of fractured and multiple identities.

It is in Descendants that Kuo foregrounds his pivotal idea of Singaporeans as "cultural orphans", an immigrant community with no nation or culture to return to, each person displaced and only inheriting fragments of cultures.

Kuo, who was born in China and came to Singapore at a very young age, said at a 1993 conference at The Substation: "We are great at making money... we still possess this merchant mentality. Everything can be bought or sold, including culture.

"With all the money in the world, one cannot buy identity. I went back to my village in China eight years ago, but it didn't solve my problem."

In his preface to his collection of plays, Images At The Margins (2000), Kuo elaborated on this idea: "This country and its citizens generally have the mentality of cultural orphans: a sense of loss and alienation, and a kind of anxiety in the search for self... We have long remained in a wandering and searching state of mind. Some call this the consciousness of a people at the margins."

Ong would view this interpretation of being a cultural orphan more positively: "Being cultural orphans means we could inherit everything and, in a sense, create from a fantasy rather than creating from a rooted reality. That was liberating."

The play ends with an incantation of sorts, a declaration in verse:

I cannot tarry

I must hurry

The sea, the land, the sky is waiting

The Market is calling me!

Ong says of this: "There is the lament of the orphan, but there's also the sense that a new journey is about to begin." To him, the play evokes not just "tragedy, but wonder - fearful wonder".

It was also with fearful wonder that the cast approached the play.

Prominent actress Koh, 41, was 21 and an undergraduate at the time, and this was one of her earliest professional productions. It left a lasting imprint on her, and she considers the production one of her favourites. She says of Kuo: "I love the way he writes about the Singapore condition, in this very poetic manner, through the eyes of Zheng He.

"The themes that he explores are very close to me and resonate with people on the margins. Whether or not it's about power, or loneliness, or the concept of a journey, or castration, or sacrifice - those were very big themes which... continue to resonate with me now."

The rehearsal process was a gruelling one, with Ong leading hours of physical exercises and explorations and the actors often "not sure what it would end up looking like, the shape might keep changing".

"It was punishing," Koh says. "The hours were very long. And it was physically punishing. We had bleeding toes from spinning, vertigo, throwing up, broken knees - I think Ivan killed his knee doing this - all kinds of things."

In the final production, Koh herself delivered a 71/2-minute speech detailing the exhilarating sights and sounds of a splendid trading festival while spinning 300 times on the spot.

Choy, 52, had a non-speaking role in the production. He says: "Keng Sen set up situations for us to play around with. Sometimes he would just bring some drums and we would start drumming. Sometimes we played with reams of paper, rolling and tearing paper. But each time we rehearsed a scene, it got simpler and simpler and simpler... reduced to its essence."

The cast was often worried about what Kuo thought of the production. He was usually reserved in his comments on their non-linear, fractured interpretation of his play. Both Koh and Choy remember that all he would say after sitting in on a rehearsal was "xin ku ni le": an apologetic, encouraging Mandarin phrase meaning that they had worked hard and made it through a challenging process.

"He really trusted Keng Sen and us," Choy says. "We also treated his text with respect. When we were having problems with the text, we always reflected it back to him and he would make changes."

The result of these difficult rehearsals and long periods of distillation was a visual spectacle that led to applause and standing ovations in the middle of scenes.

Ticket sales were not great. TheatreWorks sold 60 per cent of the tickets for its four performances at the Victoria Theatre in June; the Chinese version filled a mere 50 per cent of the same theatre during its three-night run in August.

But the play had a solid international run, later travelling to Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre (1996), International Summer Festival, Hamburg (1998) and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (1998), which all contributed to raising the international profile of Ong as a director.

Choy recalls that during their trip to Cairo, "we thought the audience hated us, because during the performance itself, they were ordering coffee and tea... we thought we had lost them".

But they received a thunderous standing ovation instead.

Former Life! arts writer Suhaila Sulaiman later wrote in her 2002 review of a publication of Kuo's two plays (Descendants and The Spirits Play): "These plays have given audiences here some of the best theatrical experiences ever. Top on the list has to be the 1995 production of Descendants by TheatreWorks director Ong Keng Sen with its unforgettable whirling dervishes- inspired scene which had five satin- swathed performers spinning towards transcendence."

Many practitioners and theatre groups have gone on to interpret Descendants in myriad ways, including playwright Alfian Sa'at's translation and adaptation of the text into Malay in 2003, as well as a Japanese take on the script in 1996 by the avant garde Black Tent Theatre in Tokyo.

Ong says of this: "I think that's the hallmark of a great work. It can take a million interpretations, but what it's saying is still crystal clear."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

The Complete Works Of Kuo Pao Kun Volume Four: Plays In English, which includes Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral, is available from Books Kinokuniya at $36.38.

The next instalment of this 15-part series will be published at the end of next month.