Culture Vulture: Flawed experiments in theatre can be better than mediocre successes

After attending two shows at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, I realise that imperfect experiments in art fascinate me

Mia Chee with Tay Kong Hui in a scene from Art Studio by Nine Years Theatre. PHOTO: TAN NGIAP HENG

Flawed experiments in art intrigue me more than mere mediocre successes.

I came to this conclusion after catching two shows at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), which ends on Saturday.

Art Studio, by Nine Years Theatre, was the opening show for Sifa. Becoming Graphic gained unexpected star power in the form of Eisner award-winning graphic novelist Sonny Liew, who collaborated on the production with director Edith Podesta.

The Mandarin production Art Studio is director Nelson Chia's earnest adaptation of Singaporean novelist Yeng Pway Ngon's eponymous, 2012 Singapore Literature Prize-winning novel. Full disclosure: I have not read the book and thus cannot gauge how faithful an adaptation the stage production is to the text.

But I can make a good guess that it is fairly faithful because in the first act, there are reams of narrative exposition which makes me think that Chia, who adapted the work, loves the book well, but not wisely.

A very dedicated ensemble cast delivered the lines with passion and conviction. But the use of a Greek chorus to deliver lengthy chunks of voiceovers, telling the audience what the characters are feeling, just seems like a slavish devotion to the text. There is too much telling, and not enough showing, of the characters' stories in the first act.

Perhaps the ambitious sprawl of the novel's narrative - spanning decades, countries and the lives of multiple characters - is too unwieldy a tangle for a theatre production to unpick tidily. Chia takes a determined crack at it, though.

There were other redeeming factors about Art Studio, however, which engaged me. There was the joy of watching a young Singapore artist responding so sincerely and lovingly to the work of a predecessor.

As a reader, I am always curious to know what practising artists/writers read and, especially, what they love, as that offers insights into their own practices. There were evidently themes and motifs in Yeng's book that resonated with Chia: the role of an artist in society, the artist's struggle to stay true to his vision, the almost-forgotten, rarely told role the leftists played in the Singapore story.

Having watched several Nine Years Theatre productions, I also appreciated the opportunity to observe the way Chia has been growing as a theatre practitioner. The actor-director has been on a steady trajectory with his youthful theatre group, moving from adapting Western classics, such as Twelve Angry Men, to restaging Singaporean and Asian works.

Art Studio is quite evidently the most ambitious Nine Years production to date. I can see the influence of Stan Lai, that colossus of modern Chinese theatre, in the contemporary sleekness of the staging, and the epic sweep of the storyline.

But Art Studio was very clearly Singaporean, from the specificity of the artistic/political dilemmas of its characters, set against the pell-mell history of Singapore, to the very Singaporean cadences of the Mandarin spoken by the cast.

In this latest production, I see Chia's struggle to refine, and grow, his voice in theatre, as an artist and as a Singaporean.

While Chia has a history in theatre, Liew is a graphic novelist on his maiden venture into a new medium. Becoming Graphic struck me as an undercooked mess, with too many competing ideas, none of which was developed to any satisfactory extent. That was a pity, as there were interesting bits of flotsam amid the avalanche of multimedia theatricality.

The staging of comic panels as a radio play, complete with sound/voice effects, was entertaining, but quickly discarded before it developed any momentum. The topic of ageing and the cost of medical care, while of concern and import to ageing Singaporeans, seemed shoehorned into the narrative.

The story also detoured briefly into Liew's personal biography before fracturing confusingly into disparate tales of two superheroes, whose antics were drawn live by Liew, seated onstage throughout. This latter bit of stage business was the best thing about the show for me. As a long-time fan of Liew, this staging allowed me to watch the artist in action. Overall, however, I thought the script needed a lot more polishing and focus.

Different as these two shows look on first blush, there were similarities that intrigued me as a viewer. There were vivid flashes of very personal struggles with themes which obviously resonated with its creators. These moments of truth-seeking more than made up for the shows' weaknesses. Rather than limiting themselves to tidy territories, both Art Studio and Becoming Graphic opted for "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,/ And falls on the other", to borrow from the ill-fated Macbeth.

Both these shows were commissioned by Sifa, which I think is admirable because artistic experiments need support.

Beyond just this debut staging, however, I also think both these productions deserve more time to develop and mature and they deserve restaging.

Over the years, the arts festival has done much to fund new works. But creation should also be accompanied by introspection and retrospection, otherwise new commissions will merely result in an assembly line of churn.

Which brings me back, in a roundabout fashion to my opening statement. Flawed as these productions are, there are tantalising moments of clarity and confrontation which deserve to be pursued and developed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline Culture Vulture: Flawed experiments in theatre can be better than mediocre successes. Subscribe