Stripping down to hard truths

Graphic artist Sonny Liew did not utter a word throughout his real-time sketching of various characters in his elegiac production Becoming Graphic.
Graphic artist Sonny Liew did not utter a word throughout his real-time sketching of various characters in his elegiac production Becoming Graphic.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS

That was what best-selling graphic artist and writer Sonny Liew did with his powerful elegy on ageing

REVIEW / THEATRE

BECOMING GRAPHIC

Sonny Liew and Edith Podesta/ Singapore International Festival of Arts/72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road

Last Saturday

The poetry of rage and resignation can be sublime if its creator is Sonny Liew, the international best-selling graphic artist and writer who, in this production, called himself "Malaysia-born, Singapore-based".

Liew made headlines here and abroad last month for winning three coveted Eisner awards for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which, among other things, imagines a Singapore run by the People's Action Party's opponents, the Barisan Sosialis.

Becoming Graphic, which Liew created specially for this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts with impatient millennials in mind, was a layered, textured and eloquent meditation on the lot of the elderly - the time bomb of dementia.

There was a lot going on, including a play-within-a-play and four recurring storylines. But the economy of expression which his art demands, coupled with his lyrical way with words, kept everything on an even keel.

You would not have lost the plot anyhow, thanks to Edith Podesta's clean, tight and methodical direction. She even managed, largely, to glide over a big hump in their storytelling - the superfluous presence of two superheroes, The Black Oyster (with, oddly, a clam shell around his head) and The Green Bolt (as in lightning bolt), who reached into the bodies of villains to crush their hearts.

Liew's 90-minute visual acrobatics began with him, slightly offcentre on stage, sketching The Black Oyster at his workbench, on which nestled figurines of Totoro and Astroboy - and one of his three Eisner awards. "The Black Oyster is a red herring," he warned in a voice-over, setting the scene for the quiet anarchy to come.

He did not utter a word as he drew on stage throughout the evening. His story was told instead through interviews with his parents and grandfather, which actress Koh Wan Ching, as a radio presenter, cut and spliced into a radio play on one side of the stage.

At the other side was the ensemble, huddled over a microphone to make sound effects, such as someone swigging water, stomping on tiles and hammering nails into coffins.

From this radio play-within-a- play, the audience learnt that Liew coveted the power to fly and wished he could buy a small flat for his mother and rid his father of all illnesses. Against this ran his comic strip, projected onto the white wall behind him, showing Liew, among other things, flustered as his broom-wielding mother chances upon his copy of Playboy magazine.

Multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan juxtaposed Liew's real-time sketching with pre- recorded and fast-forwarded instances of him inking comic strips from scratch. This brought the process of creation to exciting life.

Also employed to great effect were cut-outs of word balloons, slides on an old-style overhead projector and silhouettes of actors in fight stances against the wall, including a delightfully hammy Crispian Chan as The Green Bolt.

Yet, for all these bells and whistles, the most wondrous thing about this urgent and witty production was Liew's script.

To him, a clock was "a metal wreath", its hands "broken arrows" that "split seconds into 'Now' and 'Not now'". That had a dementia sufferer "between tick and tock … tearing the sun", Liew mused, slowly painting a page black.

He unleashed vividly raw imagery as well, which gave this production its "graphic" title, including the working woman-caregiver recalling her snot reeking of her hapless mother's urine and how the latter would soon forget to eat, swallow and breathe.

Sound designer Teo Wee Boon's slow-burning discordance, which jarred eerily with Liew's ever-tranquil presence, set the scene well for the denouement, which came in the form of a policymaker in a giant dirty-white mask that was like a Ku Klux Klan hood crossed with a rotting shark's head; the area where its mouth should be was shredded.

"Perhaps it sounds as though we speak in abstractions," Liew's statistics-spouting shark-like creation admitted to Koh (who was commanding and compelling in her other role as a distraught daughter).

Earlier, the four-person ensemble demanded why "money was stuck between these walls", referring to the state's billion-dollar reserves, while many elderly folk here were "scraping a living from hand to mouth" as food centre cleaners and cardboard collectors. To which the policymaker said that money which could go into healthcare for all was better spent on education and defence. "Self-reliance" and "family support", he reminded them, anchored living, Singapore- style.

But after pronouncing "cyclical" as "sick-lical", Koh's character finally warned: "When the bough breaks/All will fall/Plastic baby dolls and all."

Liew and Podesta should take this deeply resonant elegy to the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Stripping down to hard truths'. Print Edition | Subscribe