Nine Years Theatre and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre/Thursday (July 18)
Writer-director Nelson Chia is a thoughtful, smart theatre-maker who has been beating out his own idiosyncratic path in the Chinese language theatre scene.
His latest production, First Fleet, offers all his signature hallmarks: a Chinese reading of Western classics, meditations on the role, and purpose, of art and artmaking in the world, and fluid staging that draws from mostly Western theatrical traditions, including physical theatre.
So the work, which follows a convict ship manned by British officers headed to Australia to set up the first penal colony in New South Wales, is inspired by Australian author Thomas Keneally's The Playmaker. The opening sequence features the ensemble cast heaving wooden crates across a mostly bare stage which simulates the deck of a ship with two sailing masts to set the scene.
The hardworking six actors play dual roles as both officers and convicts, in a careful layering that conveys Chia's ambitious onion of a script which unpeels multiple meanings with each scene change. Governor Arthur Phillip (Hang Qian Chou) is the idealistic leader who decides casting the convicts in a play could be a good way to rehabilitate them. And Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Timothy Wan) is tasked with directing the production. The convicts' stories emerge from their own telling during rehearsals, contradicting Major Robert Ross' (Mia Chee) sweeping dismissal of them as mere criminals.
There are bumpy moments. Clark's introductory speech hurls an avalanche of scene-setting facts at the audience. The convicts' life stories verge on melodrama.
Designer Loo Ann Ni's smart multitasking outfits, where skirts are turned inside out into bright red or blue military jackets, does much to signal the actors' switching from one role to the next.
In the playfully self-referential script, the play-within-a-play is Moliere's Tartuffe, which Nine Years staged in 2015. The discussions between the convicts and their director about truth in performance rings with a sincerity that suggests these are well-worn topics with this troupe.
It is evident that Chia is after more than just another colonisation play in this bicentennial year. He is more keen on how art and theatre can excavate truth from life and offer hope and faith in humanity. In this respect, Chee's beggar, a cynical Cassandra who dismisses everyone as being "overly optimistic" turns out to be the most hopeful one of all since despite her misgivings, she participates in, and appreciates, the playmaking.
But it is in the prologue to the play-within-a-play, when Chia offers a version of Puck's final speech in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, that the themes coalesce most poetically. And strikingly too, as the audience, seated on the stage with the players, are treated to a drawing of the stage curtains that reveals the empty auditorium beyond.
Yes it is a theatre trick. But one used with fluency to make a theatrical point in the staging. And it works beautifully.
WHERE: Far East Organization Auditorium, Level 9 Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 1 Straits Boulevard
WHEN: July 20, 3 and 8pm; July 21, 3 and 7pm
ADMISSION: $42 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)
INFO: Performed in Mandarin, with English surtitles, including closed captions for the deaf and hard of hearing