Theatre review: Red Demon by Nine Years Theatre

Red Demon by Nine Years Theatre.
Red Demon by Nine Years Theatre.PHOTO: BERNIE NG

Drama Centre Black Box

Last Saturday

Whether they are on the shores or steering through turbulent waters, the characters in the Japanese play Red Demon seem to be perpetually looking beyond the horizon for something, yet filled with trepidation at what lies ahead.

The interplay of these conflicting emotions anchor home-grown theatre company Nine Years Theatre's take on the play, written originally by Japanese playwright Noda Hideki in 1996, which explores the age-old issue of xenophobia.

Despite being two decades old, the allegorical play still resonates today, in a world where migrants are treated warily, vilified and shut out - in Europe, the Middle East and even Singapore, heavily reliant on foreign labour.

The parable goes that a flower- eating, gibberish-spouting demon named Oni (Hang Qian Chou) is one day swept up on the shores of a village, triggering widespread panic. He is befriended by Fuku (Mia Chee), a kind-hearted woman who learns his language over time.

But their blooming relationship is ultimately sabotaged by a jealous man, Mizukane (Timothy Wan), aided by Fuku's dimwit brother Tombi (Tay Kong Hui).

Director Nelson Chia sticks to Hideki's original vision of the play, deploying a minimalist but versatile set by set designer Wong Chee Wai, which allows his polished four-man cast to shine. Armed with nothing but paper fans, each actor steps into the shoes of multiple characters, from the angry village mob to the ignorant elders quick to condemn the hapless Oni.

Chia also coaxes both finessed comic and dramatic performances from his actors and sustains a taut pacing so that the play never sags, despite its bleak subject matter.

Tay deserves commendation for gleefully inhabiting Tombi's role, eyes wide, bumbling his way through the series of events leading up to Oni's eventual demise. As does Wan, who morphs from the scheming, possessive Mizukane into a hunched-over old woman with amazing alacrity.

The play's final scenes are its most harrowing but meaningful - after a travesty of a trial, the characters attempt an ill-fated escape to sea to seek what lies beyond.

As they lay starving, bodies slumped on the deck and efforts thwarted, it is a pointed reminder that man, often unable to exorcise his fears and prejudices, is his own worst adversary.

The play's Chinese translation by theatre practitioner Neo Hai Bin packs puns and malapropisms that have the audience in fits of laughter. For example, the expression "Oh Dear" uttered by Hang's demon at one point, is interpreted as "O, Tian Ah!" by the villagers in Mandarin, in a rare moment of mutual understanding.

The intonation of the play's Chinese title sounds like the words for "eating demon", which cleverly alludes to events in the story's grisly conclusion.

But to this reviewer, Hideki's script sounded like a jumble of references culled from different eras - at one point, the demon recites Martin Luther King's clarion call to freedom, while the Von Trapp family's escape from the Nazis is mentioned as well.

This, combined with the varying Chinese accents and references to Singaporean pastries such as "ang ku kueh" and "orh nee" feels jarring, though perhaps the intention is to evoke how the act of othering is universal across cultures and time.

This staging of Red Demon marks Nine Years Theatre's first foray into adapting non-Western theatre. It is a technically well-executed one which will hopefully pave the way for more exciting and experimental attempts.

jianxuan@sph.com.sg

Book It/Red Demon

Where: Drama Centre Black Box, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

When: Tomorrow (Mar 8) till Sunday (Mar 13), 8pm daily. 3pm and 8pm on Saturday

Admission: $38

Info: Go to www.nineyearstheatre.com