Bleak look at poverty and despair

Rehearsal still from The Lower Depths. (From left) Tay Kong Hui, Jean Toh, Neo Hai Bin, Johnny Ng, Hang Qian Chou, Mia Chee, Koh Wan Ching.
Rehearsal still from The Lower Depths. (From left) Tay Kong Hui, Jean Toh, Neo Hai Bin, Johnny Ng, Hang Qian Chou, Mia Chee, Koh Wan Ching. PHOTO: NINE YEARS

review theatre


Nine Years Theatre

Drama Centre Black Box/Saturday

If you are looking to cleanse your palate from the sugary saturation of SG50 celebrations, Nine Years Theatre might have a bittersweet classic for you. This unrelentingly bleak play by Russian playwright Maxim Gorky, written in 1902, eschews prosperity to look poverty squarely in the eye. It is a slice-of-life look at a homeless shelter filled with the lowest ranks of Russian society.

The thief (Neo Hai Bin) is in love with the landlady's (Koh Wan Ching) abused younger sister (Jean Toh), but they are both afraid to leave. The pot mender (Hang Qian Chou) longs for dignity and in the meantime, his consumptive wife (also Koh) lies dying. The drunk actor (Johnny Ng) cannot seem to quit his drink or remember any lines.

These characters all drift through an unhappy existence, torn apart by two extremes: they are resigned to the difficult life, but also cling to an irrational, irresistible idealism that things might change without having to change themselves. As they beg, steal, and get beaten up, the rag-tag Russians are interrupted by an itinerant old man (Tay Kong Hui) who shows them kindness and briefly inspires them to break out of their vicious circles, but they are so far gone in their dead-end routines that this comes too little, too late.

Director Nelson Chia, who also translated the text into Mandarin, has trimmed down the talky script, combining a couple of characters into one and stripping all 15 characters of their names, identifying them instead by occupation - the prostitute, the teacher, the policeman, the musician - giving the play a parable-like feel.

He also has each actor play multiple roles, a clever conceit in theory but one that doesn't always work in practice. He has a competent team of performers impressively navigating some really densely plotted entrances and exits, and their taking on multiple parts could work as an intuitive way of linking many disparate characters together. There are some well-timed moments when one character asks about another not in the room, even if the actor playing both parts is present, giving the play an interesting meta-theatrical touch.

But with each actor juggling at least two parts, there seems to be a driving impulse to make one character as different from the other as possible, which means that each actor relies on obvious hairpieces or physical tics to signal to the audience that "Hey! I am playing a different character now! In case you didn't notice!"

They go from springy young upstart to stooped, coughing elder in a sort of manic display of their performing abilities.

Rather than allowing the audience to observe the struggles of these beggars more objectively, these bait- and-switch moments become jerky stop-and-start moments as the audience has to re-situate themselves into the rhythm of the play.

While Nine Years Theatre tries its best to reach for their characters' complete existential despair, it never quite feels entirely earthy or real. The ensemble has a strong connection, and it captures a bit of that spirit of utter resignation and desperation, but the characters never hit rock bottom. Gorky wanted to give the play an edgy realism, ignoring the expected story arc that would have an exposition, climax and finale, and instead have the characters suffer through sudden crises that would cut depressingly close to the bone.

Incidentally, The Lower Depths was first directed in the early 1900s by Konstantin Stanislavsky (he of the intense, hyper-realistic Stanislavsky method of acting), who also starred in the production. This Mandarin version felt more like a facsimile of reality, and at times had the unfortunate air of upper middle class Singaporeans pretending to be very poor.

This is not to say that the overall production was poorly done. The performances are generally very watchable, the heartbreaking finale is well pitched, and there is enough well-timed wit to give the play some much-needed humour but also make its upsetting moments that much more severe. It is just this enormous, all-absorbing despair that they cannot quite reach, an innate, deeply felt despair that has pervaded Russian theatre and film from Anton Chekhov's The Seagull (1895) to Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) but is missing here.

Chia and his ensemble have been trying out some very interesting experiments this year in terms of direction and form, looking at how versatile an ensemble can be, or exploring the rhythms of different genres, whether comedy or tragedy.

The nature of experiments is that they sometimes succeed and they sometimes fail, and even if their new ideas may not be a perfect fit for the production they create, I have always come away challenged and intrigued. I hope they will continue to look at new methods of working together; the industry can only get better from it.



WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box

WHEN: Till Aug 2. Tues to Fri, 8pm; Sat, 3pm and 8pm; Sun, 3pm

ADMISSION: $38 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to