The Singapore Arts Festival was a showcase of international talent. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM reports on the cutting-edge artistic expressions
PHOTO: Gints Malderis (“Long Life”)
Spectacular stagecraft “Long Life” and “The Cherry Orchard” and
The Singapore Arts Festival (SAF) is an outpouring of creative expression with a cutting edge. The annual event organised by the National Arts Council seeks to entertain, stimulate and provoke. It projects both national and international talent. Musi
c, dance, the theatre, the visual arts and multi-media presentations make up the kaleidoscopic presentation.
The planning begins two years in advance, says Goh Ching Lee, the dynamic Director of SAF “The NAC is a statutory body under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts,” points out Lee. Among the main performances this correspondent got to catch at the month-long festival that concluded recently, were “Long Life”, presented by the New Riga Theatre (Latvia), and a production of Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard” by the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio (China).
In a world that increasingly sweeps the old aside, “Long Life” is a heart-tugging work that dwells on the aged and their struggle to see each day through.
The play infused with pathos and humour — and without recourse to speech — amazingly held the attention of the audience through more than an hour-and-a-half. The brilliant cast of young actors spoke eloquently without words, vaulting numerical boundaries of age in a highly empathetic utterance. The play is director Alvis Hermanis’ response to the manner in which the old are segregated and discriminated against, treated like “an anthropological experiment” in Latvia.
The entrance to the performance is unusual. The audience is ushered into the compact auditorium of the Esplanade Theatre Studio from backstage, with worn clothes drying on wires and shabby objects heaped up. The clutter in the communal flat instantly communicates the atmosphere and spirit of the production.
Touch of authenticity
Each of the objects, we learn later, has been painstakingly collected — they were once the possessions of elderly, neglected people, now deceased. This authentic touch imbues everything about the work. The play grew out of the numerous sketches created by the actors. It has travelled to 30 countries and won several awards. Repetitive, yet not stale, touching yet not gloomy, “Long Life” (though overlong) is a psalm to the actor’s craft, and to the courage and endurance of the human spirit.
“The Cherry Orchard”, Anton Chekov’s enduring tragi-comedy, gained a fresh interpretation at the Esplanade Theatre at the hands of reputed director Lin Zhaohua. One of the leading names of modern Chinese theatre, his association with the 2000 Nobel Laureate in literature, playwright Gao Xingjian, pioneered the experimental theatre movement in China.
The setting of the play was unusual and evocative: the Cherry orchard itself, but not in bloom. Trees dot the landscape, their bare branches almost imploringly stretching out to a grey sky. Against this bleak yet lyrical landscape, the classic is played out — of a changing order and the plight of an aristocratic family in Russia that sees its fortunes dive.
Lubov Ranevsky, the extravagant head of the family, returns from Paris when she hears of the impending sale of the beloved cherry orchard in her estate, a symbol of her youth and dreams. The play was in Mandarin with English sub-titles, and a contrast to the usual staging of the Cherry Orchard where the characters are in close contact and communication. Here, the actors are spread out across the stage.
The stagecraft left one riveted: the actors moving behind the screens, silhouetted against gossamer material, the descent of characters and objects through rope ladders, the ominous sounds of the trees being axed…The presence of the peasants was brilliantly introduced from the wings. The final scene when the furniture is wrapped up and moved, after the orchard is sold, was a masterstroke of choreography and direction. The music was extraordinary in the way it complemented mood and setting.
Dilution of intensity
But, to those familiar with other interpretations of the play, there was a dilution of intensity and interaction between the dramatis personae. The portrayal of the central character Ranevsky by the reputed Chinese actor was too soft and youthful.
The aura and the charisma of the beautiful Russian aristocrat did not come through strongly enough. The actor who played Lopakhin scored as the son of serfs who is now the successful entrepreneur and so did the artist who played the role of the forever student Trofimov. What emerged finally in this co-production of SAF and Lin Zhaohua Theatre Studio were the strong symbolic tones and the stagecraft.
As also the relevance of the text to a society other than its own, more than a century after it was written, in the hands of a talented director.
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