Let's Look at the Festival Guide (2016)! #3

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 4, 2016

I've already surveyed the Singaporean works and the lone male genius worksin this festival. Let's finish up by looking at the remainder of the shows in the listings... 

The Last Supper, by Ahmed El Attar
11 to 13 August, 8pm, Victoria Theatre

This looks fun. It's a dark comedy about an upper middle-class family in post-Arab Spring Egypt, created by one of the country's most buzzed-about theatremakers. It ties in with Keng Sen's theme of exploring unstereotypical facets of the Muslim world, plus the upheavals of the future.

Still, let's be real here: if it weren't Egyptian, it'd be a hell of a conservative pick. As far as I can tell, it's pretty much a drawing room comedy. It's George Bernard Shaw with hijabs and smartphone selfies. So it doesn't really blend that well with the rest of the avant-garde festival.

Then again, so what? It's good to expose Singaporean audiences to different cultures. And you know a pan-North African interdisiplinary experimental performance art happening wouldn't be able to communicate political ideas as directly as a straight play. 

Everything by My Side, by Fernando Rubio
12 to 14 August, various timings, National Gallery Singapore

Doesn’t the image above look fun? There’s going to be ten actresses from the ten different countries that have been covered in this show’s tour: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Uruguay, Holland, Spain, Greece, the United States, and now, Singapore. (The Singapore representative is Margaret Chan!) 

Plus, they’ll be whispering their performance to us in bed. It feels like an interactions with a host of Scheherazades, or perhaps (if you’re into more obscure Persian epics) the Seven Beauties. Besides, who wouldn’t want to dive under the covers with the original Emily of Emerald Hill?

But hold your horses for a second: this is actually going to be a very brief performance. For our $10 ticket, we get just ten minutes in bed with one of the actresses. So there’s no way we’ll know what nuances we’ve missed from the lips of the others (unless you want to go back for seconds and thirds etc.)

This is by the same Argentinean director who’s bringing us the one-man durational performance Time Between Us, by the way. So the shows are counterpoints to each other: individual audience members meeting a group of women performers in public; a group of audience members meeting an individual male performer in private. Women in bed, a man of the house. Parallel intimacies.

Five Easy Pieces, by Milo Rau/IIPM – International Institute of Political Murder and CAMPO
18 to 20 August, 8pm, Victoria Theatre

Of all the shows in SIFA 2016, this is probably going to be the most controversial. It’s a work of documentary theatre, covering the crimes and trial (possibly hindered by the police force) of Belgian serial killer and paedophile Marc Dutroux—and it’s performed by seven children, aged 8 to 13, the same age as his victims.

And you can see how this ties in with all of Keng Sen’s themes about the future—the children are our future, as Whitney Houston says. But why are we so committed to preserving their innocence/ignorance of horrific things, even when this knowledge may conceivably protect them? Is it ethical to burden them with collective societal trauma?

By the way, the Wikipedia article on Marc Dutroux is fascinating. Turns out he was so infamous that a third of Belgians named Dutroux changed their surname between 1996 and 1998.

Still Life, by Dimitris Papaioannou 
25 to 27 August, 8pm, Victoria Theatre

Again, this doesn’t seem terribly groundbreaking. It’s beautiful, aesthetic dance work, inspired by the ancient Greek myth/French existential metaphor of Sisyphus, the man damned to forever roll a rock up an infernal hill.

But it does have another dimension. It's born out of the chaos of the Greek financial crisis: thoroughly reflective of today’s post-Brexit, pre-Trump anxieties. And it’s also a creation myth—a tale of how birth can come out of hopelessness, how hope can come out of hell.

And how extra legs can come out of pelvises, apparently. More legs for everybody! You can be a centaur too!

Paradise Interrupted, by Huang Ruo, Jennifer Wen Ma, Qian Yi and the T’ang Quartet
31 August, 2 and 3 September, 8pm, Drama Centre Theatre

Remember how I was complaining about all these solo genius male artists? Well, Jennifer Wen Ma is a female maestro (maestra?), and she’s the one who conceived this whole shebang, appointing Huang Ruo as composer and Qian Yi as performer and… well, she’d probably never heard of the T’ang Quartet before, but we slotted them in, cos it’s important to feed your local violists.

And though this work has been lauded in New York, I’ve gotta tell ya: in Singapore, it’s kind of old hat already. Sure, it’s a reinvention of the 1598 kunqu opera, The Peony Pavilion, into an feminist oratorio of self-actualisation amidst an arboretum’s worth of origami, which is cool. But we get so much contemporized Asian traditional performing arts in Singapore that you can’t really call this new ground. The experiment is always worthy, of course: it breeds new permutations and possibilities each time it’s done. But we’ve got to the point that reinventing tradition is in itself a tradition.

Interestingly, Jennifer’s best known for her work on the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies—just as Dimitris Papaioannou worked on the 2004 Athens Olympics ceremonies. Come to think of it, Brian Gothong Tan did the ceremony for the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. Is there a Rio 2016 theme going on here?

Borderlands, by Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route
15 to 17 September, 8pm, SOTA Studio Theatre

Wu Man is another maestra: a pipa soloist and composer who’s been collaborating across genres, doing for her traditional Chinese string instrument what Yo-Yo Ma did for the cello. In this instance, she’s reaching out to Central Asian musicians such as Sanubar Tursun, a Uyghur vocalist and dutar player. (A dutar is some kind of lute, and I think we saw it in our dear friend Perhat Khaliq’s performance.)

So this appears to be a work that involves classically trained artists coming together and performing exchange for the sake of extending their traditions—but not plunging them into postmodernity through rock and multimedia. Which is more conservative, perhaps, but possibly more organic?

It is rather odd how Keng Sen’s chosen this work to end the festival, however. Where does the future go, then? Into the hands of women? Into the hands of China? Into nostalgia and recreation of the past, when knowledge of string instruments passed from West to East Asia along the Silk Road—and when there was a respect of the “barbarians” of the desert lands for being cultural arbiters between imperious civilisations?

  • 2016