This show’s easy to love. It has spectacle! It has charm! It has local flavour! It encompasses film, music, drama and dance; comedy, tragedy and history! It’s site-specific, multidisciplinary, multi-genre, multilingual and FOC!
It doesn’t have much depth, though. But we’ll get to that soon enough. :)
Brian told me how Gardens by the Bay worried that this wouldn’t be suitable for a Mid-Autumn Festival-celebrating public. But in fact, it does feel completely appropriate: Ron Arad’s 720° is a gigantic lantern show anyhow, and it takes a bit of trekking off the beaten path to discover where it lies in the Meadow.
Speaking of which, Meadow my kachng. It’s a wasteland of sand. My partner didn’t want to enter because he said he’d get sand in his shoes. Even when you get into the little cylinder, the floor’s sprinkled with grit.
We do have a projection of some nice Neoclassical columns, though. Colonial architecture makes the space feel a teensy bit classy.
The show begins with the two dancers sweeping up the stage (which is basically a catwalk spanning the diameter of the theatre). Felipe Cervera appears, wearing a tanjak on his head, scolding and supervising them in Spanish.
(There’s a clownish, pantomime element to all this—I think everyone’s supposed to be a little confused, because they think he’s spouting half-gibberish at them—but it’s somewhat lost on me because I actually do speak Spanish.)
He then welcomes the other actors in, telling them that he’s directing a film about Stamford Raffles (he unveils a replica of the Raffles Statue, which sits at the centre of the stage), and that he AND Koh Boon Pin will play Raffles, and Karen Tan AND Edith Podesta will play his second wife Sophia Hull.
They perform a melodramatic, absurd adulation of Raffles to the invisible cameras, while faces of great explorers are projected on the walls (which are really more of beaded curtains: we have actors and audience members parting the tubes and entering and exiting as they wish).
And Edith relates Sophia’s trauma: she will follow the man she loves to the ends of the earth and birth five children, but all of them will die of tropical diseases.
Over the course of the hour-long show, this is pretty much what we see: Boon Pin/Raffles serenades us with a Malay song (much as Raffles captured Sophia’s heart with tales of adventuring), Karen/Sophia plays a sea shanty on a ukelele as she prepares to leave the UK, Edith/Sophia gives birth on board a storm-tossed ship to a grotesque baby doll who descends from a giant lotus and walks away from her, opening its chest to reveal its innards, perhaps foretelling its doom…
(By the way, was the baby deliberately made to look like Marc Quinn’s Planetstatue at Gardens by the Bay, which is just at the entrance of the Meadow? Whatever the case, matchy matchy.)
Felipe occasionally disrupts the action as a director, telling everyone to do another take, telling Edith she hasn’t sufficiently captured Edith’s conflicting emotions. Or getting Boon Pin to strip down the character of Raffles—which he does by literally stripping off his shoes and trousers and sashaying down the catwalk:
And now we’re back in the narrative of Raffles and Sophia (and from the source material, also Alfred Russel Wallace) encountering and documenting the strange flora and fauna of Malaya. Here’s an image of Felipe as an orang-utan emerging from a Rafflesia blossom!
And also of the anthropological studies of the era: the cast enters wearing bizarre headdresses as sketches of exotic foreigners of the 19th century are projected, their heads and hats transforming into machines and flowers and eyeballs.
A moment of angst, as the cast clutch iPads of animals’ faces to their noses, and a voiceover of a naturalist lamenting on how the ecology and culture of Malaya is doomed to disappear once civilisation sets in…
And Raffles’s own doom: Boon Pin staggers on stage as images of Borobudur descend upon him (Raffles did in fact rediscover the ruins), and he collapses at the feet of his own statue… the colonialist killed by homegrown Southeast Asian civilisation, perhaps?
And the much-vaunted funeral scene, probably Raffles’s own death on the outskirts of London in 1826. This is one of the most spectacular scenes, not only due to the amazing Gothic mourning clothes, all animal masks and tulle, but also the strange Corinthian columned crypt that’s projected on screen, doubling as a house where each of the four actors may be seen, gazing out of windows or fondling dolls.
Then an archipelago of starlight, an image of Mary and the Christ child, and a closing dance…
Now this is where I’m gonna chime in with some criticism. What exactly is Brian trying to achieve by telling Raffles’s story?
In the program, he also talks about wanting to address xenophobia and fear of “foreign talent”—a subject that hits close to home for him, given that he’s half Filipino. So it seems that he’s trying to humanise Raffles and Sophia, recognising the hardships that they experienced… perhaps portraying them as early OFWs.
Yet Raffles wasn’t just a victim. He was a great perpetrator of injustices; a trickster of Sultans, a murderer of Dutch competitors and an owner of slaves, some of them children.
Brian’s mentioned himself how one of Singapore’s great “tropical traumas” is the legacy of colonialism. So why is there negligible mention of how colonialism was, ahem, not altogether a good thing?
You could claim that this is self-evident, but in Singapore it isn’t: Raffles is still a byword for quality, and our history textbooks rarely complain about the abuses of colonialism, largely because Singapore, as a mercantile city-state, profited from it unusually, escaping many of its worst effects.
The voice of the native who lost ownership of these lands is, frankly, erased. There are merely token images of them here and there: the faceless anthropological studies, the one Malay performer (a dancer, Sabril Amin Bin Muhammad Fawzie, who has no lines), and the tanjak on Felipe’s head.
Of course, the doubling of Raffles and Sophia’s roles recalls hidden spectres in each of their lives. Felipe may well stand in for the cheated Tengku Long / Sultan Hussein Shah, whose royalty was co-opted by Raffles in the 1819 treaty. And Karen may represent Olivia Fancourt, the first of Raffles’s wives: after all, Edith recounts how her memory haunts Sophia. But this isn’t really explored in depth—this is a dance of images more than of ideas.
And what of Felipe’s directorial role? The fact that it is a non-English speaking immigrant who doubles as the native; that he is both the authoritarian and of the buffoon; that he speaks Spanish (a language with its own colonial legacy), not Malay? It’s interesting and unexpected, no doubt. But largely undeveloped, unexplored.
By the way, I’m not really a fan of Felipe’s interventions. The lights go up and the weird immersive beauty of the projections is snatched away from us, revealing a stark white stage. And for no clear reason, other than that breaking the fourth wall is all cool and Brechtian, et cetera.
I’m perhaps the most persnickety of audience members that Brian could’ve had: I already know Raffles’ biography pretty well, and I can’t stop myself from understanding Felipe’s Spanish.
These issues don’t matter to the average audience member—or even a theatremaker in the right frame of mind. When director Jonathan Lim asked me my opinion before going, I told him the show was mostly spectacle, and he just said:
“It’s okay, I shall wear my spectacle spectacles.”
Jon also noted:
“I was fascinated by the installation n its potential for bringing new life to even the most conventional of plays. A Shakespeare series would spring to vivid life int here. Even Ibsen. Anything that would be enriched by a richer, fuller atmosphere that the audience might need a bit of help filling in. Or Sarah Kane.”
But without a strong text behind the work, Tropical Traumas is all surface. Not that that’s a terrible thing—Brian seems to delight in pure aestheticism, following Raffles’s death and redemption with a light dance by Sabrila nd Chong Koi Jun:
And then rounding things off with a big old boogie, with Raffles’s eyeballs turning into disco lights. I like that last detail—it’s an act of mild desecration, an acknowledgment that we get to do whatever we like with our history.
We’ll think about politics and racial power relations another time. Right now, it’s time to party.
Photo by @Belinda
P.S. I haven't seen the rest of the Ron Arad videos yet, but ST journalist Huang Lijie has stuff to say. Check out her article.