FL(U)ORESCENCE​

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What Remains: Raiding the Classics for the Stage

by Tracey Toh

A stage adaptation is a tricky thing, a balancing act between tribute and reinvention, fidelity and abandon. More so than debuts of new scripts, the restaging of a canonical literary or dramatic text runs into questions of context and currency: Why revisit this work again? Why revive it here? Why now?

For playwright Ellison Tan, the motivation for basing The Finger Players’ Remember My Party on Virginia Woolf’s post-war novel, Mrs Dalloway, is simple: she loves the book. Before the lights go down, Tan shares a quote from Woolf: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.” It is an apology that anticipates the criticism of early 20th-century readers, though these remarks are unlikely to issue from an audience today.

As a fellow admirer of Mrs Dalloway, I’m convinced it’s a monumental work for exploring the complex interiority of a middle-aged, upper-class housewife, Clarissa Dalloway. However, I soon realise that the modernist form does not translate easily into a script. When read, the dense stream of consciousness, with its multiple digressions and random musings, can flow organically, and Woolf’s exquisitely wrought sentences can be savoured slowly. But performed verbatim, the same lines seem turgid and unwieldy. The dialogue native to an English drawing room sounds mannered when voiced by a multiethnic cast in the present day.

The value of dramatisation becomes clearer when the company leverages its strengths in puppetry, teasing out narrative subtexts through shadow play. Puppeteer Oliver Chong casts two flashlights on Clarissa and Sally, who share a memorable kiss as girls but grow apart as women. Their silhouettes, in profile, appear like portraits that lovers keep in lockets. While the actresses remain physically apart, Chong deftly manipulates the lights so their shadows kiss and converge, suggesting the women’s unspoken queer yearnings, and the way their identities remain inextricably bound despite their distance.

Such arresting motifs are part of the vivid sensory experience conjured by director Myra Loke. In the book, Clarissa and Septimus, a shell-shocked soldier returned from the frontlines, are startled by the sound of a car backfiring. On stage, a party popper simulates this disturbance, the sound so loud that audiences stop their ears. It’s a devastatingly effective symbol, at once evoking the revelry of a dinner party and the violence of battle. The explosive aural effect serves as a visceral manifestation of the novel’s emotional climate, the rawness of a people still reeling from war. Background is rendered as foreground, atmosphere as action — a reminder that theatre can breathe new life into a classic when it externalises and elaborates on what is latent in the original.

If anyone can make explicit what was left unsaid, it is drag queen Becca D’Bus, who headlines an exuberant, irreverent rendition of Dido and Aeneas. Taking liberties with Henry Purcell’s 1688 opera of the same name, T:>Works’s adaptation plays up the undercurrents of homoeroticism, mining the text for its contemporary resonance.

I have little patience for opera, so I appreciate how Becca initiates us into the genre with her characteristic sharp wit. All the essential introductions are quickly dispensed with. Dido is presented as the “starched, stiff Amazonian butch queen”, followed by an entourage of Belindas in vaguely kinky, bejewelled ski masks. The requisite male love interest is our “plebeian straight man”, Aeneas.

At every turn, the narrative is transposed into a local context and updated for our times. The arias are performed as karaoke numbers. A song about nefarious witches conspiring to lure Aeneas away from Dido is summarised by placards: “We hate Dido. We are jealous.” A straight man from the audience is enlisted to act as Aeneas — not the Trojan hero who leaves Dido to become the founder of Rome, but a young man headed abroad for university after National Service, who must break up with his girlfriend. After all, as Becca observes, in Singapore, art must be relatable.

This upbeat, participatory version upends my expectations of opera as a weepy, overwrought affair, and the play even closes with a dance party. But the broader commentary lands more awkwardly. During her own funeral, Dido comes back from the dead to chastise her maids for mourning. “Go out, get laid!” Dido orders the Belindas. Like them, I get up and start grooving, but the discomfort of celebrating her demise nags at me.

Perhaps due to the short run time, the play glosses over contradictions inherent in Dido’s suicide, a gesture that involves a woman losing herself in love, killing herself over a man, and freeing herself through death. It is at once a capitulation to the patriarchy and an assertion of the self — a tension that continues to structure the lives of women and queer folks, and demands fuller exploration.

What strikes a chord with me, more than the tired message of female empowerment, are the props — boughs of golden streamers, plastic pineapples staked with birthday candles, clothes hangers and safety lanyards adorned with artificial flowers and butterflies. These inventive designs by Khairullah Rahim fill the space, transforming the black box into a cornucopia. The abundance of synthetic creations is strangely evocative; it puts me in mind of the wild, profuse beauty of nature. Khairullah seems to have intuited something about how the operatic can serve as a mode of release for a turbulent inner landscape. His set design finds visual correspondence to the melodrama and excess of opera, though precisely what emotional insight the play wants to draw from this libretto, is still an open question.

Honouring the original ambition of a text might mean subjecting it to critical re-evaluation. In Nine Years Theatre’s Waiting for Audience, the central, animating query is whether a source as familiar as Shakespeare can say anything more about the nature or purpose of theatre.

Here, reflexivity is key. This is theatre about theatre, rife with allusions to well-known plays. In a nod to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Stan Lai’s Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, two actors rehearse their respective sets in an empty theatre, while waiting for an audience that never arrives. A (Mia Chee) and O (Nelson Chia) both intend to deliver one last performance in a beloved space slated for demolition. But upon realising that their bookings clash, they battle it out by reenacting Macbeth’s soliloquy, which famously begins, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

Macbeth becomes their common touchstone, and the ground upon which they prove themselves. Over and over, the actors recite the lines. Pricked by the spirit of competition, the pair seek unexpected ways to give expression to the words. They change up their inflection and emphasis, donning different guises to perform the speech as a king, a hospital patient, a warrior, before finally joining forces in a rap rendition of the iconic soliloquy, styled like Mandopop stars.

Their epic stand-off shows us multiple ways of reimagining Shakespeare, but the actors must still confront the fundamental choices involved in adaptation. Why Shakespeare? Why not Chekhov, or Ibsen, or Cao Yu, asks one of the performers. Who would watch that, counters the other. Shakespeare, still a mainstay in school curriculums, still staged by amateur drama clubs and professional troupes the world over, remains a rare index of universality. Though every possible meaning must have already been wrung from the words by now, they somehow remain inexhaustible.

Chia and Chee also take care to problematise any claim to universality. With years of experience translating Shakespearean English into Mandarin Chinese, they know it takes intense scrutiny and creativity to find the cultural references or proverbs that can approximate or enrich the original script. In this staging, they foreground translation itself. The surtitles, that indispensable element of linguistic accessibility in Singapore theatre, become sentient, calling attention to themselves and prompting the actors to perform. As someone who can access both languages, I am constantly reminded of the irreducible gap between what I hear (the translation) and what I see (the source). By insisting on the presence of the original, the surtitles never let me forget that a text has crossed the boundaries of language and culture. Surtitles are the remainder from that crossing, a visible trace of what gets left behind, for something to be created anew.

It makes a strong case for approaching stage adaptation as a practice of translation — across language and register, and into the medium of live theatre. Watching these works-in-progress, I find my interest most piqued when a production leans into dramatic forms like puppetry, set design and even surtitles, translating an existing work into the idiom of theatrical expression. No adaptation will ever be completely faithful, nor should it, but where it dares to plumb and dissect and ransack its source material, it may yield a remainder — the remains of the original masterpiece, a clue as to why it endures.

17 - 19 May 2024, Fri - Sun

31 May & 1 June 2024, Fri & Sat
17 May 2024, Fri | 7PM

18 May 2024, Sat | 9.45PM
17 May 2024, Fri | 8.15PM

18 May 2024, Sat | 7.15PM
17 May 2024, Fri | 9.30PM

18 May 2024, Sat | 6PM
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