The Acid Tongue
Theatreworks doesn't work in Edinburgh
Selected By Cyril Wong
Singapore's favourite, independent, non-profit theatre company, Theatreworks (more well-known for producing experimental arty-performances that are more nonsensical than conceptual in recent years) was in Edinburgh this year to show off its artistic chops and global intentions on a profile-raising, international stage. Of course, profile-raising can work for or against you. The show, called Diaspora, attracted reviews such as this one by Lyn Gardner from The Guardian (18 Aug 2009):
Notions of identity, home and homecoming are central to this year's Edinburgh international festival, but that doesn't excuse this excruciatingly turgid 100 minutes that feels like a cross between a travelogue and a very earnest educational video… inspired by real life stories of diaspora and displacement, it mixes video footage and projected images with live close-ups telling stories of individual lives buffeted by the winds of change, war, ethnic cleansing and mass movements of migration.
700, 000 Singapore dollars (yes, tax-payers money, people) was pumped into this production to put our island on the we-are-so-arty-it-hurts map of the world. Maybe it wasn't worth it. Gardner hits the nail on the head as she continues:
The intentions behind Diaspora are admirable. But it provides lots of information and very few emotional connections, and its layering of music, video and live storytelling is so unimaginatively executed that in preaching its message of tolerance it is in danger of making you feel quite intolerant towards theatre. This is not some dull but worthy little fringe show, it's one of the centrepieces of the international festival theatre programme…
In a similar vein, this is how the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Reviews website puts it:
Ong Keng Sen's Diaspora is a show that ticks so many boxes – political, educational and cultural – that it's difficult to see the creative impulse behind the show's obvious barrage of good intentions…The performance, created by Theatreworks of Singapore, features the full 75-strong Singapore Chinese Orchestra, on stage with its director Tsung Yeh. Beyond the music, there is continuous use of large-scale video images of migration and journeying projected on a circle of screens around a gantry above the stage…What all of this does not amount to, though, is a show that even begins to work as a piece of theatre; essentially, it looks like a glorified educational video, designed to introduce young people to ideas of tolerance and cultural pluralism.
Art as educational video? These days, one could argue that anything is possible. But the same reviewer concludes with the opinion that many members of the audience must have shared:
QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009
Judged as a piece of art…[Diaspora] hardly even reaches the starting-gate; and I hope never to see such an overblown and predictable piece of agitprop included in an Edinburgh International Festival programme again, however admirable the values it seeks to promote.