Of Pigs, Poseurs and Parties
Richard Lord catches Wild Rice’s Animal Farm and Action Theatre’s Mammon Inc.
By Richard Lord
Two of the most heralded local theatre productions in the last quarter of the year both happened to be adaptations of celebrated novels. Though on the surface, these novels would seem to be totally different from each other, they actually are quite similar at their core, both being caustic examinations of swinish behaviour and the terrible cost of betraying ideals.
The two books and plays in question are Animal Farm and Mammon, Inc., the first treated to an energetic production by the Wild Rice company, the second given a fittingly cool, streamlined staging by Action Theatre. Let us start our look down on the farm.
When George Orwell sat down to write Animal Farm in 1945, he was a rather lonely figure on the European left. An ardent foe of capitalism and imperialism, he had grown to become an even more determined adversary of Communism, especially in its Stalinist version. Orwell the socialist felt that Soviet Communism had betrayed just about every ideal embodied in true Socialism. He even averred that the Communists had facilitated the Fascist victory in Spain’s civil war by waging a vicious, rearguard action against the other major leftist forces fighting there. This was no paranoid fantasy: Orwell himself had fought with a leftist brigade in Spain and experienced the betrayals and bold power grabs by the supposed Communist ‘comrades.’
But in 1945, most voices on the mainstream British left were hailing the victory over the most virulent strains of Continental Fascism in World War II. (Iberian Fascism had wisely remained neutral and largely unscathed in that conflagration.) This victory had only been possible with the delayed participation of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and British leftists could not say enough good things about the heroism, sacrifice and ferocity of their Soviet comrades and their leader. In fact, many used the flag of victory to help them cloak their eyes to two decades of ruthless dictatorship and assorted state crimes in the Soviet Union.
Orwell was almost as outraged by that willful blindness of the British left as he was by the actual mountain of misdeeds in the USSR. For Orwell, these betrayals were ridiculously easy to identify; so easy, a child could do it. In fact, he decided to write a kind of child’s fairy tale sketching out the treacherous history of the Soviet Union. Animal Farm was the result.
Animal Farm actually falls more under the category of political parable than fairy tale. In broad, bold strokes, it recounts the ascendancy of Stalin and his cohorts, the expulsion of Uncle Joe’s chief rival Trotsky, and the steady swell of crimes and betrayals that followed.
The novel was later turned into a rather successful full-length cartoon, and it has appealed to many theatre companies eager to take it onto the stage. A number of companies have done their own poached adaptations, bypassing the difficulties of dealing with the Orwell estate. One of the only estate-approved adaptations is by Ian Wooldrige, a former teacher of Singapore’s Ivan Heng. So when Ivan decided that Animal Farm had abundant dramatic potential which would speak potently to Singapore today, guess where he went for his adaptation.
Wooldridge’s adaptation is, in fact, thoroughly admirable. It tells its story with economy, energy and drive. There’s almost no fat on this script, and yet it remains quite loyal to Orwell’s text. This was no mean feat, since apart from the book’s set political speeches, absolutely no dialogue occurs between the animals. What transpires on the stage is Wooldridge giving voice and heart to the characters of Orwell’s work and their predicaments.
The Wild Rice production was, if anything, even more admirable. This show was splendidly theatrical, infused with energy and power, dynamically paced and well-acted. Ivan Heng, taking on the director’s duties here, made a number of key decisions that proved absolutely correct for this production. First of all, the actors do not wear animal costumes or act in close animal impersonations. This group of anthropomorphic animals focuses attention on the story and the predicament of its characters much better. We know they are supposed to be animals, but we feel their human situation deeply. (Quite correctly, the times when they act most like animals is in the presence of the script’s two human characters, underscoring the distinctions.)
The staging was another salutary decision. From the way the revolution occurs (chasing Farmer Jones off the stage, down through the centre aisle, out the rear door), to the way we see the pigs establish their hegemony over the barnyard is carried out simply but effectively. And the on-stage presence of the percussionists was another fine stroke. This presence serves both as an alienation effect, emphasising the action’s theatricality, and something which draws us in near-hypnotic measures into the beat and its role in providing subtext. (This, by the way, is the only production of Wooldridge’s Farm which has featured live percussion. Philip Tan’s composition and performance of this element were wonderful additions to the show.)
Heng is also to be applauded for his casting decisions, which went predominantly against type. Thus, the fleshy Selena Tan was not presented as a pig, but in dual roles as the play’s birds. In this capacity, Selena shows her deftness and the sly manipulative powers of the birds, who remain somehow above it all. Tan Kheng Hua, whom one might have expected to see flitting about as a bird, is present as a horse, giving full rein to the lithe and delicate qualities of this sensitive and easily frightened beast.
The diminutive Pamela Oei and the muscular-svelte Lim Kay Siu and Lim Yu Beng take on the pig’s roles, their dearth of girth highlighting the inner piggishness of these characters, making their human-like treachery more frightening as it progresses. Kay Siu doubled quite effectively as Boxer, the hardworking, unquestioning horse who serves the revolution until, too weak to serve, he gets slaughtered so the pigs can earn money off him one more time. (Kay Siu’s grooming for this show worked very well when he played Major, the philosophical pig who lays the groundwork for the revolution. With his shaved head, goatee and sharp Asiatic features, Kay Siu strongly suggested Lenin, the founding father of Soviet Communism.)
Also doubling effectively was Ferlin Jayatissa, who moved from the noble Snowball (based on Orwell’s own hero, Trotsky) and Benjamin the mule, stubbornly kicking back the doubts about the revolution he constantly finds within himself.
The cast, in fact, had no weak links. And let me not forget to mention first-time stage actor Jim Aitchinson who acquitted himself well as both Farmer Jones and the human delegate who arrives to seal a pact with the pigs, the final betrayal of the revolution. In fact, one of the show’s most effective and disheartening scenes is the closing one where Aitchinson’s human patronizingly offers Clover, the Tan Kheng Hua’s horse character, some sugar. For much of the play, Clover had tried to remain true to the pristine revolutionary values. As she cautiously comes to this human and starts to eat out of his hand, literally, the image tells us all the ideals have now been lost and the old order fully re-established, though under new tyrants.
Yes, this was a splendid theatre production, this Animal Farm. But Ivan Heng did fail in one of his aims: in trying to make the text fully relevant to Singapore today. In setting out his goals for the show, Heng said that “If we’re really serious about remaking Singapore, we should be asking questions about how we are ruled.” But in reality, this play remains too closely associated with its original targets, Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party, to have much relevance to Singapore, a very different society and political system. Putting in some Mandarin dialogue and having the delivery of one speech reflect the mannerisms of a former Singapore leader cannot overcome the vast differences between the society satirized by Animal Farm and the one we live in here. There may be plays a mature Singapore-based company can mount that would ask trenchant questions about the way this country functions, but this is not it. This is a play for Ivan Heng and many of Singapore’s best performers to amplify their talents on an intellectually safe platform.
In her novel Mammon Inc., Singapore’s own Hwee Hwee Tan targeted another form of totalitarianism: the totalitarianism of multinational corporations which try to corner world markets by coyly ironing out the uniqueness of people in different parts of the world. If George Orwell’s bleak vision of the future - expressed in his most famous work, 1984 - was of “a boot stamping on the human face – forever,” Hwee Hwee Tan might invite us to envision the future this way: Think of a pair of perfect retro-70’s white knee-length boots swirling over a crushed pashmina carpet - until they get so-o-o-o bored and yearn to move on to something new.
The eponymous Mammon Inc. of book and play is a MNC with headquarters in New York and tentacles all around the world. They own just about everything worth owning - in the material sense. What they really aspire to own, however, is everyone’s soul, all the better to control tastes and purchasing decisions and so guarantee in perpetuum their astronomical profits.
Enter Chiah Deng, a poster girl for the successful, cosmopolitan Singaporean. Chiah leaves home and heads off to Oxford to drink deeply from the wells of great British literature. While there, she discovers that many parts of her remain indelibly Singaporean, while other parts yearn to absorb Western culture even to efface that which is low-brow Singaporean.
With her freshly minted Oxford diploma, Chiah is recruited for a velvet-collared post with Mammon, Inc. They plan to slot her in as a cultural adaptor, someone who can train the ‘global nomads” who staff their branches to arrive somewhere, plug themselves into the local culture, and start operating almost immediately.
But to see if she is fit for this task, Mammon’s CEO, Dr. Draco Sidious presents Deng with three adaptability tests. First off, she herself has to fit into a fancy-ass New York party. Then she has to make her ah lian Singaporean sister believable as an Oxford academic. Finally, she is tasked with turning her English roommate back in Oxford into a typical successful Singaporean, one who can hit the 5 C’s with tonal perfection.
What Mammon is really testing, of course, is the pliability of Chiah’s spirit. Will she have the gumption to carry out this assignment? Be able to remake the personalities of people close to her?
It all sounds like pretty fertile ground for both a novel and a play. Unfortunately, what the Action Theatre reaps out of this is only second-rate satire, a facile and superficial look at the globalized, corporate culture and the East-West split right down the middle of many cosmopolitan Singaporeans.
The vision of the ravenous mega-corporation has been done, what, umpteen thousand times by now. Mammon Inc., the play, sheds no new light on the topic, offering us mainly recycled insights and stale warnings. Yes, Tan issues persuasive caveats against commercial intrusions into the soul, but this has been a staple of socially critical writers going back at least to Charles Dickens. Take away all the glitzy 21st Century window-dressing that decks this update of the critique, and you will find it is still the same old shop offering the same sturdy wares.
This play goes down very easily, and is entertaining at its own comfortable level. Sure there are a lot of laughs, but afterwards, you cannot quite remember any specific line or incident that caused you to laugh. And on the serious side of the ledger, there are too, too few moments like when Chiah Deng gets angry at her sister’s failure to pass as a pompous Oxfordian. Chiah castigates her sister for her very Singaporean-ness, then stops abruptly in the middle of the tirade. We see the deep hurt on the sister’s face alongside Chiah’s own pain, the latter made more searing because she knows that her hurtful remarks flowed from the cultural split within herself. The show would have profited greatly from more such well-placed emotional strikes.
Probably the main problem with this show is that in does not get us interested enough in its characters. This is an important failing, considering that its Manichean conflict pits the human spirit against the corporation. But the sad fact is, most of the characters who people this fable are bare clichés, or so close to clichés that it is hard to tell the difference.
Right at the top of Mammon, Dr. Draco Sidious is a disappointingly one-dimensional demon whose lines could have been lifted from a dictionary of corporate clichés. ‘Been-there, spun-that’ is the enduring response when we encounter the denizens of that oppressively chic New York party or the conclave of snooty Oxford academics. The same can be said for the three “true” Singaporeans who gather for the Lunar New Year celebration to be charmed by a very Caucasian-looking half-Chinese.
Admittedly, most of these characters, in particular the New York and Oxford egomaniacs, are intentionally superficial types trying their hardest to be clichés. But in real life, even such types occasionally allow a glimmer of insight into something more interesting, more insightful. Here I found none of that.
More importantly, at the centre of things, Chiah Deng herself just needs to be more engaging a character. We need her to win our hearts early on and see every small self-betrayal as a significant loss, every assertion of her inner values as a minor triumph.
Which brings us to the particular shortcomings of this production. The key role of Chiah Deng was played by Emma Yong. Although Chiah Deng is supposed to be the arrow on the play’s emotional barometre. Yong’s performance came out curiously bloodless: She recited her narrative lines as if a guiding us on a tour of the play’s radically different social landscapes - a tour she had only occasional and then limited interest in. Even at the account of her father’s funeral, Yong never let the scaffolding of cool detachment fall.
It could be that this was the intended strategy, to portray Chiah as an intellectual not only deracinated but also drained of prime emotions. Or at least emotionally debilitated. But when we lose our pointer on that emotional barometre and find ourselves in a squall of vapid attitudes and poses, the great moral force that this satire should have also gets lost.
This was the first sub-par performance I’ve ever seen Emma Yong turn in, and it was deeply disappointing. My disappointment is anchored in the sense that the role held so much potential and Yong could have used it to do a real star turn.
The best performances of the evening were brought in by Tan Kheng Hua as Chiah’s sister and James Burton as the Oxford flat mate. Kheng Hua is a versatile performer who was here in Phua Chu Kang mode, which fit the ingenuous but naïve sister quite well. Burton was believable throughout as the affable, wise-cracking British cynic who too easily accepts his transformation into “a greedy, uncultured git” - which happens to be Chia’s take on the typical Singaporean professional.
As Dr. Draco, Nick Warnford frequently punched out his lines as if speaking to a large outdoor gathering. Moreover, his force of evil was of a very minor variety.
In the other supporting roles, the Singaporean characters were best handled. Loke Loo Pin caught the mother at just the right pitch, even if she proved a little stiff at points and frequently hard to understand due to lack of projection. Chermaine Ang, Jacqueline Low and Godfrey Yeo each did a couple of nice turns in the smaller roles.
The Caucasian supporting actors, with the exception of Gareth Holcombe, stayed tightly within the clichéd confines of their characters in the New York social swirl or the High Tea Oxfordians. That, too, may have been intentional but it was not commendable.
Ekachai Uekrongtham’s direction was commendably functional, managing the traffic of a quite challenging piece in a brisk, clean manner. We never felt that this show was dragging or that it was unfocused. The problem was that the focus was on a picture we are pretty sure we have seen before. And while Ekachai’s staging and pacing was indeed functional, it was just not inspired. And inspiration is the main missing ingredient here, the one that might have made this production commensurable to its pre-run publicity.
Mammon, Inc will have a second run at Jubilee Hall, Raffles, from 25 July - 4 August 2002.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002
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