Mysteries and Conundra Under The Tree
Richard Lord watches Christian plays over Christmas
By Richard Lord
Oh yes, the holiday season; as in the Xmas holiday season. The end-of-year stretch that evolution devised so that people in the Northern hemispheres could store up for the oncoming deep-freeze with over-eating, over-shopping and a string of feel-good shows. Despite its tropical location, Singapore falls right in line with all three. I will leave the over-consumption to others and concentrate on the feel-good shows. Then, I can atone by looking at a good feel-bad show.
Again this year, The Stage Club, the Lion's City's venerable quasi-amateur company, led the way with the feel-good programme. The Club used to follow the hallowed British tradition of staging pantos during Christmas season, but W!ld Rice moved in on that territory with its high-octane local versions of the panto a few years back. So this time around, the Club decided to really flow with the Christmas spirit and serve up its version of the medieval Mystery Plays.
Actually, the original Mystery Plays were not Yuletide fare; they were staged during the Corpus Christi holiday in late Spring. But the works certainly fit the Christmas setting with their creative retelling of key Biblical stories. The medieval Mysteries ran through a cycle of more than 30 to 40 playlets, beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and going on to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ or even on to the Final Judgement. The Stage Club gave us a fairly truncated edition of three short pieces, extending from the Fall to the birth of Jesus. (Fair enough, as those original play-cycles were staged over two or three days.)
The Stage Club Mysteries opened quite promisingly: a bright, body-rich tableau resembling a medieval tapestry was spread out before us across the ample stage of the Victoria Theatre (itself a fitting venue for a holiday show). The human element in this faux-tableau then easily segued into a round of songs suggesting the English Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages - but what's a century or so when you're providing a good time for your audience. Seasonal magic was starting to fill the air. A fine evening of Yuletide theatre seemed in store.
What followed this opening was..well, more mixed than magical. It seemed as if most of those in the depressingly sparse audience enjoyed themselves, and I certainly did. But I suspect the incipient holiday cheer I brought in with me was part of the enjoyment.
The sag in the magic appeared quite soon as the centrepiece of that opening number spun into a man and woman dancing downstage. At one point, the man showed undue difficulty picking up and twirling the woman, hinting that an unpleasant mishap might transpire. Thankfully, it didn't. But this awkward moment right there at the start pointed to one of the weak spots in the production: the dancers were not always, and not uniformly, that deft in their dance steps.
The same charge could not be applied to the chorus who provided most of the evening's songs; they were splendid. The orchestra (as such: five pieces) was also commendable, and provided fitting accompaniment to the chorus. The chorus also doubled here and there as a Christianised version of the Greek chorus.
Also to be applauded was the surprising (one could almost say post-Modernist) musical mix selected for the programme. For instance, the intro to the 'Flood' section of the show was a gospel song, while another song from that section, 'Dear Lord', sounded like something that had sauntered straight out of a Country and Western hymn book. Later on, the evening closed out with a medley of popular Christmas carols which the chorus tried to lead the audience in singing. (The night I was there, the audience were...let us say, unduly modest about joining in.) If the show had just been a concert of holiday related songs, it would have been counted a success.
But theatre was the main item here, and so the show would have to be chalked up as merely a qualified success. Happily, the show kept getting more successful as it went along.
The paradise-lost piece that opened was mildly inspired and mildly pleasing. Cordelia Fernandez Lee as Eve and Dennis Oh as Adam were quite acceptable as our first parents, but nothing more. The best performer in this first playlet was Barry Woolhead, who, admittedly, drew the juiciest role: Satan. His facial make-up – bright red and black – matched his flowing costume. All that, added to his bullying way of speaking gave him the aura of a WWF wrestling champ getting ready for the big match-up with the Big Kahuna. It served as a good example of what contemporary productions of the Mystery Plays should be able to do in reshaping the gospels to a contemporary vision.
Speaking of the Big Kahuna: in the theatre world, directors are often accused of thinking they are God. Phil McConnell willingly accepted this charge and assumed the role of God along with his other directorial duties. As the Lord Almighty, McConnell was quite adequate, though not majestic enough. Admittedly, we only heard his voice. (The same problem that most Biblical heroes had, come to think of it.)
One good touch in this part of the triptych was the choir pleading with Eve not to sample the apple. She then, true to the text, slipped into high contrary mode to indicate that she did not require a choir to give her dietary advise. The rest, as they say, is human history.
Not as successful as these moments was a bit of wild banner-waving just after the Fall, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense. It seemed to be simply some generic theatrics hauled out when inspiration flagged. (No pun intended, of course.)
The middle part of the theatrical triptych again found humanity in deep trouble with the Big Boss. This was the Biblical Flood story, with Noah, his mildly extended family, and two of every animal species he could find crowding into the ark for a forty-day cruise which was also, I believe, the original model for the Survivor series.
The ark in this Noah section was a playful rendering that looked like a school project from a arts-friendly school. The creatively makeshift feel of the ship fit in with the general tone of the piece, indeed of the show, and added the right dimension to this playlet.
The juiciest role in the Flood piece is actually that of Noah's wife, whom the original playwright (whose identity has been lost to us) saw fit to grant a comically stubborn, contrary nature. Sadly, Angela Barolsky played the wife down a bit, allowing the character to blend more easily into the ensemble than she should have. For instance, she didn't really fight back hard enough against her children as they tried to usher her into the ark.(Mrs Noah apparently did not like to go on long trips.) That made this bit look very stagey and,well, trite. (More, the mike acoustics, a recurring problem at the Victoria, were especially unfriendly to Barolsky's voice.)
On the issue of sound problems, the sound effects for lighting and thunder at the beginning of the forty-day deluge were sadly short and perfunctory. But a cute (if cheesy) touch was ending this playlet with the Cat Stevens' classic, 'Morning Has Broken'. The choice sounded much better on the stage than on any recounting of it. (Stevens, of course, is today known as Yusof Islam.)
Most appropriately for a Christmas show, the best part of this package was the Nativity playlet. Here directorial inspiration, energy and acting talent synergised nicely to produce a fine wrap-up to the theatrical part of the evening.
One impressive bit of visual inspiration was the use of the sheep. (This was the Nativity scene, remember.) These woollies were actually children in large, puppet-like costumes whose movements made them look like they were skiing in place. Alright, none of the four Evangelists ever mention that the sheep got to the stable on skis that first Christmas, but it delivered a rather engaging effect in this Stage Club version.
As Mary, the mother of Jesus, Lily McConnell seemed to confuse being reverential with being stiff, but she did deliver her lines well, and that was important here. Steve Armstrong was a more well-rounded success as Joseph, though he could have worked in more anguish during his monologue about putting Mary aside as he believed she had cuckolded him.
The three best performances in the piece – indeed, the three best of the evening – belonged to the three shepherds. With these characters, the Master showed not only his sense of social injustice, but also his wry humour and clear feel for human types.
Barry Woolhead (our Satan from the Fall section) was the strongest of the trio, but not by too much. Woolhead brought a sure presence and feel for this working-class character. Paul Hannon shaped Coll with his own brand of devilish charm, while Patrick McConnell was strong as Daw. Young McConnell, who has now done a number of shows with the Stage Club, has continued to improve steadily as he builds up his acting chops. His Daw was a good counterpoint to the other, stronger characters.
Another interesting show I caught at the tail end of the holiday season was also involved with Christian practitioners of a period long gone. I was actually quite lucky to even catch this one, as I only happened to heard about it while listening to Singapore's quasi-classical music station. The brief plot synopsis mentioned on their cultural announcements corner caught my attention , though I heard never heard of the theatre troupe involved before. I decided to pursue the my piqued interest, for which I was rewarded.
The 'mystery' troupe was ACSian Theatre, which happens to be a mix of Anglo-Chinese JC students and recent graduates of ACJC. (With this show, the ratio was 3 to 16, current students to alumni.) The company opened its 2007 season less than a week into the new year with a piece that other companies with even minimally commercial concerns would probably avoid like lunch dates with T.T. Durai: Japanese dramatist Shusaku Endo's The Golden Country.
Shusaku Endo was a 20th century Japanese writer whose name often surfaced in discussions of possible Nobel Prize laureates, though when he died in 1996, the honour had consistently eluded him. But deep respect from fellow writers and big sales of his works (mainly novels with spare titles like "Silence" and "The Samurai") did come his way for several decades.
Like oh so many major writers, Endo was an outsider. In fact, he was a double outsider, being both a tubercular in a society not overly sympathetic to the physically impaired and a devout Roman Catholic in a society with a minuscule Christian population. (About 1% of the entire Japanese society.) Better known by far for his many novels, Endo made one of his rare ventures into theatre with The Golden Country, but still hewed to a theme he had often pursued in his many novels: the role of Christianity in Japan and the persecution of Christians by their compatriots.
The play entails Endo's bleak look at early 17th century Japan and its attempts to shape itself with minimal outside influence. The back-story of the play is Japan's expanding trade with European powers such as the British, the Dutch and the Portuguese. While they are certainly interested in many of the products of these lands, the Japanese rulers strongly reject the Europeans' cultural, philosophical and religious products.
In fact, the organisation at the centre of Golden Country is tasked with ridding shogunate Japan of Christianity, a rather successful transplant that threatens to undermine the authority of the shoguns. The officials in the organisation (which bears the spare title, 'the Bureau') pursue the campaign with ruthless ardour.
The story is based on largely factual evidence. The determined persecution of Christians and foreign clergy (and in Japan, it was overwhelmingly Roman Catholicism of an Iberian bent which was involved) has been called by some historians "the most successful extermination attempt in church history".
(One dark and sad irony Endo fails to even hint at is that at the same time these Iberian missionaries and their followers were being persecuted in Japan, the Catholic Church back in Portugal was still carrying out its own Inquisition. The victims there were Jews, Catholic converts whose crossovers were suspected of being mainly conversions of convenience, and 'cradle Catholics' thought to harbour heterodox beliefs.)
The Golden Country is set mainly in the Nagasaki region in 1633. (Nagasaki was the country's leading port at the time, thus the main entry point for foreign ships and ideas). That puts it in the fifth decade of a persecution campaign determined to root Christianity out of Nippon. (Launched in 1587 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the campaign didn't start picking up heat and intensity for another decade, then flared into near obsession in the early 1600s under the Tokugawa shogunate.)
The aforementioned Bureau is a more cordial, 17th century version of Orwell's Ministry of Love, and not just because of its modest name: it seeks mainly to convert the converts, to wrench their souls and minds away from their new faith and, where possible, make them not just ex-Christians, but anti-Christians. The reconverted can prove the sincerity of their apostasy by stepping on the fumie, a picture of Jesus Christ, sometimes with his Blessed Mother, sometimes alone.
The head of the investigating team is Inoue, who was himself baptised and raised as a Christian. As drawn by playwright Endo, Inoue is a character of frightening complexity: he is both a determined foe of the Christians and curiously sympathetic to them. As the play proceeds, we come to see that this crafty inquisitor has over the years fashioned a thick carapace for himself, which he strategically pulls aside from time to time in the story to let us see a deeper part of himself.
Inoue, in fact, frequently voices more sympathy for Christianity than for his homeland, which he is fond of referring to as a 'mud-swamp'. (Author Endo often used the image or metaphor of a swampland in connection with Japan.) Part of his enduring sympathy for the Christians is that they, like Inoue himself, must struggle inwardly to discover which model Japan actually fits Japan best - a mud-swamp or a 'golden country'. His own money is on the mud-swamp, but one nagging part of him wants that golden country to emerge out of the mire.
Inoue's right-hand man in the Bureau is Hirata, a cold-blooded snit not at all conflicted about his work. If anything, Hirata is a model bureaucratic inquisitor: having been in the Bureau for the last 15 years, he admits, "As an official, I must suspect everyone I see."
Inoue's two main adversaries are Father Ferreira, a Portuguese missionary, and Tumonaga, a samurai in the service of the Bureau who remains a closet Catholic (and who helps hide the highly sought priest). Inoue wishes to break both of these men, so as to nourish himself on the pith and then share it wit the two of them. (At one point, Inoue admits, only to himself, that "Through Ferreira, I torture myself." )
A lot of the play's drama springs from the cat-and-mice game of this triad as well as the aftermath of this game. That aftermath turns out to be worse for the man who survives physically but is ultimately crushed spiritually.
This is an intellectually courageous play that explores questions of faith and betrayal and, along the journey, asks just what is faith, what is betrayal. It is, however, far from a perfect piece of theatre, as it often reveals all too clearly that Endo's metier was actually the novel. As a play, Golden Country is often unwieldy, convoluted and elliptical in a way that works for a novel but drags a play considerably. For instance, the first half of the show ran two hours. Quite a few in the audience walked out for the interval and never returned for the last one hour plus of the production.
Another shortcoming here: Endo borrows from the form of Greek tragedy in that much of the action takes place off-stage and is reported by either messengers of central characters themselves who report on what they have witnessed or heard. This makes Golden Country much easier to stage, or course, but it robs the play of dramatic potential.
The ACSian Theatre company is to be applauded simply for attempting such a challenging play. But then they are to be applauded doubly for mounting a fairly impressive production of this difficult material – especially one requiring such a sizeable cast.
Under Geetha Creffield's direction, the show was well-staged: slightly austere as befits a Japanese show, but at the same time also visually expressive. Overall, the effect was one of stateliness poised at the edge of terror – exactly the right tone for this play. (Though director Creffield herself missed a few opportunities to infuse more needed drama into the production. For instance, Inoue should have touched Father Ferreira's wounds as he physically and mentally tortures him in one scene.)
The scenes in the countryside, where the Christian community was still attempting to practice their religion, were, appropriately more rough in their staging. If some of these scenes also seemed a tad stagey at points, in the main they worked convincingly to push along the play's narrative and central themes.
The set, by Chia Yu Hsien was commendably Japanese: a dark study in restrained aesthetics. Bamboo backdrops stretched to the rafters; these were fronted by two bamboo poles at either side and a large, flat table where the Bureau's business was largely conducted. The two cloth flaps of the backdrop opened during the scenes in the countryside to become a makeshift altar. The whole thing was imaginative as well as low-budget; in other words, just what small, resource-strapped theatre companies aim for.
The acting was surprisingly strong, and that almost across the board. The boys at the Bureau worked well together to create the chilling atmosphere appropriate to a mind-control agency.
Tan Yi Jun handled the challenges of Inoue quite well, manoeuvring the complexities of the character in a way that made him, by turns, sympathetic and abhorrent. His top henchman Hirata was played admirably by Teo Shee Yong, who captured the slimey reptilian nature of this soulless bureaucrat just right. Krishnan Rasu was likewise commendable as the young samurai Gennosuke: unsure of his place in the thick of things early on, he grows considerably in moral stature, especially as Rasu played him.
Not quite as successful as his younger stage-mates was David de Winne as Father Ferreira. The actor was a bit histrionic at times, especially in one long monologue where the priest describes the immolation of Christian martyrs. When the priest's emotions were allowed to sail on a more even keel, de Winne navigated the part fairly well. Overall, one could say his performance was certainly adequate, but as this role was full of such rich potential, de Winne's work could be deemed disappointing.
Raeza Ibrahim, on the other hand, turned in a strong, balanced performance as the seasoned samurai and closet-Catholic, Tomonaga, while Michelle Wong combined a quiet dignity and invincible life-energy to craft Yuki, Tomonaga's star-crossed daughter. These two roles demand utmost sensitivity and sure acting skills: Ibrahim and Wong demonstrated both, in generous measures.
The rest of the ensemble, mainly in the roles of the beleaguered peasants, were also admirable, though the village moron was not very convincing at all as a moron. (And I do not mean that as a compliment in this case.)
Truth be told, I have seen large-cast productions here by reputedly professional casts that were not as well performed overall as was this show. Hey, this cast could earn kudos simply for managing the long and occasionally windy text Endo saddled them with. I was unable to detect any slips in the text as they ploughed along over the almost three and a half hours of performance. (The translation by Francis Mathy was excellent, by the way: the language was graceful, resonant, poetic at points and almost always clear. I can only assume that it was also faithful to Endo's Japanese.)
But calling up those huge blocks of text may be one explanation for why some of the actors would occasionally stop looking at the other actors and draw their gaze off to the side: maybe they were just trying to recapture the text. Tan Yi Jun (Inoue) was especially guilty of these wayward glances, one of the few noticeable flaws in an otherwise solid performance.
These two texts, the Mystery Plays and Golden Country, look back at each other across some six centuries. (Even if it is set in 1633, the latter was actually written in 1970.) But it not only the six centuries that separate the plays and give them their unique tone and weight. The medieval Mystery plays were products of a Christian church which was largely dominant in that society; Endo's play is the vision of an alienated writer whose beliefs were very marginal in his society and had to shove to get a fair hearing. For that reason alone, Golden Country has more gravitas than the Mysteries, though the Mystery plays make for much better theatre as theatre. And, of course, they have a much higher feel-good quotient.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 2 Jan 2007