Gifts From Abroad, To Be Gogolized and Pickled
Foreign companies freshen up local theatre scene
By Richard Lord
One of the key buzzwords in Singapore over the last decade has been "foreign talent". (The phrase is used both as compliment and as execration, depending on the user). One thing is certain: foreign talent can be quite a good thing here when it comes to the arts. For instance, two of the best theatre productions mounted in Singapore over the early part of 2007 were actually transplants – one from Hong Kong, the other from New Zealand.
The Hong Kong gift was not, as one might assume, a Chinese piece, but an imaginative adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's classic short story The Overcoat. This show, produced by Hong Kong's Theatre du Pif company and hosted by Singapore's own Arts House, was presented at the National Library's Drama Centre over one rainy weekend in early February.
Gogol (who is usually referred to as a Russian writer, though he was actually Ukrainian) can be best understood as a precursor to the Absurd in theatre and literature - if not, indeed, the first Absurdist in Western literature. The Overcoat is a prime exhibit in this case. Originally published in 1842, this intriguing tale has seen multiple incarnations on stage, several film versions, and has even been transposed into ballet at least three times.
But unlike the 20th century's A-list Absurdists, Gogol's notion of the Absurd was not grounded in the metaphysical but in the all too physical. He saw (and was apparently stung by) the absurdity in the everyday life of Czarist bureaucracy and mediocritocracy (to coin a much-needed term). The mind-and body-numbing work in the office, the harsh assaults of the Russian winter and the indignities and deprivations of poverty were what impelled Gogol's sharp writing.
The Overcoat tells the story of Akaky Akakievich, a kind of Dickensian (or Gogolian) caricature of the beleaguered 19th century clerk. Akaky, whose name has a ring of 'Everyman', does his daily grind as a civil servant in St Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian empire. However, this particular civil servant is not treated very civilly by either his supervisor or his fellow workers. The repeated butt of cruel jokes by his colleagues, the target of scorn by his supervisor, Akaky goes on scribbling out copies of official documents, a thankless and apparently meaningless task. His work, as presented by Gogol, seems to be as purposeful as waiting for Godot, but Akaky takes a trampled pride in this work, as it is evidently one of the few things he happens to be good at.
As his old tattered overcoat barely serves to keep him wrapped, let alone warm, Akaky decides he must get a new one if he is to survive another St. Petersburg winter. A tailor chum makes him an offer, but the cost is more than he thinks he can afford. However, he starts a heroic round of scrimping and saving and manages to get a slightly reduced version of what the tailor first proposed.
Even this cheaper model is a thing of beauty, an impressive garment that not only keeps Akaky warm on the cruel winter streets of Petersburg, it brings him new-found respect from his neighbours and colleagues. Indeed, Akaky himself undergoes a strange transformation, gaining self-confidence just by putting on the coat.
But this thing of beauty does not prove to be a joy forever; in fact, the joy it brings Akaky is short-lived and later turns into pain and terror. Invited to a party by his newly respectful colleagues, the generally abstemious Akaky imbibes a little too much liquid good cheer. Stumbling back out on the mean streets of the Russian capital, Akaky becomes an easy target for thieves who peel the overcoat right off his back and leave him shivering in the bitter cold. Returned to his sad-sack status, Akaky turns to the police to help him retrieve his beautiful garment, but suffers only abuse from the authorities – especially from the Important Person, apparently the top man in the department. Without adequate covering, he soon grows deathly ill and expires. At the end, his ghost starts prowling the Petersburg streets and finally assaults that top police inspector who had treated him so grubbily in his time of need.
That is the story as it comes to us from Gogol. This adaptation by the Theatre du Pif was superb, rendering Gogol's prose into a robust and totally engaging theatricality. It employed a minimalist set, but very effectively. Nice touches abounded: Akaky's work cubicle was a kind of locker and the desks of his superior and the police sergeant were intimidating mini-monoliths. The minimalist feel of the stage suggested the desolation of St Petersburg's cold streets.
Company co-founder Sean Curran played Akaky, while his fellow co-founder, Bonni Chan, directed the play. Curran was the only Caucasian in the cast, the other seven members of which were Chinese. Curran certainly took on the look of a character out of Gogol. He presented us with a wonderfully hangdog face, slumped shoulders and generally emaciated look. Early on, Sean Curran had a tendency to slur his words slightly, but he got over this quickly and from there delivered the text in a thoroughly winning way.
Curran was especially good in capturing the nature of Akaky's personality and the transformation he undergoes when he dons the new overcoat. One magical moment came when he first slipped into the garment. The actor's shoulders straightened, he looked significantly taller and a new confident demeanour filled his face. But Curran showed us every turn of Akaky's emotional life. For instance, when he was saving for his new coat, we went along with the actor on every bit as the character walked softly to save wear on his shoes, spurned the delicious cakes he ogles in shop windows, and cut his own hair – badly of course. It was, in short, a textbook performance.
The rest of the cast was mixed, but generally good to very good. Especially worthy of mention were Lee Chun Chow as Akaky's tailor and his boss; Mandy Yiu as Mrs Gobshka, his landlady; and Victor Pang as both the Eccentric and the Important Person. Pang was intimidating as the latter and mesmerising as the former.
The fact that the cast was from Hong Kong did not interfere with the credibility of this most Russian story except at one point: The scene where the ensemble cast were trying to walk in the winter storm was very well choreographed, but the Hong Kong cast showed they had no experience of dealing with harsh winter storms. Also, the actor playing the co-worker who antagonises Akaky had trouble with the correct pronunciation of 'exaggerate'.
The last scene, in which the ghost of Akaky comes to seize the overcoat of his former tormentor, was handled in a nicely frightening manner. And there we had a splendid wrap to a totally engaging evening of finely wrought, pure-concept theatre.
The other felicitous import in the last quarter was The Pickle King by New Zealand's Indian Ink Theatre Co. (This show originally played in New Zealand five years back, taking seven nominations for national theatre awards, eventually winning the coveted 'Best Production' award.) This now seasoned production brought us a wonderful roll of theatricality where first-rate acting combined with overall theatrical inventiveness, allowing the evening to easily take all the wobbles in the script.
That script is basically a melange of quirky if not unlikely stories woven together so cleverly that it all works in the end. The up-and-down plot of Pickle King takes us on an easy-going, fun ride and introduces us to a gallery of engaging character who are not particularly deep. They are closer to types actually, maybe even stereotypes, with somewhat spiky textures - but are quite likeable for all that. (The co-authors, lead actor Jacob Rajan and director Justin Lewis, admit that at least one of the characters was lifted from the traditions of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte.)
The setting of Pickle King was the Empire, a comically unaccommodating hotel in a New Zealand resort town. (The hotel's name is, I take it, a nice twist of irony and symbolism, as its owners, employees and guests are all drawn from various reaches of the old British imperium.)
The Empire is run by Anmachy, an older lady of Indian descent, and her attractive young niece, Sasha. Both of these ladies are what a charitable person might call 'weird' - Aunt Anmachy just weird in her own engaging way, while Sasha is fascinatingly weird and has impaired vision to boot. (She'd be legally blind in most jurisdictions. But at this hotel, she and her aunt make most of the rules.) Sasha is not only pretty, she is also anti-social and seems intent on scaring guests away from their hotel. As the play unfolds, we will discover some of the weird reasons for both her anti-social behaviour and her near-blindness. (Everyone she loves dies, so she will not allow herself to fall in love or get married, despite her aunt's determined attempts to achieve the latter.)
The other major fixture at the hotel is Jojo, the day-and-night porter. Jojo is from India and we soon learn that he is just treading water as the porter until he can get his medical degree from India recognised and again take up his practice as a heart surgeon. (On explaining to his visually challenged employer as to why he became a heart surgeon rather than an eye doctor, Jojo replies, "Why clean the windows when you can look inside the house.")
Onto the scene comes a guest who will not be put off by the hotel's lack of courtesy: one G. Reaper, who announces himself as the 'pickle king'. (His full name is George Reaper but he does not shy away from the early implication that his G. Reaper identity tags mean he is the Grim Reaper.) We come to learn that Mr Reaper has, indeed, played the role of bringer of death – through a chemical disaster in India caused by a company he owned. "Seventy-three people killed; school children mostly,' he sadly concedes, though he then tries to put it into perspective. "A small disaster by Indian standards."
Gnawed to the quick by guilt, Reaper suffers from life-threatening insomnia. He tries everything to get over it: he tries to hypnotize himself into slumber, then hits himself over the head with large blunt objects. (The latter has some temporary results, albeit more unconsciousness than somnolence. ) He feels that if he marries a lovely Indian woman such as Sasha (whose parents were also killed in a chemical spill), he will achieve absolution and a good night's sleep.
Aunt Anmachy finds the obviously wealthy Mr Reaper a good match for her niece. She has more than a touch of the traditionalist Indian matriarch about her, but she does give a mild nod to New Zealand mores: she tells Sasha, " You're free to choose whoever I choose." Sasha doesn't agree. Despite her vow to never fall in love again, she finds herself falling inextricably in love with Jojo - who has, of course, already fallen for her. Meanwhile, Aunt Anmachy and George Reaper are going ahead with their wedding plans for Reaper and Sasha.
After all the running about and domestic upheavals, the basic love tale with its feel-good ending works, though it probably shouldn't work as well as it does. But this production was just so well done that the most unlikely things would work; and work well, probably.
The production boasted strong theatricality from start to finish. It was also marked by resolute cleverness throughout. For instance, even the break for the interval was announced with a sign left at the hotel reception reading "Back in 15 minutes."
One hallmark of the show was its inventive use of masks (another conscious borrowing from the Commedia dell'Arte, no doubt). The masks used here were both full and partial. In the opening scenes, for instance, we had a fun-filled coming-and-going of various guests at the hotel (plus employees), which relied on full masks for its comic effects.
Then, after the initial use of masks showing us the strange practices of this hotel, Sasha came back on with a fake bulbous nose, as did Jojo. The hotel restaurant's head chef, meanwhile, sported a snout like a pig. That, too, worked surprisingly well.
What was most interesting about the partial masks is that the noses and cheeks of these masks often looked like pickles, keeping fealty to the 'pickle king' trope that plays a central role in the play.
But masks are just adjuncts and the best masks in the world cannot cover weak acting. For this Indian Ink production, however, the acting was quite strong indeed, from a versatile three-member cast (plus one piano player, whose acting calls are minimal.)
Jacob Rajan, who is a co-founder of the company as well as co-author of this piece, played two key roles – Jojo and Aunt Anmachy. He was so effective in role and made the switch so brilliantly, that it was only during the interval that my companion and I discovered that these two characters were played by the same actor.
Rajan handled both parts with energy and finely honed skill. In fact, he was so ingenuously loveable and his timing so pinpoint that he even made the following venerable joke work: "When was your birthday? Jan. 10. "What year?" Every year.
Ansuya Nathan plays Sasha and, while not quite a match for Jacob Rajan's double tours-de-force, was splendid in the role. Even at those moments when Sasha was being most obnoxious, Nathan managed to capture our sympathies with her wonderfully times and balanced performance.
The third member of the acting trio was Nick Blake, who played a Catholic priest, the hotel chef, and – in his prime assignment – Mr Reaper. As with Jacob Rajan's doubling-up, it turned out to be a surprise that the same actor was in all three roles. (Especially as the appearances of the characters sometimes came hard upon each other.) Good in all three of his roles, Blake was strongest where it counted: his George Reaper was a solid anchor to the show, by turns comic, menacing, annoying and sad.
Both of these guest productions showed us the unique magic that live theatre can achieve when it is handled by top talents. And the magic came in two very different varieties: with The Overcoat, it was of the minimalist mode, while with The Pickle King, the magic came from using a wide range of the tricks and devices that theatre can offer.
Applause goes to The Arts House and The Singapore Repertory Theatre for hosting these two superb shows. And even great applause goes to Hong Kong's Theatre du Pif and New Zealand's Indian Ink Theatre Company for bringing them to these shores.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008