Clearly, A Mark Of Some Achievement
World-in-Theatre takes on the Christian saga
By Richard Lord
We might all be forgiven for wondering if the Almighty Pte Ltd had recently hired a new, high-energy PR firm. This has certainly been a great career year for Jesus Christ - or at least for films and plays making use of his persona. Without a doubt, the biggest boost worldwide for the Christian image has been Mel Gibsonís film The Passion of the Christ, a mega-blockbuster, which has helped revive a lesser-known film from last year taken from the same Biblical source, The Gospel According to John.
Beyond the cineplex circuit, there have recently been numerous revivals of and touring companies performing Godspell in many parts of the world (including a local swing through Singapore). And here in the city-state, Singaporeís World-in-Theatre company - which over the last two years has mounted impressive productions dealing with the richness of Hindu folklore and the complex Peruvian Inca religion - has this year turned its attention to the Christian saga.
It was probably pure coincidence, but just before and right after the beginning of the Lent season (the Christian season of reflection and penance leading up to Easter), the World-in-Theatre company premiered its Gospel According to Mark. Sonny Lim, one of WiTís directors and the co-author of this play, says that he was particularly drawn to this gospel as he finds Markís account the most dramatic of the four canonical gospels. (Fitting it is for the Lion City as well, as the symbol for Markís gospel happens to be the lion.)
Markís gospel certainly packs far fewer of the long speeches and parables than its three companions. But the big question remained: can even this text be brought successfully to a theatrical form? The answer that this WiT production provided was a two-parter: on one level, yes indeed. But on a deeper level, unfortunately not.
Let us begin by acknowledging that Limís instincts proved rather true here: the Mark gospel does lend itself generously to dramatic representation. Beyond his somewhat terse style, Mark is not too interested in either ambiguity or subtlety. The lines are clearly drawn in his narrative (youíre either for Christ all the way or youíre against Him) and all issues are writ large. All of which, clearly, serves the needs of theatre well.
Other prime features of Mark also suggest good drama fodder: This Jesus is clearly the messiah, as well as the miracle-worker par excellence. Finally, scriptwriter Sonny Lim and director Elizabeth de Roza paired their talents well in bringing Markís narrative to the stage. (With a production like this, itís nigh on impossible to say where the writerís work and the directorís contributions begin and end, unless you were there during the entire process.)
Although World-in-Theatre typically pursues an aesthetic that makes use of simple materials and imagination to get the most out of a limited budget, they do so robustly and credibly. With this Gospel, they offered full-range theatre in a neat economy package. One major element in this strategy was the use of music to accentuate the scenes and themes. A four-man musical team, under the direction of Cyril Wong, provided splendid live accompaniment to the action, contributing wonderfully to power of this production. The occasional soprano-singing of Cyril Wong himself played no small part in the strength of the musical component of this show.
A good deal of the staging for this Gospel was also quite effective, illuminating a key theme in a few quick gestures or movements. The show opens with one fine example of this in the early John the Baptist episode. In the WiT rendering, the attendant crowd looks up, sees a dove and hears something... but what? The voice from Heaven that Mark mentions is not sounded here - probably a good decision as the scene leads us into the early, developing stages of the Christian mystery.
The benefits of WiTís full-range theatre approach are manifest in one of the showís better dramatic renditions of Biblical text: the temptations-in-the-desert scene. Here, Sonny Lim portrayed a Satan apparently trained in classical Javanese or Indian dance as he performed a seductive, serpent-like dance, a long veil trailing from his waist. The tempted Christ at first takes hold of the veil and gives it a light tug, suggesting interest in the Satanic allure, but then yanks the cloth harshly, causing Old Nick to take a nasty tumble.
Indeed, the production was studded throughout with good small moments that give texture to the story and/or the characterisations. One prime example, from the Last Supper scene, shows Peter throwing down his piece of bread in repulsion when Christ announces ďOne of you will betray me; one who is eating with me.Ē (Suggesting both Peterís repulsion at this notion of ultimate betrayal and a foreshadowing of his own small betrayal later in the story.)
Christís cross here was a single beam (which may be historically accurate: evidence suggests the condemned only carried the crossbeam with them to their execution sites). Again, we were given a suggestion, a minimalism that came off better than full-front realism would.
Along these lines, the flogging of Christ was delicately theatrical and Rodney Oliveiro as Jesus plays it well, showing the pain without ever going overboard, keeping that balance that this stylised representation calls for. Likewise, the scene of women grieving at the crucifixion was touchingly understated and quite effective for that reason.
Lim and director de Roza also gave admirable attention to keeping certain aspects fairly realistic and credible, including Jesusí miracles. For instance, the lame man, healed, rising from his stretcher and taking his first steps at first does so haltingly and with some trouble. This was miracle-working with a human look and feel to it.
However, we were also presented moments that were rather too literal. In the most obvious of these, Simon the fisher is throwing stones when Christ first approaches him and announces that he will henceforth be known as Peter. (The name is taken from the 1st century Greek word for stone or rock.)
Actually, Sonny Limís adaptation is quite faithful to the original text; in fact, it was rather too faithful for the workís own dramatic good. For instance, we find episodes included that might have been better dropped, especially with the strained staging they acquired here.
Cases in point: the storm at sea and walking on water episodes are nice tries, but neither really works. In both cases, the limitations of the set proved too strong for the power of imagination. (Even the vigorous drumming during the storm scene, as effective as it was, still couldnít make that scene come across convincingly.)
An even better example was the swine of the Gerasenes episode which loses much of its purpose - so much so that it would probably have been confusing to those who donít know the story. (The swine in this version donít even bother to run off down the hill and drown themselves.) For that matter, even for those familiar with the account, the obvious response may just have been to scratch heads and ask just what was the point of this scene, which pretty much misses the Mark. (Ouch! I will certainly have to confess and do penance for that pun next week.)
Further, the account of Herodiusí daughter asking her step-father, King Herod, for the head of John the Baptist actually seems spatchcocked into Markís gospel. In the WiT production, the story seems, if anything, even more so. Herodís demeanourÖ
I could go on and on, and at the end of it all, this review would approximate the length of Markís gospel itself. (Which, youíll be relieved to hear, is the shortest of the four evangels.) But the key point is that Limís text for theatre dearly needed an editor.
At some point in the evening, with one miracle following fast upon another with the next one reminiscent of the last, the cumulative effect produced a sense that we were watching something like ďThe Greatest Hits of Jesus the ChristĒ. Before long, all this miracle-working actually started to lose its impact out of repetition.
While some of Markís episodes could have easily have been omitted, others such as the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, are certainly not big enough. That key scene comes off as merely functional in such a way that it imprudently underplays the importance of this key trial.
For that matter, the hearing before Pilate with the resultant deal on releasing Barabbas could also surely have been played up more strongly, along with the appearance of the women at Christís tomb on the morning of the third day. (The latter seems tacked on almost as an afterthought.) Wisely, Lim decided not to include the weird final four passages of Markís gospel, which many Biblical scholars consider a later addition to the original text, but not to deal at any length or depth with the absence of Christís corpse was a significant oversight on Limís part.
The WiT troupe was a bit short of the usual cast of thousands - so they made do creatively with the team they had, with most of the actors doubling, tripling, quadrupling up roles. (In fact, the entire ensemble numbers just 13. Was this mere coincidence, that the cast size exactly equals the original inner circle of Christ and his twelve apostles? If so, a nice coincidence.)
One cast member who didnít double up was Rodney Oliveiro, in the central role of the Redeemer. Oliveiro fits our conventional image of Christ - tall and handsome. (He looks down convincingly on our Pharisees here as he castigates them for their hypocrisy and hyper-devotion to cold religious text.) However, scriptural evidence suggests that the historical Jesus was actually short and not at all comely (Isaiah 53.2, for instance) Moreover, in various passages throughout the gospels we find that even Christís own disciples apparently had trouble recognising him when visual conditions were not optimal.
More importantly, Oliveiroís portrayal only begins to skim the surface of this remarkable person, Jesus. Admittedly, this role must be one of the very hardest for even highly talented actors to pull off, but Oliveiro only barely suggests Christ as the loving redeemer, the man who radiated a special quality that drew so many to him. This Christ is more the strong, occasionally angry rebel fighting injustice and suffering with all his means. A good performance, but it left out so much that could have further enriched this show.
Standouts form the rest of the ensemble include Kevin Murphy, especially in the strong support he provided as Simon Peter; R. Chandran who was convincing as Judas and even more compelling as a possessed demoniac freed of his demons by Jesus; Serena Ho, Christina Chellah and Candice de Rozario. (The latter was most prominently effective as Herodiusí daughter doing the dance of the seven veils.)
Patrick Huang and Mohan Sachdev play the two Pharisees we saw here like two deviously dirty old men trying to sneak peeks at something deliciously risquť without being caught looking so closely. You know, it worked kind of well in this particular package.
But thereís still something troubling about that package. Christians would be fairly satisfied with the story as conveyed here, since it presents the narrative plainly and never questions Christís nature or his mission. On the other hand, neither does it insist on Christís divinity, so non-believers could also appreciate it - as a dramatised account of an exceptionally charismatic individual who was amazingly adept at treating psychosomatic afflictions, and an absolute master at pulling off some clever tricks, a man whose talents were embellished by a few overly zealous disciples in their accounts.
Sonny Lim, himself a non-Christian, treads this thin line of caution skillfully, coming up with a script on a most controversial topic (especially these days) that should offend almost no one. However, this discretion may also lie at what was one of the playís major shortcomings. By avoiding commitment on this central question, this show deprives itself of a core focus. It also deprives itself of a defining point of view or a sharp message.
Ultimately, this WiT Gospel remains nothing more than an impressive theatrical rendering of Markís narrative. If the catalogue of miracles and confrontations with the Pharisees starts to lose its effectiveness after awhile, the workís stern allegiance to its source is the main culprit.
Sadly, no individual themes were strongly played and extended throughout the evening. The opportunities were certainly there - the spiritual burdens of being rich; the fight against hypocrisy and literal fealty to the written Law; Christís unflagging affiliation with the fallen (sinners and social outcasts); Christís single-minded pursuit of what he sees as his mission. Instead, we just get that quasi-Greatest Hits anthology, leaving matters such as Christís confrontations with the Pharisees and his few snatched moments with Peter crying for more attention.
The talents and efforts of just about everyone involved - from writer to actors to directors and especially to the musical team - combined to make even such a incomplete presentation worth seeing. But the lack of anything deeper (or higher) also makes it ultimately a treat for the eyes, ears and tongue, but a local diet for the heart and mind.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004