From local page to international stage
Sifa opens with two stage adaptations of award-winning contemporary literary works
The 2017 edition of the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa) got underway on August 16 on the theme “Enchantment”. The event, which has continuously linked to the pre-festival The Open since late June, marks the last that will be curated by world famous director Ong Keng Sen. And unlike many other arts festival in the region, which tend to choose to present international works as curtain raisers to create buzz at the box office, Sifa instead commissioned local artists to create stage performance adaptations of famous local literary works.
Because any festival’s target group is the local audience, the buzz was considerable. Book lovers were spotted among the theatre audience and, in an age when social media make our interest more focused and specific than ever before, that was commendable in itself.
At the historic Victoria Theatre, Nine Years Theatre, led by script writer and director Nelson Chia, staged its adaptation of Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon’s 2012 Singapore Literature Prize winning Mandarin novel “Art Studio” as Sifa’s official opening act. The play was also in Mandarin – a first in the opener history, at least in the 13 years I’ve been attending this annual arts festival – making another strong statement.
Reflecting almost the entire history of the young nation through a few decades in the life of Singaporeans from different walks of life, whose path once crossed at a male nude painting session in the late 1980s, the novel, and the three-hour play performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, painted a very clear picture of the social, cultural and political backdrop. The audience, of different generations, could also easily empathise with different characters and situations. And since this is a multi-cultural society, the relevance goes beyond Singapore. For example, a young political activist branded a communist needed to go into exile in the Malayan jungle and another young man couldn’t find enough confidence to declare his love for a young singer before she left for India.
The build-up in the first act looked and sounded dense and busy with actors’ words and arrangement of set pieces for different scenes coming on top of the sound and projection design. The second act, however, allowed us to fully take in and be moved by the dramatic situations and emotions and think at our own pace. As is usually the case in stage adaptation of great literary works, the script adapter tried to keep as many words as he could, perhaps having forgotten that in theatre very often stage actions speak louder than spoken words and that the audience goes to the theatre also to exercise its imagination.
An exceptional ensemble work by 12 actors, their portrayal of various roles and performance in a group as a chorus who occasionally delivered narratives and changed set props was so efficient that it looked as if there were double that number.
The same weekend at 72-13, fans of Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew were so excited about seeing him draw live onstage in “Becoming Graphic” that two shows needed to be added to meet the ticket demand. The author of the New York Times best seller “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, which recently won three Eisner Awards, had a head microphone attached but he was so busy flipping pages and drawing – captured by a camera and live-fed onto the back wall – that he only delivered one closing line, as nervously as any artist who works alone would be on a public stage. Meanwhile, the audience got to know more about his life, through interview sound bites, and to see how he’s developing his new work commissioned by Sifa titled “The Black Oyster”, based on his father’s dementia.
Director Edith Podesta placed Liew at his work table on stage left, close to another few tables with sound and projection crew, and four actors at another table stage right, while the presenter/narrator was mostly at yet another table upstage centre. The actors created sound effects, voiced characters as well as portrayed them, with the latter captured and projected live next to images from the graphic novel – an attempt, perhaps, to make theatre, usually three-dimensional, become two-dimensional.
Like “Art Studio”, this was another visually busy work – comprising both live and pre-recorded images and with cartoons and humans – yet after 90 minutes we felt that we had not had enough of both behind-the-scenes looks at Liew’s work process and new information about dementia.
I’m now looking for an English translation of Art Studio the novel and despite not being a fan of graphic novels, am looking forward to the release of “The Black Oyster”. I won’t be surprised if these two universally relevant stage works, with some adjustment, will soon represent the island state overseas. And that confirms an important mission of any international arts festival – to support local artists to create works that would never have been realised elsewhere.
Many genres of contemporary arts
The festival continues until September 9. Check out www.SIFA.sg
Film lovers may want to check out “The Lav Diaz Retrospective” which offers a rare opportunity to watch the internationally acclaimed Filipino director work on the set of his new movie “Henrico’s Farm”.
Music fans are now booking tickets for Kronos Quartet’s concert and their collaboration with composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman in retelling a story from the Vietnam War titled “My Lai”.
Dance and theatre aficionados are looking forward to works by Halory Gorerger, Antoine Defoort, Robyn Orlin and Ong Ken Sen’s collaboration with National Theatre of Korea.
The writer’s trip is supported by Arts House Limited. Special thanks to Tay Tong and Mervyn Quek