Buddha and Other Jet Setters

Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen is often accused of being wanky. As the founder of Theatreworks, one of the bigger companies in Singapore (meaning they get good funding from the government), he is known internationally for his cross-disciplinary works. In the recent Search Hamlet, staged in a castle in Denmark no less, Ong juxtaposed Western with Eastern arts, the traditional with the contemporary. A Japanese-French butoh dancer, a Balinese mask dancer and a Danish pop vocalist all shared task in illuminating an absent prince. I did not see this nor any of Ong’s other works, but I imagine they are either breathtakingly colourful, or just one big indulgent inaccessible mess. And true enough, among people who’ve been to these plays, some found the productions fascinating and radical, while others just rolled their eyes. Malaysians might even exclaim, “It’s so Five Arts!” (I mean, look at how that collaborative Manchester United and the Malay Warrior turned out.)

The Singapore Arts Festival has commissioned Ong for another elaborate and potentially messy work this year. In The Global Soul: The Buddha Project: “Contemporary travelers journeying through urban life, searching for contact, for connection,” the contemporary travelers consist of a Li Yuan Opera performer from Beijing, a Kagok singer from Korea, a classical Thai dancer, a black French contemporary dancer and a Swedish actress. Instead of serving one narrative, which even disparate characters in an Altman movie do, all five characters possess their own private stories, singing to themselves, dancing to themselves, and talking to themselves. And while this has led many to remark therefore that the play “didn’t gel”, it is this very gel-lessness that I found strangely moving.

The two things that did gel the separate strands together are the set and the music. Set designer Justin Hill has brilliantly stripped away the curtains on the top to reveal the metallic scaffolding that holds up the lights, and he has cast its lattice-like shadow over the backdrop. With the amplification of the white space all around, the five performers are dwarfed in a limbo that looks mechanical, safe, yet brutally impersonal. It conveys the very “sense of free-floating apprehension” that Pico Iyer (the author of the book by the same title as the play and its inspiration) says afflicts us jet-setting types within the timeless, anonymous spaces of airports. In a way, it is a remarkable abstraction of the world that we middle-class theatre-going types are familiar with: the world of airports, the urbanised, homogenised world of the global city (and not the cute little “global village” that advertisers tell us we live in).

In his book, The Global Soul, Pico Iyer searches for a home, and finds himself confronted with his feelings of disconnectedness in a world that seems increasingly connected. It is this undercurrent of invisible violence to the soul that is brilliantly captured by Toru Yamanaka’s sound design. His digitalised pulses, like an internet connection to a sleep-deprived subconscious, like so much information overload, are at once cacophonic and seductive, tense and lulling.

Trapped within this ambivalence, these five characters search for their place of rest, or as Ong implies with the second part of his title, their enlightenment. Thai classical dancer Pichet Klunchun, who was trained as a dancer at 16 and became a monk at 26, embodies that Indian prince. Though to be honest, I have no idea what Klunchun is doing most of the time. Only when I consult the programme book, squinting in the dark, do I learn that, oh, now he is denouncing decadence, and, oh, now he is trying to be a lotus… Klunchun does, however, provide the play’s most memorable visual when he walks backward up an incline with his body also arched over backward. Yeah, nirvana is tough.

The other dancer, Sophiatou Kossoko, wears red but plays it cool even as she touches her face, grabs her breasts. She murmurs in French, “I dream of that first scented hot towel; I dream of that anonymous smile that earnestly welcomes me on board; I dream of that muffled droning voice telling me my altitude.” Again, I only know this when I flip open the programme book to the page that says ‘Notes from Millie’s Digital Assistant’. The Liyuan Opera performer, Zeng Jing Ping, is perhaps the most curious of all. Liyuan Opera has a thousand year history and is filled with strong female characters like Hua Mulan, but Zeng, accredited first rank national performing artist of China, has assumed a role that has more affinity with Maggie Cheung’s characters in Wong Kar Wai movies. Dressed in operatic headgear and Adidas track suits, she pines for love, she sings about sleeplessness and jealousy. The anachronistic juxtaposition of her costume pieces parallels her traditional expression of contemporary romance. Or maybe it’s just traditional romance through contemporary attire. The programme didn’t say which.

The Swedish actress, Charlotte Engelkess, seems the most engaging, helped by the fact that most of her lines are in English, and that she is truly truly gorgeous. Thank god Ong Keng Sen allows at least one performer to be accessible. Then again, the calmness with which Engelkess recounts her childhood memory of riding in trains and airplanes, the calmness with which she announces she is traveling to another planet, seems to betray a restlessness – either she is completely at home anywhere she is, or she is completely detached, a true Global Soul.

This leaves the Korean court singer, Kang Kwon Soon, to bring it all together. And she does. The style of singing, known as Kagok, requires her to sit still as her voice travels through the theatre and down your spine. Her haiku-like chants in Korean makes perfect sense to my inner ears. She is both the longing and the balm. She is the mother calling her children home. For once, I don’t have to consult the programme. While I often feel like I am watching five mini plays going concurrently – not a bad thing in itself – it is Kang’s siren songs that ultimately brings them to the same resolution.

While the play falls short in terms of individual characterisation and relies a little too much on explaining things through the programme book, it is on the whole, an affecting choreography. Of course, cross disciplinary collaborations are expected to feature a lot more exchanges of idea, where artists find points that would have allowed them to intersect with each other’s narrative. Perhaps the Thai dancer could speak French, and the Li Yuan Opera performer grab her breasts. This would have demonstrated the effects of globalisation more clearly that an Adidas track suit. But I suspect Ong isn’t so interested in explicating the symptoms of our social conditions as much as he is interested in the personal journeys of characters stuck within this post-millennial world. By denying his actors their interaction, Ong makes the stage that much colder and shows how all our journeys are still necessarily private, lonely affairs. This is somehow consoling to my urban soul. I mean, let’s not talk about being stuck at airports, sometimes I feel apprehensive even in my own living room.

I want to thank Ong Keng Sen for his unique and poignant direction, and all five performers for making it to the festival, even when other productions have pulled out due to the SARS outbreak then.

In the spirit of promoting more cross-cultural exchanges, I dropped by a press-meeting with the Singapore Arts Festival organisers and suggested for more Malaysian-Singaporean collaborations. After all, it’s good for ticket sales. Huzir Sulaiman’s Occupation and Alfian Sa’at’s Causeway at last year’s festival did see an increase in the number of Malaysians in the audience. But this year, there are no collaborations with us their goodly neighbours. When we are not too busy littering in each other’s backyard, I believe we share enough common history to learn from each other. Heck, there might even be a way for us to resolve bilateral tension without resorting to making a fool of ourselves in the international press. The Water Issue – A Musical, anyone?

Pang Khee Teik was hosted by the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Arts Council of Singapore.

First Published: 14.11.2003 on Kakiseni

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