By Jocelyn Chng
(1,180 words, 4-minute read)
Existence is the third instalment in the Southern Bough series commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). As its title implies, this third piece closes the full work with a more philosophical tone than in the previous two. The first instalment, The Beginning (2018), introduced the first five chapters of the kun opera; the second, Reverie (2019), presented the first 22 chapters with a somewhat different aesthetic from the first.
Starting where Reverie left off, Existence takes us from Chapter 22 to the end of the story, where the protagonist Chun Yu Fen (Tang Shao Wei) awakes from his dream, finding himself in the same time and place in the contemporary world where he fell asleep, despite remembering the events of the dream to have lasted 20 years. During that time, he has married princess Yao Fang (Ching Shu Yi) of the Sophora (ant) kingdom, ruled the distant Southern Bough as a well-loved general, lost a battle against invading Red Ants and his wife to illness, and returned to the Sophora kingdom only to drown his sorrows in alcohol and philandering, before finally awaking from the dream.
I noticed significantly more continuity between Reverie and Existence than between The Beginning and Reverie, not only in the storyline but also in the overall aesthetic of the two productions. Although the set designers for the productions are different, credit was given in the programme to Abigail Goh for her design for Reverie, from which Petrina Dawn Tan’s set design for Existence is partly adapted. Here the stage picture was dominated by a double-staircase framing an oval-shaped window in the middle – perhaps the metaphorical “ant hole” connecting us to the prior events that brought Chun into the ant kingdom. Moveable rectangular modules beneath the staircases were used to depict changes in scenes, and also to cleverly hide and reveal characters, helping to reinforce the dreamlike nature of the ant world.
The other obvious aspect of continuity between Reverie and Existence is the costume design by Tube Gallery; some, such as the Red Ant costumes, made their first appearance in Reverie. Audience members who did not watch Reverie are not likely to be disadvantaged, however, as the messaging is evident in the costumes – white and gold colours and clean lines for the Sophora and Southern Bough kingdoms, and red and black colours, with sharp edges and bulky attachments for the invading Red Ant army from the Sandalwood kingdom. The impeccably coiffed hair by Ashley Lim, together with some of the flamboyant and exquisite costumes worn by the Sophora court are also reminiscent of the fashion runway-look in The Beginning.
Although the over-the-top, stylised aesthetic does help to illustrate the dream world, some choices felt like a pretext to show off extravagant costumes rather than serve the narrative – and some segments in Existence dragged on for what felt like a long time.
One such instance occurs when the Red Ant army is discovered to be advancing on the riverside palace where the princess is recuperating from illness. A long sequence ensues in which the four respective guards of the north, south, east and west palace gates chatter about the impending attack. The performers portraying the guards each wear different fantastical pantomimic costumes, with great attention to detail – such as dresses with faces painted on the bodice, or with mask-like attachments to the neckline or hemline, possibly enabling one performer to embody several guards. While such a frantic scenario is definitely plausible, it felt like an unnecessarily long comic diversion in a play with a two-hour run time.
There was also a sequence near the end which I found problematic, where Chun is seduced by Qiong Ying (Xuan Ong), his late wife’s cousin, and her two friends. At the outset the premise and portrayal of Qiong’s character was rather unbelievable, given that in the previous two productions, she was portrayed as a cheeky but benevolent assistant and confidante to the princess.
This discordance aside, something about the sexualised portrayal of the three female characters – royal ladies, no less – made me squirm in my seat. All three are dressed in the same shiny gold leotard and sheer tights, with a long flowy white robe worn over the shoulders. As they tease and seduce Chun, the choreography they perform includes a “striptease” where the robe is removed, and gyrating hips and twerking movements, accentuated by the body-fitting leotards. I found it hugely disappointing that director Goh Boon Teck had seen fit to portray this scene so gratuitously, especially as it was the only instance in the play where an idea was dramatised in such a hyper-realistic manner. Other scenes including those depicting battles, drinking sprees, and even the princess’ children, were done non-realistically.
Apart from this, there were ways in which the choreography by Ryan Ang was used to good effect to support characterisation and plot – bringing to mind the show’s roots in traditional kun opera. The Sophora kingdom’s courtiers have identifying hand movements, a subtle twitching of the wrist that sets them apart from the human species. The exact movements are unique to each individual, and vary depending on the emotion appropriate for the moment – respect, fear, anticipation or joy. In a memorable choreographic sequence, the decimation of the Southern Bough army by the Red Ant army is depicted in almost complete darkness, using red- and white-coloured torch lights to signify the two sides. As the Southern Bough fighters fall one by one, their white torches flicker and go out, creating a strong visual image of the loss.
With regard to the text, director Goh chose a similar strategy as in Reverie – the Mandarin text was spoken almost entirely in verse, while the surtitles in English were more informal. Although I cannot comment on classical Chinese verse, it did strike me as disjunctive to read the English translations with internet slang such as “salty”, or the use of “my dad” as the translation for a Mandarin honorific used by royalty. However, I did appreciate that the informal register of the English translation made it very easy to read, especially when my attention was constantly divided between speed-reading the surtitles and watching the action on stage. At the same time, the use of verse in the spoken text served as an auditory reminder of the surreal setting of the work.
After a four-year journey with Southern Bough, with the trilogy extended by a year due to the pandemic, I feel rather like a companion to Chun on his epic journey. Seeing the performers in this concluding piece wearing masks throughout the show somehow did not feel awkward, but very much part of something “normal”. In this strange time we are in, when our very lives can sometimes feel surreal, Existence ends on a particularly appropriate note. When Chun awakes from his dream, he sees some ants crawling by and has a revelation. The last line of the play comments, “we’re all merely ants in existence” – are we not all equally significant, or insignificant, in the grand scheme of things?
A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence ran from 29 to 30 May at the Drama Centre Theatre and from 5 to 20 June on SIFA on Demand. This review is based on the live performance on 29 May 2021.
Guest Contributor Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society. Her reviews for the Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme can be found here.