By Eugene Koh
(860 words, 7-minute read)
If there is one word that could describe our current global political climate, that word could only be “absurd”. After all, in a world where presidents tweet gibberish and incumbent Prime Ministers robotically repeat campaign slogans, one could even go so far as to claim that the world is not only absurd but absurdist. The failure of language, the failure of meaning, the failure to make sense of the world: these are key features of absurdist plays like the classic The Bald Soprano.
In this context, it is even more remarkable that instead of a more established theatre company, it is young & W!LD, Wild Rice’s youth theatre wing, that took to staging The Bald Soprano. Fitting perhaps, considering that the voice of the youth has been talked about so much lately. One might start to ask then: will this production be an enlightening perspective on how youths today perceive the world?
We enter the Drama Centre Black Box to be greeted with a lavish set, complete with a mantelpiece, a working cuckoo clock, elegant furniture, working doors to the stage left and right and a secret entrance through the chimney for good measure. As the play begins, the clock strikes exactly nine, the hour which Mrs Smith begins her monologue to Mr Smith. The play continues from there, with the entrances of the Fire Chief and the Martins. They enter and tell stories while waiting for something to happen.
Something is wrong: up until this point, everything looks and feels like a realist play.
A few illogical statements here and there extracted a few unsure chuckles from the audience. As the play drones on, it becomes painfully clear that through the absurd dialogue and meaninglessness of the text, the young actors were struggling to present a truthful presentation of their characters.
Let that sink in: the young actors were trying to embody the meaning of a technically meaningless play.
Absurdist plays are not performed as often today for a variety of reasons; one of them is that you cannot simply attach a simple methodology to extract a simple meaning from these plays. Plays like The Bald Soprano or the even more famous Waiting for Godot resist simplistic interpretation. Any declared attempt to direct an ‘anti-play’ to be watchable as a challenge, like how the director of this production did, would be like an overly-optimistic gamble on a snap election.
In the director’s message, Rodney Olivero stated that “if [the actors] can wring meaning […] out of a text so ardently devoted to snuffing out classical dramatic structure, then they pass the test”. Olivero seems to have forgotten that, regardless of the young & W!LD program to train and nurture young talents in the theatre industry, the production of the piece is also a test on the director as well.
And this test of making an anti-play watchable is one that he struggles to pass.
Although Olivero is aware of the context of The Bald Soprano, he fails to recognise the implications behind it. While the play was indeed based on Eugene Ionesco’s experience with ‘English Without Pain”, the original language of the play is actually in French laced with English names and a few words. As a Singaporean audience watches young & W!LD actors attempting posh English accents in playing English middle-class families, they would have completely missed the effect of the exaggerated parody, absurdity and foreignness of the English middle-class lifestyle on a French audience. All the audience sees is a Victorian drawing room play with confusing dialogue.
Despite the fact that everyone in this play had to perform in the accent of our previous colonial masters and embody illogical constructs of characters, the energies of the cast were, individually, definitely watchable. Indeed, the cast of young actors put up a valiant display of their acting prowess despite the restrictions they had to work around with. However, the challenge the director has set on the young actors to take on an absurdist piece using naturalist methods of acting proved to be too great.
But even naturalism could not hold up with Ionesco’s dramatic descent into chaotic absurdity in the last ten minutes of the show. As the fire chief exits, the couples bicker and quarrel among each other, engaging in sexually suggestive physical comedy while spouting quotes from an English textbook. All of the sudden, the flimsy pretense of realist acting is finally abandoned after seventy minutes of weird dialogue. Is this absurdism then?
No, it is just purely absurd.
As Olivero pointed out in his director’s message, it is true that absurdism has become something of a culturally accepted phenomenon. In a world where many of us struggle to grasp onto meaning, the similar predicaments of characters stuck in an absurdist play should have elicited empathy and moments of recognition from the audience.
Instead, staging an absurdist play as a traditional dramatic piece only serves to ironically cut off an audience who are desperate to find meaning in an absurd world. As they watch characters who seem to be comfortable with meaninglessness, they might just leave the theatre wondering if there was any point watching The Bald Soprano after all.
The Bald Soprano was staged at Black Box Drama Centre Theatre, from 7 – 11 June, by young & W!LD, the youth wing of W!ld Rice. This review is based on the performance at 8pm on 7 June, 2017.
Guest Contributor Eugene Koh has a wide and varied plethora of interests, from banknote collecting to creating constructed writing systems. His greatest interest lies in the craft of theatre, and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is committed to encouraging and engaging with a new theatre scene that is brave enough to tackle uncertain issues in a challenging world of the future.