By Akanksha Raja
(850 words, six-minute read)
In Framed, by Adolf, playwright-director Chong Tze Chien’s fascination with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust continues from 2016’s Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde, which explored the idea of the dictator as a failed artist. Framed revolves not so much around Hitler, but the journey of one of his (fictional) artworks from before his rise to power, through WWII, and into the the 21st century contemporary art market – extending Chong’s commentary on the parallels between art and politics, particularly in the malleability and shadow-play of truth and fiction.
Framed was partially inspired by a story Chong had heard on a trip to Poland and Germany about Solomon Perel, a Jewish youth who managed to escape persecution by pretending to be a Nazi supporter. Framed’s protagonist, Abdown “the Victim” (Joshua Lim) is a fugitive Jew who discovers how to take advantage of this disguise after Anton (Tan Shou Chen), a terminally ill Gentile, allows him to adopt his identity after his death. Understanding nothing about the political climate, Abdown believes Hitler has become a famous artist, and is on a quest is to present to him a painting that the tyrant had sold to him before his rise to power.
This isn’t exactly Abdown’s story, but one that is framed by his beguiling granddaughter “The Seller” (Serene Chen) in the present day, where she shuffles between the respective offices of an auctioneer (Tim Nga), a businessman and prospective buyer (Darius Tan), and an art history professor (Tan Shou Chen) to authenticate and sell the painting that she claims to have inherited from Abdown. She strolls across the stage as an omniscient narrator, as Abdown scampers from hideout to hideout through Germany. The difference in time periods and between generations is starkly defined by lighting and set: when the narrative shifts to the present, highlighting the Seller’s pursuit of profit from the artwork, pastel neon lights in quirky shapes descend close to the stage, referencing the kitschy, showy and commercial side of the contemporary art market. The landscape of Abdown’s story, which sprawls across various German cities and towns, allows for The Finger Players’ signature use of shadow puppetry (operated by Ang Hui Bin and Myra Loke) to spread across the backdrop. It is most visually stunning when silhouettes of buildings, trains and trees loom and tremble ominously, but the aesthetic often feels secondary to the storytelling. In Starring Hitler, for example, shadow puppetry was used to amplify certain characters or dynamics, whereas in Framed, the use of shadow puppetry – beyond visually depicting physical landscapes – feels rather more like an animated wallpaper than a cohesive and integral part of the production.
Abdown’s story of innocence and helplessness and his endearing naiveté and simple-mindedness recalled to me the classic Italian film Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella), that highlighted the noble courage and strength of innocent wonder and childlike optimism set against the bleak and horrific backdrop of the Holocaust. But despite situating itself around the terror of the Holocaust, Framed isn’t about its horror and brutality. Much of the play’s spirit is comedic, and often farcical in its depiction of the Nazi regime. The Nazi soldiers and their treatment of Jews are satirised – for example, in a comical sequence where they explain how to identify a Jew – which somewhat trivialises the odds that Abdown is up against. One exception is a chilling moment when Abdown finds himself handling a sack of his aunt’s hair while helping out on a “farm” under the care of a good-natured family; this is one of the few glimpses into the brutality of the era.
One of the key questions that I mulled over through the production was: can a Singaporean play out, or write, the lived experiences of oppression and persecution faced by Jews in the Holocaust and claiming ownership of these specific social, political and cultural experiences? The performers eschew the German accent and their tonalities are decidedly Singaporean, marking and acknowledging a cultural distance. During their ensemble introduction at the beginning of the work the audience watches each actor shifting into character, being handed props and smoothening their clothes, which also conveys the play’s themes of fictional constructs and the narrativity of historical accounts. During his interview with Centre 42, Chong recounts being asked a similar question to mine. He answers, “everything that was going on in 1930s Germany – like xenophobia and racism – is still happening today … I don’t see it as an Asian’s take on a European history. I just see it as a human take on a story of us, as humans, and that’s all there is to it.” Framed did not address concerns about xenophobia and racism, and the Holocaust serves as a vehicle to channel the play’s broader philosophical themes that have little to do with “universal” human experiences of discrimination and persecution. Nevertheless, it’s commendable the meticulous craft that has gone into this play, and what remains resonant is the exploration of the pliable nature of truth in political and personal histories.
Framed, by Adolf by the Finger Players ran from 15 – 17 June 2018 at Victoria Theatre. This review is based on the performance on 15 June 2018.