Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

“A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Reverie”: Down the Ant Hole

By Jocelyn Chng

(1,138 words, five-minute read)

My strongest memory from the first instalment of this three-year series by Toy Factory, A Dream Under the Southern Bough: The Beginning, was its dramatic cliffhanger of an ending. There, the protagonist, disgraced naval officer Chun Yu Fen, approaches a fantastical ant kingdom all set in brilliant gold; the tableau lasts for maybe five seconds… and then blackout. Given the lengths that director Goh Boon Teck and the creative team went to in order to set up such an unforgettable climactic ending, I think it was not irrational for me to expect that this year’s performance would pick up where the previous instalment left off.

Maybe I was projecting my memories of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy onto this. Maybe I should have picked up the signs from the performance writeup on the SIFA website, which actually (and strangely) makes no reference to the first instalment. But I didn’t. And so here I am sitting bewildered,  still trying to process what I just saw at A Dream Under the Southern Bough: Reverie.

In Reverie, Chun Yu Fen (Tang Shao Wei) is introduced as a drunkard whiling away his time with his good-for-nothing friends, when he runs into three ant fairies at a temple festival. These ant fairies, led by Chiong Ying (Audrey Luo), are there on the ant king’s orders, to seek out a suitable husband from the mortal world for his daughter, the princess Yao Fang (Jodi Chan). Having found their man, Chiong Ying reports back to the palace, and Chun Yu Fen is then invited to go to the Sophora Kingdom – the kingdom of the ants – to wed the princess.

I am confused because the narrative up to this point is a close repetition of the story of The Beginning, but on fast-forward, like a recap sequence at the start of a TV episode. Maybe it’s so as not to alienate audiences who did not watch the previous instalment, but surely there can be a better way than to spend a third of the two-hour performance recapping the story?

And more confusingly, whatever happened to our striking gold ant kingdom? This production looks like it could be a completely separate show. Whereas The Beginning had a largely abstract, white, minimalist straight-line kind of aesthetic, in Reverie we get Chun Yu Fen and his friends dressed in T-shirts and jeans. The set (by designer Goh Abigail) prior to Chun Yu Fen’s arrival at the ant kingdom depicts scenes, such as a bar and a video arcade, largely realistically and set in contemporary times.

When we finally get to the ant kingdom, the set pieces become more abstract – dominating the stage image are a large white central staircase, and a series of concentric ovals cut into the cyclorama and lit by LED lights (perhaps representing the ant hole). With such divergent aesthetics between the first and second instalment, how is this a trilogy, I wonder?

I am also frustrated because several early scenes depicting the ant kingdom take place behind screens where the actors are obscured. I think I see some shadow movement, but not clearly enough for it to be a shadow play sequence. Maybe it’s where I am seated, at the very far house left, where sightlines are an issue; but I’m frustrated because I want to see the actors, not have to deduce who is speaking purely by reading the surtitles!

Now that I’ve gotten some of my annoyances out of the way, I can acknowledge that the middle one-third of the performance does keep me relatively engaged. This is where we get to the Sophora Kingdom, a development of the narrative beyond what I knew before.

Southern Bough is one of four “dream” plays by eminent Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu, known collectively as the “Four Dreams.” There is something compelling about dreams as a theme in art. While not a direct parallel, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a dream, and transportation to a fairy world, is used as a device to highlight mortals’ true loves and desires.

Here we see Chun Yu Fen and the princess, Yao Fang, getting married, and subsequently being sent to the Southern Bough, a different part of the kingdom, where Chun Yu Fen is to take up a governor position. In this dream world, we see him slipping out of his depressed state and growing confident enough to take up the responsibility of a position in a remote region, which is somewhat uplifting.  

The residents of the ant kingdom have movement quirks – twitches of the head and arms, occasionally rubbing against one another. I have to commend the actors, whose commitment to the movements helps prevent the performance from crossing the thin line between serious Ming drama and comedy.

I appreciate the language used in Reverie, which maintains a literary register, even when characters are directly addressing each other. For someone who barely understands contemporary Mandarin, I do not find the text inaccessible. Perhaps this is thanks to the translated English surtitles being more conversational than the spoken Mandarin. This helps to maintain the connection to the text’s literary origins, while managing to keep me interested in the storyline.

Language is another area in which The Beginning and Reverie feel like completely different works instead of parts of a trilogy. Whereas in the former, the abstract designs and blocking were paired with contemporised dialogue, here it looks like director Goh has decided to try the reverse, with naturalistic designs and blocking (at least in the “real world”) paired with formal archaic dialogue.

The plot starts to drag again in the last third of the performance, where the king and queen of the Sophora Kingdom throw a big send-off for Chun Yu Fen and the princess. But just as I am wondering how much longer it will take for the couple to get to the Southern Bough, in a bizarre twist, the scene shifts to the Sandalwood kingdom, where a chorus of red ants is seen waging war on Sophora.

This scene lasts maybe five minutes – longer than the five seconds of The Beginning – and this time the stage picture is red instead of gold. The eight red ants and their leader are in exaggerated costumes, with clunky attachments around the arms and legs, reminding me of the Transformers. They march and chant their war cry… and then blackout.

The audience doesn’t know whether to clap for the next few seconds. The cast reappears on stage, singing a “theme song” that feels unnecessary; given that there has been only one other instance of singing during the performance, I am pretty sure this is not a musical.

I really don’t know what to expect for the third and final instalment, Existence. And maybe that’s a good thing.

A Dream Under the Southern Bough – Reverie by Toy Factory Productions ran from 31 May – 2 June 2019 at the Drama Centre Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

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.

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