“A Dream Under the Southern Bough – The Beginning”: Kun Opera for the Millennial Stage

By Jocelyn Chng

(813 words, 5-minute read)

A Festival Commission for the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2018, Toy Factory’s A Dream Under the Southern Bough – The Beginning is, as the title suggests, the first part of a continuing work. The second and third parts of the complete trilogy are planned for subsequent years of SIFA, in line with the Festival’s position to “commission and facilitate the creation of new Singaporean work – giving artists the time and resources to develop shows over a two- or three-year horizon,” as stated in the Festival Director’s message.

An adaptation of a kun opera masterpiece, this work is indeed daring and intriguing in terms of taking on the perhaps slightly worn issue of tradition versus modernity. I do appreciate director Goh Boon Teck’s endeavour to work on a 400-year-old kun opera piece and make it relevant to today’s audience. For someone who hardly watches Chinese opera and who would not otherwise have been exposed to this work by one of the most well-known Ming Dynasty playwrights – Tang Xianzu – this performance of Southern Bough does not come across as inaccessible. This is despite the fantastical subject matter – Chun Yu Fen (Tang Shao Wei), a navy officer, is transported to an ant kingdom, and Qiong Ying (Kong Xiang Chi) is a Puck-like character of an ant fairy – which treads a fine line between the suspension of disbelief and outright absurdity in today’s context.

Tang’s poetic text is recited by the different performers as interludes between scenes, evoking the mystical dream world, and providing a bridge between Tang’s 16th century literary world and the more contemporised dialogue that occurs within scenes. The text has been adapted by Goh and script editor Zhu Xin Chen to include contemporary references, such as Chun Yu Fen’s friends moving up the corporate ladder and being awarded grants to conduct research. Shang Zhe (Audrey Luo), Chun Yu Fen’s lackadaisical cousin, is constantly glued to his smartphone, and Qi Xuan (Lei Jian), the monk, uses an Apple watch to conduct hypnosis. The inclusion of technological devices in this way could perhaps come across as a rather obvious means of adapting or updating Tang’s work; however the references are sustained enough that they do not appear disjunctive in the overall piece.

Resources to produce the work are certainly evident in some respects. The costumes by Tube Gallery give off a white minimalist aesthetic, with performers subtly putting on or removing layers to indicate different characters. Wigs and hair, designed by Ashley Lim, are immaculately coiffed – Qiong Ying, in particular, looks as if he has just stepped off a fashion runway and stumbled upon this set. In a somewhat baffling final scene, a dazzlingly intricate gold-painted set and an also immaculately-dressed supporting cast of ten are deployed for all of a few seconds.

The performers’ presentational movement style is presumably a deliberate reflection of the stylistic aspects of traditional kun opera. The characters rarely face or acknowledge each other when speaking, even when the dialogue obviously reflects a direct conversation, but are often physically positioned at separate areas of the stage and speak facing the audience. This staging convention could be an effective choice; however, performers do not always have the presence or vocal sensitivity to carry it out convincingly.

Movement transitions within and between scenes occur in a slow, rather meditative tempo. Such a performance aesthetic is admittedly challenging to achieve, requiring a high level of physical sensitivity. Within the cast, varying levels of precision can be seen – especially in scene transitions where the performers’ movements, even those as simple as walking or carrying props offstage, are obviously choreographed and very much part of the stage action. The overall performance quality as an ensemble is thus weakened by a lack of synchronicity in timing and movement quality amongst the performers.

Going back to the goal of the 2018-2020 SIFA cycle mentioned earlier, SIFA’s support for developing meaningful local work potentially fills a much needed gap in the Singaporean arts scene – artists in Singapore have lamented ad nauseum the struggle to develop original work within the time and budgetary constraints determined by the economics of producing work in the local context.

However, the question that is most on my mind with this work is the choice to commission and develop a trilogy of such epic proportions in parts, rather than seeing through the long-term, but perhaps necessary, process of developing a more self-contained work. Based on this first part of the Southern Bough trilogy, I would question the apparent focus on costumes and set at the expense of developing performers and textual material. Given that the next two years will need to be spent working on the next two sections of the trilogy, I then wonder to what extent this is unlike producing one work a year – in other words falling into the usual local model of production that we have recognised as problematic?

This review is based on the performance on 1 May 2018, 3pm. A Dream Under the Southern Bough – The Beginning by Toy Factory Productions ran from 30 April to 1 May at the SOTA Studio Theatre.

Jocelyn Chng holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research. She is currently building her portfolio career as an educator and practitioner in dance and theatre, while pursuing an MA in Education (Dance Teaching). She is a founding member of the Song and Dance (SoDa) Players – a registered musical theatre society in Singapore, with whom she does choreography/movement training and production work. Jocelyn also writes for Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme. Her reviews can be found here/.

About the author(s)

Jocelyn Chng (Singapore) is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre. She has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot, Centre 42 and The Straits Times. 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.

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