Knowledge is Power But Laughter is the Best Medicine
Nine Years Theatre | Singapore
directed by Nelson Chia
The most noble function of humour, is that it allows for difficult things to be said. Taboo subjects are suddenly open for discussion under the guise of laughter, and with a pretence of jest and banter, sensitive issues can be dealt with in a manner so that the likelihood of causing offence is minimalised (and self preservation for the comic is usually secured). Where there is a sore spot, there inevitably lies an area of contention that represents fertile ground for artists to investigate. In the theatre, in particular, comedy is often used on surface levels to entertain, while it advocates socio-political perspectives that may be less effectively rendered within other contexts, or in fact, completely inappropriate to articulate in the absence of comedic devices.
Molière's Tartuffe was first performed in 1664. but its resonances persist, and productions continue to appear all over the world in wildly different incarnations. Its themes of religion and hypocrisy, along with the miscarriages of justice in relation to patriarchal forms of economic organisation, are more than familiar; in societies everywhere, these are problems that people grapple with veritably. Singapore is one of the more advanced Asian countries, without the chronic wealth disparity that neighbouring places face, but its history of secrecy and scandal pertaining to the upper echelons in governmental, business and religious bodies, connects firmly with the acerbity of Molière's play. It remains a problem that men in high places often wield their power in self-interested and misguided ways, behind our backs and to the detriment of communities within their influence, so the relevance and importance of Tartuffe as a timeless farce cannot be understated.
Nelson Chia's direction places emphasis on the poignancy of the narrative's themes and stories. The sociological implications of the title character's villainy as well as the instances of aristocratic ignorance are clearly demonstrated, so that the moral of the parable is resolute and prominent. Chia's own adaptation draws a beautiful parallel between Tartuffe's behaviour and contemporary concerns with religious extremism, but his text is also compassionate to personal practices of faith, mindful that religion per se is not the enemy, but the corruption of our spiritual lives is what we are to be wary of. This Chinese language version introduces an alternate ending, replacing the original's somewhat frothy wedding sequence with a surprisingly dark but authentic reading of consequences that was perhaps previously absent. Also meaningful is the way gender is presented in the production. Orgon's misogyny and cruelty in forcing his daughter to abandon the man she loves in order to marry another of her father's choice, and Marianne's own obedience are obviously problematic by our standards, but Chia depicts that injustice with sensitivity, and a necessary gravity that reveals the repugnance of that situation. It is noteworthy that the voice of reason, Cléante is played by female actor Koh Wan Ching, whose work adds an unusual dimension that encourages a distinctly gendered interpretation of the text. It can be seen that a dichotomy is formed, with wisdom only ever emerging from the feminine, and all male characters straying far from the heroic. Traditional patriarchy is a problem, and we see it exemplified here.
Less successful however, is the play's comedy. Molière's unmistakeable absurdity is watered down and portrayed with a disappointing naturalism. Without sufficient laughs, the work is left with scenes that seem too didactic, and the shortage of irony in performances makes the script's frequent sarcasm seem awkward. The abundance of earnestness in the company's approach is comforting to observe, but also a mismatch for the writing's raucous tone. There is to be sure, a sense of humour at work, but one that is not always appropriately gauged. Hang Qian Chou is entirely miscast as Tartuffe. The role requires a flamboyance and cutting satirical edge that the actor struggles to locate, and although his creation feels genuine, the lack of theatricality in his work is a substantial flaw. Theatre is always a collaborative endeavour, where individual talents merge to produce something that encompasses diverse skills and perspectives. Chia's Tartuffe seems to be of a singular vision, and it is to his credit that the production is a cohesive one, but many in his cast appear stifled and are able to express only within regimented frameworks.
Exceptions include Darius Tan who shows excellent conviction and professional focus in the role of Orgon, head of the house. With Tan's youthful energy, impact is slightly lost of a man desperate to find salvation beyond death, and the familial connotations of wills and property one leaves behind are also diminished, but his sense for timing and dramatic tension is a considerable asset to the production. Tan has a good sense of plot dynamics, and he conveys relationships and personality transitions with charm and clarity. It is not unusual that those who play the sprightly housemaid character Dorine would make an impression, but Jalyn Han is exceptional on this stage. Her vibrant energy contributes an aliveness to scenes, with impulses that feel spontaneous and fresh, a contrast to several other moments in the show that come across too arduously rehearsed. Han's confident and entertaining presence is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere that can tend toward being slightly rigid, and her intuitive creativity keeps us engaged and amused while maintaining a simultaneously coherent sense of storytelling.
Design elements are deliberately basic, but they reference the era of Louis XIV appropriately. The set consists of just three doorways and two pieces of furniture, with wings and crossover completely exposed, indicating a minimalist spirit that values the distilled essences of things over ornamentation, and an attentiveness toward the craft of performance above all else. The production is not the prettiest or the most extravagant, but it is certainly and thoroughly honest. All we have before our eyes are actors with their craft, and no apologies are made for this. The entertainment value of this Tartuffe is not wholly gratifying, and if we had laughed harder, the emotional impact of Molière's classic would have been more affecting. Nevertheless, the story is well told, and its valuable lessons are imparted with salience. We leave knowing exactly what is being communicated, if only we are able to feel it too.
photo | ©Bernie Ng