16 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #4 - "Heat"

When they talked about heat I thought I knew what they meant, but I want you to know that I didn’t.

I remember something when I was young called boil-in-the-bag rice. I’m sure that if such a product exists nowadays it’s much better, but in those days it was a plastic bag that turned rice into a sticky mass of steamed sludge. I now know just how it felt. Son & Heir and I both brought shirts to last us the week, or so we thought. We’re currently buying at least one new shirt a day. We get through several changes of clothes between breakfast and tea time. Fortunately shirts are cheap. Even so, I advise anyone approaching Singapore between now and when I leave on Sunday night to do so up wind.

This city is amazing. It is a beautiful, elegant, friendly city, full of beautiful, elegant, friendly people. (S & H has charitably informed me that I am probably the fattest person he has seen so far in Singapore. Cheers, son.) It is also a very tolerant city. While we have been here a Christian couple have been jailed for sending religious tracts, including inflammatory anti-Muslim tracts, to people through the post. In sentencing them the Judge said that their behaviour attacked the very foundations of Singapore’s society, which was based upon tolerance and respect for all religions. What a message to send out to the world!

Actually my rather eccentric granny used to send religious tracts to strangers through the post. She would get her pension and a copy of the electoral register and bombard the inhabitants of her town with anonymous leaflets. When she died I am sure the police scratched their heads and wondered what had happened to suddenly reduce racial tensions in her sleepy little seaside resort. To think! If she’d been here she’d have been in gaol!

We went sightseeing, and took part in Singapore’s favourite national pastime - Shopping! They have a special supplement in the newspaper today, talking about the phenomenal zeal that the locals have for hovering their way through the city, buying stuff at prices generally far higher than in Asia. Mind you, it obviously works for them. Small sign of a recession here. The skyline is dotted with cranes, and the building goes on apace. Bars and restaurants are full, even if S&H was charged $20 for a beer in one place. I was rather smug only having paid $10, but mine was a half-litre. The first thing I intended to do when I got here was to have a Singapore Sling in Raffles, but when I heard the price of them I nearly passed out (something which sounded to me around the cost of a medium-sized family car. For a drink!)

Anyway, there are all sorts of bargains to be had in Singapore. They have a Great Singapore Sale, which runs for two months, and is currently approaching its climax. Food is cheap, and amongst the best in the world, public transport is cheap, clean and reliable, taxis are not usually expensive, and you can pick up a tailor made cashmere suit in a few hours for about £175. Programmes at the Festival events are free!

Long Life by New Riga Theatre (Latvia) was seen in Edinburgh in the past. It’s the sort of production which is always going to be popular on the international festival circuit, because it is basically dialogue free. It is also the sort of production that no subsidised company in Western Europe would ever mount. It consists of five elderly people living in a house, and it is a study of the minutiae of their existence throughout a day and night. Latvia is part of that Russian tradition of theatre which is so different from our three-weeks-rehearsal-and-bung-it-on-for-a-few-weeks approach. The production has been painstakingly put together over a long period, and allowed to mature into an incredibly detailed piece of physical theatre, which is funny, agonising and intensely poignant in its depiction of the awful, squalid, lonely, meaningless lives that many old people are forced to endure.

The point is, the actors are all young, or young-ish. They aren’t made up to look old. They act old, in a very very detailed way, without patronising or ridiculing or resorting to cliché. The setting is incredibly detailed too, with a real feeling of truthfulness rather than literal reality. In the programme the director talks about the non-hierarchical privileging of the audience’s focus, and the spectator editing for him or herself. “Hello” thinks I “this sounds like two spherical objects”, but actually it was great. We observed these people’s lives almost voyeuristically, and we watched what we wanted to watch. OK, the school kids in the audience were a little more interested in the bodily functions bits than I was, but they enjoyed that in their own way.

The piece of work it most reminded me of was Tadeus Kantor’s Dead Class, (how long ago was THAT!) although that was the other way round, with old actors playing their younger selves, but the pace and the feel was similar. At the end the actors received a standing ovation. I have to say S&H hated it with a passion, and made me leave before the director came out to talk about it. Not everybody’s cup of tea, then, but if you like that sort of intense, visceral and ultimately very Eastern European sort of production, it was a very good example. Certainly I have always admired actors from the Russian tradition (if Latvians will excuse me calling them that) for the incredible physical detail of their performances, and these five were pretty much as good as any I have seen. OK, the Maly Theatre’s Uncle Vanya or Gaudeamus might be better, but these actors compare favourably with all the rest. (Gaudeamus is the only thing I’ve ever seen that can compare to NTOS’s Black Watch, the best thing I’ve seen in years).

The Festival here has a strong presence. Taxi drivers and restauranteurs are proud of it. They realise what it means to tourism, but also to the city’s sense of itself. The settings of the Esplanade Theatre and Concert Hall are staggering. The city is a wonderful backdrop. The whole festival experience is extremely good. This Festival combines some of the elements that in Edinburgh are covered by the Fringe, and at present this works, but when, as I am sure will happen, the festival grows, they will have to choose a path. My belief is that they should encourage, as Edinburgh has done, a separate Fringe to grow on its own, and concentrate on the wonderful high-end international events that they have managed to attract. Of course top artists will to come here and take part. What’s not to like? Great venues, enthusiastic audiences, friendly people and a great festival city.

Ronan Paterson, the lucky e-bulletin subscriber who won our Singapore Arts Festival competition, is currently sending through regular updates on his Festival adventures.

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