17 June, 2009

Singapore Arts Festival Blog #5 - "The Cherry Orchard and the Art of Shopping"

Ronan and 'S&H' at Hotel Rendezvous, Singapore. A loyal fan of the Edinburgh International Festival since the age of 12, Ronan is seen here carrying the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival bag.

Today to Chinatown, having done Little India yesterday. Singapore is a genuinely multi-cultural society. I’d love to get some of those BNP types over here and show them what a multi-ethnic society with a transient international population is achieving, that leaves the UK in the cold. In Chinatown there is a major Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple and a Mosque virtually next to each other, with the Christians just down the road, and although I don’t know it, I’d be surprised if there isn’t a synagogue somewhere nearby as well.

In Chinatown the selling is a little more aggressive, but still nowhere near as extreme in the hassle department as some places I could mention. Son and Heir asked me how all these people support themselves in Singapore, a place with few if any natural resources. “They sell” I said. Certainly this is a place founded on and steeped in commerce. Sell or die, I’d say.

Inevitably we buy shirts, as I am now utterly drookit. We also visit the beautiful Buddhist temple, where they have one of the Buddha’s teeth, but we don’t see that. I am still smarting from some very expensive bridge work I had just before we left, and I don’t want reminding. This evening we met with the Festival’s Director, Goh Ching Lee, who came to see us before going to meet the country’s president. She was a very knowledgeable lady with a wide perspective on the world’s arts scene, and had a strong vision of what the festival is, and can become such a great time we nearly missed the play. She left us with three of her absolutely charming staff, who have all made us feel incredibly welcome every time we have encountered them. We were having such a great time we had to run to catch the play.

Before going into the theatre I saw Joanna MacGregor, whose concert I had enjoyed a couple of nights ago. I went up and told her so, (well, as you do if you’ve got a neck like a jockey’s…backside) and she turned out to be really nice. We chatted for a moment, and I have to say she was really down to earth and lovely. Note to self – find her CDs when we get home. One regret – I didn’t ask her about the shoes. (cf previous blog).

Tonight it has been a Chinese production of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lin Zhaohua. I nearly dropped my teeth when I heard it was him. He is one of the few names I know in contemporary Chinese theatre. He worked a lot with the Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, (world famous but of course unheard of in Britain), and believe it or believe it not I have just edited a book where one of the chapters, written by an American contributor, describes their joint fight to put on Gao’s play Bus Stop, which was banned. There’s even a photograph of Lin with Gao in the book! There he was, in person.

The play was done in a comparatively stylised manner. We Europeans are used to our Chekhov being naturalistic, but this wasn’t. There was lot of direct address to the audience , and some very moving physical theatre sequences. The final dying fall when they leave at the end was heartbreaking. Ranevskya was played by Jiang Wenli, known to Western audiences from the film Farewell My Concubine. She is a luminously beautiful actress, and her performance was lovely. If I have criticism at all, and it seems carping, she looks so young and beautiful that the faded quality in Ranevskya was missing. This Ranevskya could have picked up a movie deal and saved the estate, or else pulled a millionaire to bail her out.

The production was directed somewhat as a star vehicle for her and Zhang Yi, who played Trofimov. His performance didn’t work so well for me, although I have to say that the audience loved him. He made a number of appearances hanging from a ladder through the ceiling, played his big speeches as rants straight out to the audience, and played all the scenes with Anya for laughs in a fairly broad way. The surtitles are always a problem with these productions, especially when, as they were tonight, the screens are at the sides. I have a problem often with surtitles, in that the screens hurt my eyes and I have to close them. S&H dug me indignantly in the ribs a couple of times, thinking I was dropping off. The pictures on stage were lovely, and S&H surprised me by a) knowing the play, proving he HAD read something in those four years at university, and b) enjoying the production. A relief after last night, I can tell you.

He took me to a food place he had discovered afterwards. I wanted to stay for the post-show discussion, but of course it turned out to be in Chinese (well du-uh!) so we body swerved it and went for some food instead. I said yesterday that shopping is Singapore’s national sport – correction. It is eating. (So answer me this then, how come they’re all so slim? Doesn’t seem fair.) We were celebrating. The big news we’ve had today, mind, is that S&H has got his first job interview, for a job in Korea, no less. His first visit to Asia may well be the first of…lots. Me? I’m so chuffed for him I may just have to find somewhere he can’t see me and do a little dance. Needless to say, we ate Korean food. I hope it’s an omen.

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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