Review: Lion (The Wright Stuff Festival 2021)

Warning: major spoilers ahead

Disclaimer: the following introduction is completely fIctIoNaL and ARTistic and any resemblance to reality is purely cOiNcIdENtAL.

[A plain, round, marble dining table. BROTHER 1 sits at the table, a pink box labelled “COVID-19 ANTIGEN RAPID TEST” on the cover lies open next to him on the table. He is spreading some jam on a slice of bread.]

[BROTHER 2 enters]

BRO 2: Eh, bro!

BRO 1: Eh, bro!

[They start to embrace one another, then BROTHER 2 abruptly backs away.]

BRO 2: Eh bro, wait — you… took ART test already?

BRO 1: [winks knowingly] Of course la, bro!

[BROTHER 2 looks relieved, and they embrace, before sitting down.]

BRO 2:Eh bro, so ah, I just came from this art jamming session ah, wah, SO relaxing eh!

BRO 1: [laughs] Why you need to pay money for that kind of thing? Just ask me to teach you la! [gestures exaggeratedly towards the jam he is spreading. There is an awkward silence.]

BRO 2: Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!! Because you are an ARTist right? [forced laughter] hahaha… I get it… but see, that’s the point, it was free! Wah it was so good eh, the teacher ah, he give us all these err… “platelet” ah they call it? Ah, whatever la, these plates of paint lah. Then he tell us to, er, “draw as your mind leads you. There is no judgment in this space.” Wah seriously eh, after I finish ah, I feel like, wah… [look of satisfaction] like… like I very zen lei! Come, I show you my picture!

BRO 1: [excitedly] Oh, ok ok!

[BROTHER 2 leaves, and returns rapidly holding a canvas that is painted completely black. He displays it proudly. Another awkward silence.]

BRO 1: Huh?

BRO 2: Huh?

[Blackout.]

— — —

So I had wanted to respond to this as part of a commitment and promise to myself to write about whatever I watch for as long as foreseeably possible, but a series of personal setbacks stymied my efforts at writing for a good long while. But, like every other good Singaporean, the best motivation for restarting something that you love to do is a good healthy dose of anything that makes you want to scream like the incessant uncle at the entrance to a hawker centre shouting “eh, injection, injection!”

I’m kidding. I’m not that uncle. Or am I?

Suffice to say, reading something apropos of Lion re-ignited my desire (actually, not desire, my need) to respond in a way that was more justifiable, and indeed more appropriate, to this show.

I was bothered by many things, but to minimise the risk that I sound like Injection Uncle, I’m probably only going to talk about three of these.

Staging

Although plonking a concentric circle in the middle of the audience seems more like theatre-in-the-round to me, maybe it wasn’t so to others in the audience. But identifying with the staging (and of course the set) as a theatre-in-the-round piece to me seemed a crucial artistic choice here: we (as one audience) become privy to all that is happening at any dramatic scene in the play. Whether it’s Pastor Sam’s (Sharon Mah) face that was turned away from me but no doubt visible to to the audience segment on her right, or Yi Kai’s (Lim Wei Wen Wayne) facial expressions during his phone quarrel with Jack (Clement Yeo) (which only audience to my left could see), it seemed a masterful artistic and directorial choice that reminded us that not only do conflicts have many perspectives, but that these perspectives are endless, much like the angles of a circle, and we can never fully understand all the different ways there are to view one.

I could very easily see Lion being re-staged on a proscenium stage (or even a thrust stage…?) but with the view of each and every audience member being more or less standardised. Given enough money, I would see another performance of Lion, but seated somewhere else, to see the looks on those characters turned away during major dramatic scenes, and to indeed see if we as an audience stand for a different character simply by sitting somewhere else.

Lighting (and scene changes)

Maybe I just haven’t read enough reviews, but it feels like I don’t come across that many articles dwelling on the effects of how scene changes are carried out, and how that makes us feel as audience.

Lion’s scene changes were rapid, and often made use of the familiar toll of a school bell that all students who had through primary and even secondary education at an “all schools are good schools” MOE school would recognise.

For me, the toll of the bell brought to mind a pleasant reminder: the bell that told us it was time for recess. The contrast between the warm, nostalgic childhood reminder and the many high-tension scenes that happened after the bell resounded through the black box reminded us that though the fight for each person’s own sense of what is justice in a the play is messy, one thing is clear: Yi Kai’s memory of his school days is very clearly different from how Jack remembers it, and his perceived lack of empathy for the torture Jack suffered in the past under him is the whole reason for Jack’s vengeance against him. In that sense, the scene changes subtly yet significantly influence how we feel watching this whole spectacle unfold.

Though at times I found the lighting slightly superfluous, which took away from the realism of the show (re: Yi Kai’s sparring with Daniel near the beginning of the play and the spotlight’s focus on them), one very fundamental function that the lighting achieved rather successfully was how it reflected the emotions present at certain points of the play. Sure, it doesn’t suddenly rain on us whenever Mr/s Right has finally broken up with us for the 99th time, but if any element of a play helps me better understand what’s going on without spelling it out in my face, I’d say that’s a win.

The Ending (phew! this is a lot of writing… as you can probably tell, I haven’t done this in a while)

Would I say that Lion brought us on a roller coaster of emotions as the play progressed?

To be honest, if you watch enough soap operas and (maybe) Channel 8 or even Singaporean-flavoured dramas, you’d kind of expect a happy ending at the end of the play. Lion seemed to be driving towards this kind of Mediacorp-y ending, but instead, in the penultimate scene, it transported the audience into a live judicial proceeding where Yi Kai was tried for the possession of drugs (that weren’t his) and Daniel lost what was to him the best guardian he could ever have.

To me, that was the one twist that I kind of wasn’t expecting, and up til that point, I was more-or-less convinced that Jack did want what was best for Daniel. But the emphatic and monochrome court proceedings we see Yi Kai in at the end was enough for me to question Jack’s morals and humanity entirely, based on the fact that we saw him confiscate Daniel’s contrabands midway through the play. The inclusion of this single, heavy and impactful lead-up to the end was what felt laudable to me, and which internally made me tip my hat to playwright Jedidiah Huang. The artistic choice to stage the court scene with invisible voices of authority only increased this sense of foreboding in us as audience, and to me, increased how wrongful I felt Jack’s supposed actions were.

So were my emotions brought on a roller coaster? No. But a sharp, 90-degree anglular turn at the end, maybe.

The Ending (Part 2)

No, Lion doesn’t remind us that everybody can change. Yes, our actions can change, but sometimes, what we hold onto doesn’t. And sometimes, we don’t even realise what we hold onto from our past and how that past shackles us, which is why sometimes, we go for therapy. But mental health isn’t exactly what this ramble is going on about.

The point is, as Ms Nora Samosir (bless her kind soul) once remarked in a final presentation I was doing, in student productions, we sometimes question if poor lighting decisions or even the lack of certain scenic elements (like the choice of music) are a result of poor execution and the inexperience of amateur theatremakers. But in public shows by acclaimed theatre companies, we have to assume all choices were intentional, and artistic ones as well. So however messy, however much we think “this should have been there” or “the lighting could have been blue instead of white”, for me, it always begs the question: “Why was this here? And why do I think it shouldn’t?”

At this point, I need to sincerely thank the voice that propelled me to write this, and to re-invigorate my brain to write once again.

— — —

LION (2021) was one of three plays staged as part of The Wright Stuff Festival 2021 by Toy Factory Productions at Gateway Theatre’s Black Box. A biennial playwright mentorship programme that focused on the theme, “Inwards”, The Wright Stuff Festival urged aspiring playwrights to create and submit new works which move people to be introspective and reflect as people within the community. LION explored the past and present conflict of two men whose unresolved and problematic histories implicate the custodianship of an orphan, and questions the hold our past has over our present and our future.

Director: Aricia Ng

Playwright: Jedidiah Huang

Cast:

Lim Wei Wen Wayne (Yi Kai)

Clement Yeo (Jack)

Sharon Mah (Pastor Sam)

Bryan Tee (Danial)

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Philippe Pang

Philippe Pang

A communicator at heart; a manager at hand, but always the speaker of the truth for those who cannot.