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Theatre review: Toy Factory Production adapts a Chinese classic for the stage

A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Reverie is a straightforward adaptation of the classic 400-year-old Kun opera.

Staging a 400-year-old Kun opera as spoken theatre is a daring, even polarising, decision, which pays off delightfully in A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Reverie.

It is the second part of an ambitious three-year project commissioned for the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Helmed by director Goh Boon Teck of Toy Factory Productions, the project is a three-part staging of Tang Xianzu’s fantasy about naval officer Chun Yu Fen, who enters the kingdom of the ants in a drunken dream, marries its princess and lives out an entire life in the space of an afternoon nap.

Last year’s A Dream Under The Southern Bough: The Beginning was an intimate, studio-theatre staging of the first part of the story.

This year’s Reverie revisits and reworks the first part – a luxury for local theatre groups, made possible only by the festival’s backing – and covers more ground, literally and metaphorically.

More chapters in the opera are depicted on stage, including the royal couple’s journey to the idyllic province of the Southern Bough, which they will rule.

Choosing the larger Drama Centre Theatre also induces returning viewers to realise that they are viewing a bigger picture this time around, notably through the watchful eyes of a Buddhist monk (played with serene benevolence by Li Te).

The monk is a witness to Chun’s journey and will prove the latter’s guide towards enlightenment.

Set and lighting (by Abigail Goh and Petrina Dawn Tan respectively) swing superbly between realism and the fantastical, emphasising the surreal nature of the narrative. A change in lighting and the monk watches ant politics through a translucent screen.

A different set of spotlights and the ants are hidden by the solid brick wall of the pub, where Chun (superbly played by Tang Shao Wei) drinks away his days.

The opera is stripped of its traditional melodies, heritage costumes and stylistic gestures, but these are replaced by poetic recitals from the well-handled cast, eye-catching ensembles from designers Tube Gallery, as well as acrobatic flourishes and eerily beautiful insect-like movements from performers playing the ants (Audrey Luo is especially riveting).

On one level, Reverie is a straightforward adaptation of a Chinese classic, making a historic art form accessible to contemporary audiences.

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On another level, it straddles the line between escapist fantasy and psychological horror.

Chun’s chariot to the Ant Kingdom is a wheelbarrow full of discarded alcohol bottles and cans.

Friends who bid his drunken, doomed character a snooty farewell in real life reappear as bosom buddies in the fantasy. Even as the audience revels in the happiness he finds in this dream, there is a terrible suspicion that all is not well beneath the surface.

This unease is the heart of the original opera, inspired by the Buddhist belief that everything perceived by one’s senses is illusion and that attachment to any sort of material situation will not end well.

Is this real life? Or is it fantasy? No matter what one’s personal philosophy is, epic romance, heroic battles and a cliffhanger ending make this show a must-see and raise hopes for next year’s finale.

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

Photo: Toy Factory Productions