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For much of the play, Mironov impresses us with his acting prowess by competently playing every main character.
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Ten actresses in 10 beds lie next to individual audience members to tell them a story.
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The Last Supper dissects class differences in Egyptian society.

Intimate moments and inventive spectacles

The three shows that kicked off the six-week Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016 ranged from an actual bed encounter with a stranger to a one-man Hamlet in a spinning cube.
Aug 19, 2016 5:50 AM

Living in a box

HAMLET | COLLAGE

THE most astonishing scene in Hamlet | Collage is the drowning of Ophelia. Here, we see a heartrending but visually stunning depiction of Shakespeare's tragic heroine slowly sinking deeper and deeper into dark swirling waters, her lifeless body limp as a ragdoll.

The actor playing Ophelia is not a woman but a man playing all the parts of the play, now suspended from wires and playing dead. And the swirling waters are but video projections on a large spinning cube of a stage. Yet the scene is so technically brilliant and emotionally audacious, it may well be the most vivid depiction of Ophelia's death in history.

Robert Lepage's direction of Hamlet has a few other technical feats such as this, but none matches the purity and perfection of this moment.

For much of the play, famous Russian actor Evgeny Mironov impresses us with his acting prowess by competently playing every main character, from Hamlet and his uncle, to his mother Gertrude and his potential wife Ophelia.

But there's something faintly gimmicky about Lepage's devices. And one starts to tire of the way Lepage and Mironov constantly come up with different tricks to channel all the iconic characters and famous scenes through one actor and one multi-purpose cube respectively.

Lepage, one of the biggest names in the festival circuit, certainly knows his way around stage technology. And the audacity of trying to contain the Danish tragedy within the confines of a cube is something to laud.

But on balance the play lacks a lot of the emotional resonance of a good Hamlet. And it's hard to feel for the various characters when in certain crucial scenes, Mironov has to flit from one role to another - literally, at one point, at a drop of a hat.

Sure, this man can act. And yes, the set is revolutionary. But does it deepen one's understanding of Shakespeare's best play, revel in the complexity of his language or even move you - old-fashioned as those expectations may be? Perhaps not.


Your life in 10 minutes

EVERYTHING BY MY SIDE

WHO would have thought that a brief 10-minute encounter with an actress in bed would turn out to be such an effective piece of theatre? But this extremely intimate work at National Gallery Singapore succeeds in evoking your entire life through the power of suggestion. And this reviewer emerged from it slightly dazed and devastated by what just occurred in a brief timespan.

In Everything By My Side, created by Argentinian writer-director Fernando Rubio, 10 pristine beds with 10 actresses of varying ages and nationalities lying in them invite individual members of the audience to join them for 10 minutes.

You lie on your side while the actress speaks directly to you or to no one in particular. Sometimes she caresses your face or arms. Sometimes she lowers her voice to such hushed tones you strain to hear her. But it is the words that are most germane to the experience.

Spoilers ahead: speaking gently, the actress evokes a moment in your early childhood, youth, adulthood and, finally, old age and death. She begins by asking you to imagine or recall a moment when you were left alone as a child and you saw a frightening image. After a pause, she asks you to remember a time when you were young and filled with hopes and dreams. Finally, she paints a picture of when you were ready to give in and let go of everything - an intimation of the end of life.

People who have technically died in hospitals but have then been brought back to life have often related the experience of seeing their entire lives flash rapidly before their eyes as they breathed their last breath.

In perhaps a similar fashion, Rubio's piece induces some kind of a flashback, but its effectiveness is determined by how willing you are to surrender yourself to the power of suggestion.

If, for instance, you allow yourself to imagine your death as alluded to by the actress, you may find the experience unbearably dark and heart-wrenching. You may then get out of the bed - as this reviewer did - with a face soaked with tears.


Sharp critique of elites

THE LAST SUPPER

WATCHING Ahmed El Attar's The Last Supper, food is the last thing on your mind. So much happens simultaneously in this shrewd critique of the Egyptian upper classes, you have to pay careful attention and keep pace with the rapid-fire Arabic dialogue surtitled in English and the complex power play unfolding on stage.

Ostensibly, The Last Supper is about a wealthy family dinner gathering, attended to by three servants. The family comprises the patriarch, his two adult children and their spouses, his grandchildren and his army-general friend. They chatter rapidly and vacuously about various things, from money and work to travel and mobile phone apps. They take wefies and selfies and compare Instagram accounts.

At the same time, they're doing horribly degrading things to the servants. The son whispers to his young son to bully one of the servants. The daughter gives tacit orders to another servant to fetch her handbag whenever she needs it. Her husband complains about his staff who's asked for a raise after working for him for five years.

This is a portrait of Egypt, post-Arab Spring and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Despite the turmoil the country had undergone, the Egyptian elite classes remain ensconced in their hedonistic lifestyles, utterly indifferent to the struggles of others.

As the general friend put it: "It's just a few months and everything will go back to normal. It will even be better than before."

If the Egyptian upper classes were once distinguished by high culture, holistic education and strong social concerns, the new upper class is depicted here as greedy, self-absorbed and contemptuous of those beneath them.

What's troubling is that El-Attar's portrait of the rich, self-satisfied Egyptian family could be transposed into other wealthy households in other countries, including Singapore.

Although the play runs for a brief 50 minutes, its razor-sharp critique of elitism resonates far beyond the confines of the stage. It is a work that should be seen and discussed widely.