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The Impending Storm: The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree

Kuo Pao Kun
School of the Arts Studio Theatre, Singapore

The Impending Storm - The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree

Kuo Pao Kun, originally from China, is one of the most important Singaporean playwrights. He set the basis for a Singaporean theatre as both a theatre director and playwright.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his death, his plays have been produced in several countries (Japan, Taiwan, UK, India) and in Singapore since the beginning of this year.

I managed to catch one of the productions, one by Theatre Practice, possibly the oldest theatre company in Singapore, founded in 1965 and strongly connected to Pao Kun’s career. This show took place at the Sota (School of the Arts) , an impressive hyper-modern building with a high tech theatre studio.

The Impending Storm is the working title given to the adaptation of one of Kuo Pao Kun’s playsThe Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree.

The original play has only two characters, a little girl and a funny-looking tree. The little girl confides in the funny old tree; he tells her stories about the survival and the perishing of trees. One of the stories is about the miraculous survival of a rootless tree despite having lost its roots. The play ends with the girl turning against the old tree.

What is a dark fairy-tale sort of play that, in its simplicity, universally communicates a message of survival becomes, under Taiwanese director Fu Hong Zheng’s direction, a tale about old age, sickness connected to old age and a melodramatic representation of a family saga turned sour.

With a cast of seven, this show is no longer about the two characters but about a family and the struggle to look after their father, who seemingly suffers from dementia or Alzheimer's. All of the family members struggle to support the expensive treatment their father has to go through. One of the sons (Liu Xiaoyi), for instance, often travels for work, leaving the others to take care for him.

The little girl, here a teenager (Gloria Ang Xiao Teng), has a special bond with her grandfather (Alivin Chiam) as they often engage in storytelling, singing about a tree—moments that are closer to what it was in the original script. As we see the decline of the father, the family bonds also crumble, not only under the financial pressure but also because insanity creeps in; the same son who often travels abroad is presented on a suicidal path, the girl is seen wheeled by her uncle, motionless with a barren look.

This makes an interesting revival where the director and the production are brave enough to take the work of a ‘classic’ playwright and tune it to current taste and current issues.

In this sense, unlike many London revivals of classics, this artistic freedom and creativity are worthy of praise.

However, in a style that is fragmentary and feeds on abstraction, it is hard sometimes to make sense of what happens on stage. There are some central key moments—like the family dining together, the girl talking and playing with her grandfather—but these are few and far between.

The action is often distracted by dance sequences, interludes of characters caged in themselves, in their own thoughts and actions. Only toward the end can we realise that some of the scenes presented at the start actually stand for the final moments in the play: the son’s suicide, the girl’s insanity. Even for someone like me with a prefence for experimental, non-linear drama, this show does not totally work.

There are some strong moments: especially with the son—played with charisma by Liu Xiaoyi—in the moment before the suicide, where he eats, for real, a whole chicken on stage, maintaining an aloof yet menacing look at the audience. The beauty of the writing—it is easier to appreciate if you can understand Chinese—comes through in the dialogue between the girl and the father.

However, it is the heavy-handed direction that fails this revival as it creates a dense melodrama rather than a tragedy. It is also down to the fact that the production is obstinately experimental, adventurously abstract and yet remaining rooted in a socio-realism which occasionally, though, sways towards the pathetic.

Disappointingly and with some discomfort, you can also see a strange equation emerging between madness and senility. The parallel is quite clear between the young characters' (the son and the granddaughter) insanity and the old man’s sickness. This is a dangerous parallel: is the director trying to imply that people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's are insane? Does a sickness like that equal to insanity?

Moreover, the gratuitous portrayal of insanity works if we look at this production as a sort of Greek tragedy, but in the social realistic setting at times implied by this production, such a representation looks only fortuitous.

Despite the major shortcomings, it is a brave production and the acting, which is even and heartfelt, makes you feel the full impact of a representation where the main message is of no hope, where no survival is on sight.

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli