I love Kuo Pao Kun for how his plays always effect an uncompromising and blatant appraisal of local socio-cultural issues via highly original mise-en-scene. A few weeks ago, I had the serendipitous opportunity to finally watch a stage adaption of one of his plays. It was in expectation of rousing pathos that I watched Jeff Chen’s adaptation of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral with Joel.
The immediate aftertaste of watching the play however, could best be expressed by an anguished, anti-intellectual cry of “what the fuck?!”
While the off-stage narration stuck verbatim to the original play with an admirable fidelity, what transpired on stage was some surrealist wet dream of Salvador Dali. It was as if two entirely different and unrelated plays were going on at the same time – a coherent narrated soliloquy and a jarring series of tableaux on stage.
The stage was soaking wet with an explosion of hitherto repressed sexual desire and phalli – dozens upon dozens of inflated balloon penises, one giant thumping phallic punching bag and people kissing balloon penises, fondling balloon penises, bursting balloon penises with needles. All five actors were hysterically engaged in an avalanche of voyeuristic and eccentric sexual fetishes and humping from heads adorned with stockings, to mirrors, to duck tape, to mannequin parts. And everybody afflicted with a certain sort of distraught obsession with the male genitalia verging on penis envy, only to be crushed like a failed orgasm by a recurring and discordant theme of castration. I suppose it was also intended that the audience act the role of the voyeur as hapless witnesses to the waves of silent erotic activity.
If anything, it seemed like a ramped up mash-up of the poetic ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange and the sexual absurdity of Blue Velvet.
The play ended with an inflation of a giant penguin balloon that bloated up the cramped stage.
I suppose members of the MDA censorship board would have vomited and after which choke to death on their vomit if had they attended the play (perhaps they already did and therefore didn’t have the chance to ban the adaptation).
The Straits Times gave glowing reviews of the “intelligence” and “audacity” of the film but essentially did nothing to discuss the play. It said a lot but ultimately said nothing. I mean even someone who hadn’t watched the play could come up with a similar trite review.
In hindsight, while the Jeff Chen adaption took the play a few notches higher in absurdity and queerness, it unimpeachably remained faithful to the original production directed by the man himself. The jarring duality of the physical stage and narration actually provided an effective atmosphere of alienation and unease with the stage assuming the role of a physical dream sequence exhibited in an unabashed Freudian spirit.
Transcending the initial bewilderment, the duet of absurdist stage and coherent narration did successfully adduce Kuo Pao Kun’s perennial concerns on Singapore’s cultural and identity alienation.
I find it amusing that the very first Kuo Pao Kun play I watch happens to be a wholly eccentric one.