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SIFA 2017: Art Studio by Nine Years Theatre (Review)

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Based off Yeng Pway Ngon’s 2012 Singapore Literature Prize-winning novel of the same name, Nine Years Theatre once again has a real winner on their hands with their theatrical adaptation of Art Studio, undoubtedly one of the biggest, most anticipated new works this year.  

Following the myriad lives of a group of artists over the course of fifty years, Art Studio is a sprawling, epic piece that takes audiences from a small, rented art studio to places as varied as India and the jungles of Malaya. From a gangster to a singer, an exile to a communist fighter, Art Studio‘s tales of tumult, love, and human relationships will move you in the most unexpected of ways.

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Art Studio feels daunting at first, clocking in at three hours and spending most of its first half moving at a measured pace, taking its time to set the scene and unravel its narrative. introduce audiences to each and every one of its unforgettable characters. However, this was not without reason, and over the course of its first two hours, audiences will be completely immersed into the world of Art Studio, and forge bonds with every character as it digs deep and draws out their hopes, dreams and fears. By the time the second half rolls around, you’ll feel like you’ve truly spent the last fifty years getting to know these artists as the pace speeds up and hurtles towards its climax.

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Set designer Wong Chee Wai has crafted an incredibly flexible world that feels and looks like it was made of parchment paper; a world of possibility that takes audience members from a humble art studio in the 60s to a dark cave with a single movement. Genevieve Peck’s lighting was also integral to setting the mood throughout the play, shedding light on and teasing out the subtle stage nuances in various scenes. Finally, the trifecta of strong tech elements is rounded off with Chong Li-Chuan’s evocative piano-driven score, powerful enough to create atmosphere through sound alone and together, brought the entire performance to the next level.

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Art Studio also allowed for Nine Years Theatre to really show off their technical skill and strong ensemble work. As longtime proponents of the Suzuki Method and getting the fundamentals right, nowhere else was the fruits of director Nelson Chia’s labor and theatre philosophy more evident than in this play. The choreography of the cast’s movements were well-coordinated, and every single movement had a deliberate quality to it that made complete sense as it all came together in their stellar execution. At no point was any cast member unfocused, each of them completely committed with the roles they were assigned to play, be it acting and emoting at the front of the stage, forming part of a tableaux, or adding an extra layer of depth at the back of the stage.

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Of the ensemble, the undeniable standout was Timothy Wan’s portrayal of Si Xian. Last seen in Nine Years Theatre’s adaptation of Fundamentally Happy, Wan gave a strong, consistent performance from start to finish, and has grown immensely skilled from his years of experience in theatre. Art Studio producer and cast member Mia Chee also gave an incredibly confident performance as Wan Zhen, bringing out her character’s tenacity and unwavering refusal to back down in the face of adversity. Playing lovers, both Timothy Wan and Ellison Tan possessed immense onstage chemistry and made their relationship completely believable, the audience invested in every stage of it as it rose and fell throughout the years. Towards the end of the play, the lovers reunite in an impressively executed Paris scene, with the entire cast donning berets while showcasing an indomitable, incomparably good grasp of technique.

Art Studio also introduced new talent Toh Wee Peng as the young Ji Zong, who almost completely undressed as his character prepared to model for a life drawing session. No doubt this took a lot of courage, and the young actor only upped his confidence from that point, growing from strength to strength over the course of his performance. Veteran actor Tay Kong Hui was also well cast in his more revered roles, bringing an air of gravitas to teacher Yan Pei.

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Ultimately, Art Studio is an incredibly worthy adaptation of its source material, heralding a new classic for the Singaporean stage as it successfully navigates the complexities of human relationships as we watch them being forged in a tiny art studio, as well as torn apart later on. Towards the end of the play though, we see a young Ji Zong and Ah Gui appearing onstage beside their older selves, allowing audiences to feel the full impact of the play as it reflects on the ‘last fifty years’ these characters we’ve come to know and love have spent growing up, both physically and emotionally. Art Studio still manages to find a spark of hope amidst the ravages of time, no matter how long and arduous the journey may be, filling us with an infinite sense of comfort and warmth as we stepped out of the theatre.

Photo Credit: Singapore International Festival of the Arts Facebook

Performance attended 17/8/17.

Art Studio
When: Till 19th August, 8pm
Where: Victoria Theatre
Tickets available here

In Mandarin with English surtitles

 

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