SIFA 2017: Becoming Graphic by Sonny Liew and Edith Podesta (Review)
Sonny Liew initially seems like an odd choice to put onstage as part of an international arts festival. After all, the 42-year old Eisner Award winning comic artist has close to no experience in theatre. But if there’s anyone who can be counted on to bring out the drama of comics and adapt it for the stage, it’s his collaborator and Life! Theatre Award winning theatremaker Edith Podesta. Together, the two have come up with Becoming Graphic, an all new work that describes itself as a graphic novel for the stage, boldly stretching the limits of a theatrical experience.
If you’ve read Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, then you’ll find that Becoming Graphic feels similar in form, often transiting back and forth between storylines and expanding upon the idea of worlds within worlds. Using the loose framing device of a radio podcast doing a feature on Liew, Becoming Graphic has no ‘main’ storyline, consisting primarily of short segments and excerpts offering a brief glimpse into Sonny’s life, the presenter’s life and the world of Liew’s newly minted superhero series The Green Bolt.
The Green Bolt himself (Real name Henry Lim, played by Crispian Chan, who really hams it up) is a middle-aged, generic Superman-type superhero, with powers of intangibility, flight, super speed, and even has his own ‘fortress of solitude’ way out in an uninhabited part of the world. In the adventures of The Green Bolt, the titular vigilante meets a young woman who fears losing her beauty to the ravages of time, an old cardboard collector who refuses his help, an intergalactic space-god inspired by Tarkovsky’s Solaris and resembling Marvel Comics’ Galactus, and (rather brutally) kills off evil henchmen, both intentionally and through collateral damage. The Green Bolt is in no way a perfect being, and all the while he tries to save the world, his mother is losing her memory to dementia, swiftly forgetting who he is. This narrative dovetails with the podcast presenter’s (Koh Wan Ching) story of her mother’s dementia. Together, these excerpts and segments comment on and explore the concept of the inevitability of time and age, a nemesis even a superhero with super speed can’t run from, particularly when it manifests in and affects those around him.
Without a doubt, Becoming Graphic’s centrepiece is Sonny Liew himself, sat at a work desk strewn with well-organized art paraphernalia and a select few anime/manga figurines, silently sketching characters and scenes for most of the play. His work desk is projected onto the wall behind him, and just watching the drawings materialize live onscreen is a mesmerizing, hypnotic experience. Throughout the play, the audience also becomes privy to interviews carried out with Sonny’s parents and grandfather, as they describe his childhood growing up while a comic strip of Henry Lim/The Green Bolt’s own childhood is projected behind Sonny. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia projection of Sonny’s live and pre-recorded drawings, while at times visually jarring and problematic, is truly beautiful to witness on such a large scale, and really makes you appreciate and understand the incredible power and dramatic impact a comic can have, or how the simplest, understated panels can deliver the biggest reactions. Even though Sonny almost never speaks throughout the play, his presence is always keenly felt, and absolutely integral as a creator of the work that we see onscreen, symbolically possessing the omnipotence to change anything and everything he wishes to on paper, but not actually able to do so in real life, only tell stories to ease others’ pain and help them through it.
Although in terms of narrative, Becoming Graphic deviates wildly at times and does not delve deep enough into certain plot points to nail the emotional connections it no doubt wished to create, there are moments when Becoming Graphic manages to deliver a super-strength visual punch of some truly inspired images, particularly towards the climactic final showdown, when the play escalates into a smorgasbord of colour and sound, as the real life actors don cosplay and quite literally ‘become graphic’ as their motion capture selves appear on the screen behind them. Even when it’s not being big and brash, Becoming Graphic succeeds in its quieter moments as well, moving in its sincere portrayal of the struggles of caring for an ageing parent, as the podcast presenter Koh Wan Ching delivers one heartbreaking monologue after another, lamenting her own mother’s fight with dementia as her words escalate from a quiet sadness to a frustrated, desperate cry for help in the last moments of the play. In one of the initial monologues, the screen behind her depicts Sonny Liew sketching a clock before he slowly paints over the printed text and pictures surrounding it into inky black darkness, vividly depicting the terrifying loss of memory that dementia patients experience.
Ultimately, Becoming Graphic was perhaps an overly ambitious piece that winds up more as a thought-provoking experiment in form than a finished final product, with plenty of great ideas and cheeky references brimming with potential, alongside the occasional burst of sheer genius in its spectacular graphics. Given more time to develop and focus, one imagines that Becoming Graphic has all the potential to go even further and become a truly potent piece that will leave you emotionally wrecked with the tragedy of its superheroes’ limits and mortality, as well as its more human characters going through the perfectly relatable tragedies of ageing and eventually, death. Perhaps it is through Becoming Graphic that audience members can realize that storytellers, specifically graphic novelists like Liew, are the real superheroes we need when it comes to coming to terms with our rapidly expiring lives. But for now at least, Becoming Graphic is an enjoyable testament to Sonny Liew’s ability as a graphic novelist, expertly crafting stories and characters with depth and incredibly powerful, representative art.
Performance attended 17/8/17.
When: Till 20th August, 3pm & 8pm
Tickets available here