It is perhaps fitting that the Esplanade’s 2018 Huayi Festival kicked off on Friday (Feb 23) with a local production starring one of Singapore’s largest breakout stars in China of 2017 – Joanna Dong, who placed third in the reality singing contest Sing! China.
I came at last to the seas – directed by Kuo Jian Hong, written by Chinese playwright Wu Xi and featuring an international cast – is the homegrown Theatre Practice’s first production of 2018. This is also the first time an entirely new work by a local arts group has been commissioned for the 2,000-seat Esplanade Theatre at the annual Huayi Festival, which is now into its 16th year.
Dong’s madcap performance as Dong Dong – the hashtag-spewing food taster who becomes a successful singer after undergoing tongue transplants when she loses her sense of taste – enlivens an otherwise heavy show dealing with such issues as the Chinese diaspora, migration, one’s identity and assimilation.
While the homegrown jazz chanteuse has been a regular star in previous Theatre Practice shows, it is to no one’s real surprise that an entire act has been dedicated to showing off her mesmerising vocals, now that she has become quite a household name. She sang at least five songs including classics such as Under The Banyan Tree (Rong Shu Xia) and Rose, Rose I Love You (Mei Gui, Mei Gui Wo Ai Ni) – and even rapped the contemporary S.H.E hit Mandarin Language (Zhong Guo Hua).
Yet the distinct contrast in tone between Dong’s act and most of the show – about individuals grappling with deeply personal, introspective issues as they embark on journeys through space and time – makes the act seem quite tenuous, if not forced.
The six plotlines in I came at last to the seas can loosely be broken into three categories – the sentimental, the absurdist, and the futuristic. And the script succeeds where it is the most heartfelt.
A blind man named A Fu (played by Taiwanese actor Huang Yu-Ting) leaves his hometown and travels the high seas to Nanyang in a bid to make a better living on the urging of his grandfather. This is well-juxtaposed with a present-day plotline, in which music conductor E-Jun (Hong Kong actor Jason Wang Wei), who has been lambasted for selling out on his Chinese roots in his chase for global fame, is seeking to bring his great grandfather’s ashes home.
It is, too, fitting that the play deals with machine-human interaction as a harbinger of a robotics-driven future, stripping down mankind’s reliance on technology to a more visceral level. IT serviceman Gong Ye BB (Taiwanese actor Ethan Wei) tries to communicate with machines, while another engineer Madam K (Hong Kong-based Spanish-Taiwanese freelance actress Rosa Maria Velasco) gets too emotionally involved when her company invents a robot that seeks to understand the “Chinese sentiment”.
Far less effective are the whimsical plotlines, in which the offbeat entertainment value could not mask a lack of depth in the character arcs. Besides Dong Dong, The Little Prince (Hong Kong actress Fung Wai-Hang) also has an appearance. In this rendition of the character Le Petit Prince, from the famous 1943 book by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the prince has fled his home planet together with his sheep, after they are attacked by thorns in an upsurge of the rose population. The prince meets boy artist Curious Nose (Singaporean actor Sugie Phua), who is perenially laughed at for his crooked nose.
The show is perhaps best summed up by a line in the Chinese evergreen classic Olive Tree (Gan Lan Shu) by Chyi Yu, which was played as an interlude during a change of set: “Don’t ask me where I’ve come from / My hometown is far away / Why am I wandering, wandering far away, wandering…”
The message – coming at a time of reunions among family and friends – is rich in timeliness, making I came at last to the seas a thought-provoking watch. The show, which was born after more than two years of “intentional play”, and is hopefully the first of more local-led global productions to be staged at the Esplanade Theatre for the Huayi Festival in years to come.
By Walter Sim for Bakchormeeboy
Photos by Jeannie Ho, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 23/2/18
I came at last to the seas plays at the Esplanade Theatre as part of Huayi 2018 from 23rd – 24th February. Tickets available from the Esplanade