Arts Review SIFA 2021 Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: A Dream Under The Southern Bough – Existence by Toy Factory (SIFA 2021)

The long-drawn out dream finally comes to an end in an impressive finale to Toy Factory’s ambitious adaptation.

Back in 2018, local theatre company Toy Factory was given a rare opportunity amongst local theatre companies – a chance to stage a single play across three parts over the next three years in the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). That play would be Goh Boon Teck’s adaptation of A Dream Under The Southern Bough, by ‘the Shakespeare of China’ Tang Xianzu.

After 2018’s The Beginning and 2019’s Reverie, the epic three-parter reached its grand finale this year, with Existence. Once again helmed by Goh Boon Teck, Existence picks up where the previous iteration left off, as the blissful life of protagonist Chun Yu Fen (Tang Shao Wei) has built for himself in the Southern Bough begins to crumble.

In this final instalment, it feels like all the rehearsals, research and devising over the last four years, allow both cast and creatives to come together and let this production reach its potential. Petrina Dawn Tan’s set features a towering wall with a papery texture and wooden colour scheme, reflecting the fragility of the ant’s nest and its location under the Sophora tree. A ‘hole’ in the middle acts as a window, reminding us of ‘another world’ outside of Southern Bough.

Throughout the performance, Sandra Tay’s sound design is key to transporting us to Southern Bough’s fantasy world, elevating every scene with grand, royal music in palace scenes, or a fast-paced, drum-driven track that makes battle scenes feel more tense and urgent. Meanwhile, Tube Gallery’s costumes feature prominently throughout the show, not only paying tribute to the fantasy setting and classic era, but also providing showstopping moments, such as a breathtaking blue gown on princess Yao Fang, with flowing sleeves and a lengthy train that floats behind her as she descends the stairs, capturing her celestial, royal beauty and grace.

While there have been several casting changes since the previous instalment, director Goh Boon Teck has once again managed to create strong chemistry between every cast member, adapting to their strengths and making them feel like a cohesive ensemble. With the pandemic, it’s been a long time since we’ve last seen an 18-member, and they come together as a well-coordinated team, particular in their rousing performance of the play’s theme song (composed by Jack Lim).

Tang Xianzu’s archaic language is at times difficult to follow, embedded in flowery, operatic language of the Ming dynasty. As such, the entire cast has done well to enunciate each word, make meaning clear, and allow the audience to feel the emotions emanating from each character, as well as the inherent poetry in his words. Of note, Li Te, as our narrator Qi Xuan, speaks with confidence and leads us through the highs and lows of Chun’s story.

As Chun, Tang Shao Wei bears the countenance of a man perplexed when his perfect life begins to fall apart. Even with a mask on, the look on his face as he falls from grace is clear as he struggles with his own morality and inability to control events around him. His peaceful existence is disrupted when the red ant army declares an attack, forcing him to counter with his own measures.

Andy Yew, as red ant leader Tang Lang, comes out angry, loud and brash, and exaggerates the fearsome nature of red ants, ready to fight and bite his way through any enemy. Even when faced with adversity, he improvises and overcomes it, showcasing his confidence and adaptability as an actor. Meanwhile, his troops, in crimson armour, wield modern firearms and bazookas, and already seem like a genuine threat from the moment they’re introduced.

Naturally, a series of showdowns ensue, as the red ants lay siege to the palace, in an attempt to capture Yao Fang. As the princess, Shu Yi Ching’s characterisation goes beyond graceful, subservient wife, and commands attention and strength with her legion of maids, showcasing a surprisingly modern portrayal of strong independent women. The ensuing battle makes full use of the space as the soldiers clash, feeling like a full-scale battle, with credit to choreographer Ryan Ang.

Throughout the performance, director Boon Teck keeps audiences engaged with the wide variety of blocking styles, preventing scenes from feeling repetitive. When alcoholic Tian Zi Hua (Andy Pang) and his troops are ambushed by the red ants, Boon Teck gets innovative with his direction, where instead of showing a direct fight as in the previous scene, he instead opts to portray the troops via red and white LED finger lights. This clearly showcases how the enemies close in on them with their highly coordinated movements, with the white lights blinking out when defeated to showcase the Southern Bough army completely obliterated.

It comes as a surprise then that even with this crippling defeat, Chun receives yet another undeserving promotion and is called back to the capital. One sees this as a way to strategically rid the court of Chun, by setting him up for failure, and how vicious and underhand palace politics can be. Things only get worse for Chun when Yao Fang suddenly dies of illness, and he returns to a hedonistic lifestyle to deal with his grief, much to the chagrin of the court as he fails his new duties, exactly as planned.

This is worsened when he dallies with the ladies of the court, whose temptations are led by a sultry Qiong Ying (Xuan Ong). Akin to a classic Broadway musical number, the women strip off their towels to reveal gold bathing suits, and the ensemble effectively uses translucent walls to show Chun frolicking with them via silhouette. The sutra-like soundscape and mood lighting only adds to the sensuality of the scene, before Chun and the ladies let loose a collective groan of pleasure.

It’s not long before the ant king (Qiu Yue) decides enough is enough, and egged on doomsday predictions, calls for his exile. Chun is stripped of his position and sent back to the human world, without even getting a chance to say goodbye to his children. Desperately searching for a way back to the ant kingdom, Chun accidentally spills beer onto the Sophora tree, we watch as denizens of the kingdom are drenched in blue light and claw at the air around them, as if they’re drowning, destroying the kingdom and preventing Chun from returning.

As cruel as it seems, the consistent change in fortunes experienced by Chun exemplify Existence’s key theme of how unpredictable life can be, where nothing really matters, and the only way forward is to keep looking ahead. In the final scene, the set opens up, and the ant kingdom’s citizens appear, bathed in celestial light. Yao Fang dons an immaculate headpiece sprouting ‘antenna’, as if she has awakened and arrived at a higher state of being. As they sing the theme song once again, Chun is left alone on Earth, with the Sophora tree as the sole reminder of his dream.

With Existence, Toy Factory’s 4-year SIFA journey comes to an end, and the result is a visionary finale that speaks of the entire team’s commitment, thanks to the sheer amount of people working behind the scenes and onstage to make this production happen. What we are left with is a promise made in 2018 finally fulfilled, and a satisfying close to a project that leaves us still pondering over the unpredictability of life, and we merely the ants navigating it.

Photo Credit: CRISPI

A Dream Under The Southern Bough: Existence played from 29th to 30th May 2021 at the Drama Centre Theatre as part of the 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts. It will also be available as video-on-demand. Tickets and more information available here

The 2021 Singapore International Festival of Arts ran from 14th to 30th May 2021. Shows will be available as video on demand from 5th to 20th June 2021. More information available here  

3 comments on “★★★★☆ Review: A Dream Under The Southern Bough – Existence by Toy Factory (SIFA 2021)

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  3. Pingback: SIFA 2021 Wrap-Up: An Interview with Festival Director Gaurav Kripalani – Bakchormeeboy

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