Arts Review Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Kingdoms Apart by Chong Tze Chien and Esplanade – Theatres on The Bay

Held back by the weight of its ambition in this valiant but problematic new staging of The Mahabharata.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Chong Tze Chien)6
Script (Chong Tze Chien)6
Performance 7
Set Design (Eucien Chia)7
Sound Design (Darren Ng)8
Lighting Design (James Tan)8
Costumes/Hair/Makeup (Yuan Zhiying & Jacqueline Teo/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)5
Multimedia (Koo Chia Meng)7
Puppetry Design (Myra Loke)8
Total62/90 (68%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Any adaptation of The Mahabharata was inevitably going to be a long-drawn out affair; the late British director Peter Brook famously directed a 9-hour stage version in 1985. And so it is quite the marvel that local playwright and director Chong Tze Chien has managed to compress his version of the Indian epic poem to a mere 3-hour runtime, with the Esplanade commission Kingdoms Apart.

As someone coming in to Kingdoms Apart with very little knowledge of its origin text, a more contemporary understanding of the plot might see it as analogous to HBO’s Game of Thrones 2022 spinoff series – House of the Dragon, where two warring factions vie for power and kingship. In Kingdoms Apart, this is between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two groups of cousins, as they struggle to claim the throne of the Hastinapura kingdom, eventually resulting in a bloody 18-day war where even the gods come to be involved.

Playing at the new Singtel Waterfront Theatre, Kingdoms Apart sees the space transformed into its most complex configuration yet: theatre-in-the-round, where audience members surround the performance space. But theatre-in-the-round alone does not suffice to describe the stage set-up, with the performers utilising even the steps leading into the seating and platforms behind audience members, heightening the immersion and closeness to their world.

Designed by Eucien Chia, at the centre of the set lies a sandpit, where some of the play’s most pivotal scenes take place. The black flooring, lined with streaks of golden ‘cracks’, reminds one of the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, where one repairs broken pottery with gold lacquer, to find value in remembering and highlighting the breakage. This references how Kingdoms Apart serves as a reminder of the age-old feud between families, and the damage it wreaks, a stark warning for us to end these ancient cycles. Throughout, Darren Ng’s music and James Tan’s lighting design prove to be integral towards setting the atmosphere, with Darren’s contemporary electronic work mixed with traditional elements capturing the modernity of Tze Chien’s reinterpretation, and James’ lighting helping direct our attention towards each individual set of characters when they speak, spread out across the massive stage.

In modernising the work, writer/director Tze Chien begins by setting his staging in 1983, a time of sudden widespread mediatisation, where all eyes are glued to television screens. This is exemplified by the screens hanging from mounts made of golden poles all around the space, which display promotional videos praising the kingdom, or even speaking of the propagandist methods used by the government to craft a national narrative – a thousand episode dramatisation of the nation’s history that depicts certain figures as clear heroes or villains. To this end, multimedia designer Koo Chia Meng creates a strong sense of nostalgia with the grainy nature of the film, and even vintage font and special effects that are immediately synonymous with the ’80s.

However, for all its imaginative qualities, this modern setting is used to very little effect, and has almost no impact or integration with the actual plot and storyline itself. Much of the time, the many screens, almost always showing the exact same footage, also distract from rather than enhance the scenes at hand. The Mahabharata is already a heavy text with plenty of cultural and religious significance, and tacking on this extra layer of media and ideology begins to weigh it down with narration and backstory. Similarly, Yuan Zhiying and Jacqueline Teo’s costumes, while united in certain aspects such as gold accessories or recurring colours, appear mostly disjointed, with some characters donning drawstring skirts and Nike tees alongside vests and ahjumma pants. One could make an argument that this would represent modern aristocrats, but even important details such as Sanskrit text on skirts are drowned out under the stage lighting, or the headpieces more crafty than precious, and overall, do not feel befitting of a royal family.

This problem of weight and volume continues to present itself throughout much of Kingdoms Apart, and it often feels like a chore to have to get through so much information, while being unwilling to streamline it. So much of the time, Tze Chien’s script and direction seems to have the cast bulldozing their way through as much content as possible, with little variation in emotion or delivery, barely allowing them or the audience space to absorb and process the barrage of information being exchanged, as our attention is constantly tugged between conversations, some lasting mere seconds before going back to the other at whiplash speed. There are also confusing moments where characters bob from side to side with repeated movements when waiting to speak, as if they belong to a character selection screen in Street Fighter.

To add on to the presentation issues, while one acknowledges that India itself holds a variety of languages and dialects, Tze Chien’s decision to reflect that through the Babel-like mix of languages featured is dramaturgically problematic as well. Unlike how Indian languages are more closely related, Kingdoms Apart features a smorgasbord of spoken language that has very little in common, with an entire family that has members speaking Tamil, Japanese, Malay and English, while the other family speaks only English. There is no rhyme or reason given for this disparity, not even in relation to class or caste, and the disparity between listening to such vastly different languages and need to constantly refer to surtitles makes it difficult to focus on the already heavy content.

Problems aside, Tze Chien’s direction finally shines at the end of each half of the play, where he actually allows actors space to breathe and pause between lines, allowing their significance and emotion to really sink in. At the end of Act 1 for example, the two families engage in a seemingly rigged game of dice, where every roll keeps us with bated breath as we await the result, the Pandavas losing increasingly more of their assets with every round. As the pace of the scene slows down, we are also given time to feel the actors level with each other and engage with the weight of their words, rather than rush through. Tze Chien even affords a haunting, interpretive version of the infamous disrobing of Draupadi (Edith Podesta), as an impossibly long black cloth is passed around the perimeter of the space, like a grief that spreads through the entire Kaurava court. Edith’s own performance here gives Draupadi a newfound feminist take from her usual portrayal as victim, no longer merely the wife of five brothers, but fiercely independent as she stands up for herself and expresses her anger at being treated like a mere object.

What must be acknowledged is the sheer effort of the actors that goes into preparing for this play, and the gargantuan task they are given of pushing their energy levels, delivering the lengthy script, and performing complex choreograph and movements for all of 3 hours. Even when the script and direction are lacking, it is the strength of certain cast members buoys the performance. Ghafir Akbar, for example, plays a character aligned with the Kauravas, but is in fact, an abandoned first son of the rival Pandavas, leading to some difficult emotions arising from the complexity of the relationship and differences in caste. In portraying the character, Ghafir turns in a ferocious performance, channeling the rage and hurt in his actions and facial expressions, his voice strong on the outside, but always nursing a hidden pain behind. In other productions, Ghafir has always had a strong grasp of his physicality, and in Kingdoms Apart, particularly with the fight scenes, there is a fluidity and sharpness to his mastery over his weapons, leading to moments that feel almost dangerous. When things become particularly tense, Ghafir even summons a hydra-like beast that rises up from behind him, his anger given form, monstrously presented through a massive puppet that adds to the threat.

Similarly, despite a foot injury that leaves him wheelchair-bound, Vadi PVSS, as the old king Bhishma, also elevates the performance with his sheer dedication, capturing his long-suffering spirit as he struggles to maintain the peace. Even in a wheelchair, Vadi is still in full costume, and his kingly aura is felt everytime he appears onstage. Lian Sutton, as crown prince Duryodhana, captures his character’s almost bratty form of powerlust, before his paranoia sets in later, realising how deep he has unwittingly gone into this conflict. Besides this, Tze Chien also does best when he allows the more supernatural, dream-like elements of the script to emerge. For example, Neewin Hershall, with his body painted blue, plays the god Krishna, and brings out the enigmatic nature of the divine through his visually-arresting Bharatanatyam solos, along with his speech being represented by a booming recorded voiceover from K. Rajagopal, inspiring both faith and fear.

Kingdoms Apart does come together in its final scene, worthy of being called ‘epic’ in its long-awaited clash between families, with arrows flying and swift swordplay, alongside dramatic death scenes and bittersweet reunions. But for the most part, this is a production that feels overambitious in trying to live up to the legacy of the Mahabharata, while also trying to tack on a contemporary spin. This results in a production that seems unsure if it wants to commit to giving the story its due time to unfold, or unable to reach its maximalist vision due to the disjoint in design elements.

Rather than being distracted by the power of the story, Kingdoms Apart works best when it focuses on the little moments between characters and presenting itself as the family drama it actually is, and when it lets the visuals speak rather than the actual text. Overall, what we are left with is an ambitious work that still requires fine tuning, editing, and a clearer throughline that keeps audiences engaged throughout. By its end, we are reminded of the pain of generational trauma and the need to end the cycle of violence, but even with the immense effort that has gone into it, it’s still one heck of a journey to get there, regardless of whether one is familiar with the Mahabharata or not.

Photo credit: Photos by Crispian Chan, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Kingdoms Apart played from 23rd to 27th November 2022 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre.

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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