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Meeting, not merging

Southeast Asia's foremost director revisits his most acclaimed work

Publication Date : 19-07-2012

 

Watching Ong Keng Sen's "Lear Dreaming" at the Singapore Arts Festival 2012, I couldn't help but be reminded of his talent for intercultural performance that was so present in his 1997 production of "Lear".

In conducting intercultural workshops and creating so-called new or contemporary works, many artists tend to invite collaborators from different fields or backgrounds to "share" and "exchange", coming up with common ground for a showcase.

The opposite holds true for Ong Keng Sen, the only Singaporean artist to have been honoured with Young Artists Award and the Cultural Medallion. His works were as compelling back then as they are now.

In "Lear Dreaming" Ong pitted one sole actor against many musicians. The Old Man and the Old Man's Wife - note that Ong didn't use the name Lear here - was portrayed by Noh master Naohiko Umewaka; Daughter was Grammy-Award nominated pipa performer Wu Man; Korean traditional court music (Junga) singer Kang Kwon Soon was Mother; and traditional Indonesian vocal artist Pieterman, the Old Man's attendant. There was also a live gamelan ensemble in front of the stage, the members of which went up on to the stage in one scene, plus canned electronic music.

Each remained strictly in their tradition throughout the performance. They met and interacted, and didn't physically merge. It was we the audience who would merge them in our minds.

Ong further explained this concept in his talk as part of the Esplanade's "ConversAsians" and quoted French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's book "tre singulier pluriel" ("Being Singular Plural"). "Lear Dreaming" went beyond being merely an intercultural performance of Shakespeare's "King Lear". It restated the fact that cultures have all followed their own paths of evolution, many of which have not naturally crossed. In the contemporary milieu, they simply co-exist while, at the same time, existing on their own.

The experience was like attending a multi-disciplinary art exhibition in which one stops at certain work longer than the others. Just as he gave freedom for his audience to interpret, or reinterpret, "Lear Dreaming" in accordance with their background in "King Lear" or, more significantly, in life, he also asked them to look at things at multiple levels in order to find connections, or re-connections.

The aural space filled with music from various traditions and spoken words in Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin, with the audience able to look at the two screens on both sides of the stage frame to read English surtitles.

The visual space was kept simple thanks to Justin Hill's plain white stage area and backdrop. This was frequently enhanced by Scott Zielinski's solid colour lights and laser beams as well as Hanson Ho's graphics. Ong made sure that it never reached the stage of multimedia overload and that the audience felt the senses of anguish and alienation that he was exploring in this memorable work.

At the post-show discussion at the premiere performance, the CEO of the National Arts Council and the Esplanade asked Ong to "come home" - the visionary artist has been spending more time overseas for many years.

Ong, who is working on his PhD dissertation in performance studies at New York University, replied that his definition of home is different. He now feels at home working with fellow artists in many corners of the world - and perhaps has never felt alienation. This is perhaps an issue that can be directly related to many Thai artists who are creating works abroad, even though they still carry Thai passports. And it also says a great deal about the creative environment in this region of the world.

Ong's next work is a musical play - and that will probably surprise many of his fans. It will be staged as part of Esplanade's 10th anniversary this October. "Lear Dreaming" will likely be part of Lincoln Centre Festival in New York City next July.

Singapore Arts Festival will take a pause next year to re-evaluate and find a new direction.

The writer's trip was supported by the National Arts Council.

 

 

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