Philosophical ideas may be gripping on a page or challenging to discuss over endless cups of tea, but they make for inert drama, especially when accompanied by the declamatory style of acting much beloved in Chinese theatre.
Director and co-writer Goh Boon Teck seems to have bitten off more than he can chew in this ambitious but flawed mainstage show commissioned by the Esplanade for its annual Huayi festival.
He has drawn inspiration from Chinese history, borrowing the names and stories of a group of seven scholars during the Three Kingdoms who found themselves at odds with a new political regime.
The eternal clash of authoritarian regimes and rebellious artists has been transplanted into a dystopian, tech-driven surveillance state.
Things get off to a wobbly start as the ensemble cast of 14, clad in black overcoats, take their place onstage and a torrent of concepts comes flying at the audience.
If one had not read the programme notes, one would struggle to understand the setting in which The Organisation, ruled by President and Chief Executive Officer Cao (Sharon Au), is systematically hunting down the artists, musicians and writers as the unpredictable threats to an efficient society.
It takes a while before the characters begin to emerge from the wordy morass.
Ruan Ji the composer is played with melancholy by Nelson Chia. His foil and partner is musician Ji Kang, played by Tang Shao Wei.
The two actors build up a tender bantering dynamic that pays off emotionally in the last quarter of the play.
Another emotional anchor is formed by photographer Han Shi (Liew Jia Yi), her husband Shan Tao (Timothy Wan) and their son Wang Rong (Sugie Phua).
Liew’s Han Shi is a nice balance of cautionary mother and enthusiastic fangirl. Wan sketches deftly an indulgent father struggling to connect with his rebellious teenage son, played with a light touch by Phua.
REVIEW / THEATRE
7 SAGES OF THE BAMBOO GROVE
Toy Factory Productions
Providing witty relief are sculptor Wu Shuang Ke (Ric Liu), Wang Rong’s mentor, and a crass everyman Wu Chang Ren (Qiu Yue), whose down-to-earth observations are a counterweight to the high-falutin concepts.
These actors help bring emotional resonance to the script, co-written by veteran writer Koh Teng Liang.
Unfortunately, the story is something of a Frankenstein that lurches awkwardly from plot to subplot, switching from dense poetic discussions of the role of art and artists in society to soapy conspiracy.
This is a pity because there are bright spots which highlight what Goh was trying to achieve.
There are punny lines which satirise netizens’ short attention spans and some weighty urgency when the artists lament their persecution and defend the practice and appreciation of the arts in alcohol-fuelled debates.
The set, a two-tier metal monstrosity with a giant gate that flips up, works well to shift the setting from cosy home to underground artist retreat to prison.
Seamless multimedia projections also aid in creating dark cityscapes.
Casting violinist Loh Jun Hong as musician Ruan Xian, the sole survivor who makes the case for art through the wordless medium of music at the end of the play, is another nice touch.
But these 7 Sages prove more wordy than wise.