I Smell the Blood of an Englishman
Every pantomime by W!ld Rice is an act of revenge. Remember how we grew up? We learned our bedtime stories with Ladybird books and Disney movies, populated by all-white casts of witches and fairies and giants.
If our parents felt like a big Christmassy singalong family drama, we went to productions by The Stage Club. Those pantomimes were toweringly colonial affairs - steeped in the nostalgia of British culture, they were always conservative renditions of famous fairy tales, played almost exclusively by white actors or locals in cultural whiteface, awkward when they attempted to make reference to the 20th century or Singapore.
But something changed in 2003. W!ld Rice staged Cinderel-Lah!, the first of a series of annual musical pantomimes adapting Western fairy tales to local settings and themes. Since then, W!ld Rice pantos have struck a balance between providing riotous family entertainment for the kids and reflecting deeper contemporary issues such as domestic worker abuse and political apathy. It's a new generation of pantomime, decolonised and sophisticated - ultimately a delicious subversion of the Anglophile genre of panto that served as our Yuletide staple for so long.
Jack and the Beansprout, the fourth in this series, is characteristic of the W!ld Rice pantomimes. It's a sugar buzz of fun, featuring overblown, interactive drama that children should love - director Jonathan Lim milks plenty of physical humour from the actors' efforts to negotiate a supersized kitchen floor in the giant's palace. This sense of fun often reaches out to adults alone - there are jokes about Royston Tan and the Singapore Biennale, and loads of sexual double entendres that rugrats will not comprehend unless they're corrupted already.
Yet the piece also seeks to make the pantomime genre socially relevant to our times. Transplanted from its pastoral setting to an HDB block, the legend of Jack and the Beanstalk finds new meanings within a recognisable social landscape. Jack (Sebastian Tan) is ostracised not simply for being naïve about magic beans, but also because he's a Sec 5 normal student who has no job prospects. His mother, Widow Neo (Ivan Heng in drag) works three jobs, borrows money from loan sharks and has to pretend their cow is a dog in order to stay within guidelines for keeping pets in apartments. It's like an Eric Khoo movie in campy Technicolor.
W!ld Rice paints this landscape quite deliberately with its opening scene, as Jack sits at the top of the apartment block and waves down at us, pointing out the residents of the neighbourhood as they walk down the aisles of the theatre - chorus members dressed as aunties, tissue-paper-sellers and schoolchildren. This chorus of sartorial stereotypes - the tudong lady, the sari lady, the maid in uniform - forms a live backdrop to a number of scenes, enhancing the play's sense of rootedness in a local setting. This sense is strengthened by Tan Ju Meng's cunningly designed set, consisting of white panels with hand-drawn lines to depict void deck pillars and apartment walls, rising and descending to describe different locations.
There's also a meaningful reinterpretation of Jack's acts of theft from the giant - traditionally viewed as a justified act of defiance against a monster. As Widow Neo encounters sudden wealth from her son, she embarks on the time-honoured track of conspicuous consumption, filling her two-room flat with finery to prove her ascent into the upper classes. There are echoes of the company's earlier play, The Visit of the Tai Tai here - a criticism of Singapore's futile materialism that often disregards ethics.
Mind you, Jack and the Beansprout isn't perfect. Adaptation is a difficult business, not least in terms of plotting. Desmond Sim's script featured too many expository or spectacle-focused scenes in Act One, causing a slight lull in action - though momentum fully recovered in Act Two. The giant's palace, compared to Jack's neighbourhood, felt intensely alien and random as a setting - as did its most prominent character, a manga princess heroine domestic worker who makes muffins for the giant. And composer Elaine Chan and arranger Bang Wenfu's music ultimately feels slightly manufactured and juvenile alongside the maturity of the rest of the play's elements.
The numerous strengths of the play, however, outweighed these weaknesses. The show's quality was assured through the high standards of its actors. Ivan Heng was as outrageous as always (it'll be a while before I forget the moment when he rushed onstage to chop down the beanstalk, wielding a roaring chainsaw), while Karen Tan pulled off a gut-busting repertoire of eccentric characters, including a Sri Lankan maid, a tai tai and a magic harp. The use of a children's chorus and Tan Beng Tian's massive puppets added a further dimension of fun into an already exuberant musical.
W!ld Rice isn't aggressively combative about their reclamation of the pantomime genre; they tend more to the defensive. They're careful to defend their directorial decisions - such as cross-dressing and risque and political humour - with a full explanation in the programme of the roots of the British Christmas panto. Tracing its roots all the way back to commedia dell'arte, the company explains how "pantomime is never politically correct... parents, royalty, political personalities and public institutions are all figures of fun and targets for mockery". For them, subversion is not simply a post-colonial aesthetic strategy, but a universal feature of drama.
Singapore theatre's changed plenty in the last decade. Groups like W!ld Rice have expanded audiences, streaming in from the local and expatriate communities alike for theatre that's unabashedly Singaporean. In the meantime, the Stage Club hasn't done poorly either - instead of a pantomime, this year, their Christmas offering is The Miracle Plays, a set of medieval religious plays that they're mining for their timeless resonance.
Perhaps one could say Singapore-run theatre companies have shimmied up the cultural beanstalk. But once they're up, they haven't killed the British giant or robbed him - quite the contrary. They adapt the palace so it's more human-sized, more livable for all. And the beanstalk remains uncut - a connection between the palace and the ground.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /