Visual by The Theatre Practice
8th December 2006
Esplanade Theatre Studio
by Verena Tay
11th December 2006
The months leading up to the debut of Mama Looking for Cat in August 1988 were exciting times for me. As one of the eleven people chosen by Kuo Pao Kun to co-create his latest production, I experienced a constant buzz during our rehearsals at Practice’s then premises at Sommerville Walk.
The things that KPK wanted to explore through Mama were then new and innovative elements within the Singaporean theatrical context: reflecting Singapore’s multilingualism and multiculturalism within a theatrical context; dissecting key social issues such as the breakdown of intergenerational communication; physical training for actors using Grotowskian-inspired exercises to free their bodies and make them more expressive; experimenting with physical theatre and poor theatre where the actor was the key focus on stage; devising a play in a collaborative manner among diverse individuals over a period of several months; adapting the then configuration of the Singapore Conference Hall into as close to black box theatre conditions/two-sided audience seating arrangement as possible (such flexibility in the use of a theatre space was unheard of in Singapore then)…
These features, and more, made Mama a major landmark in the history of Singapore’s contemporary theatre, influencing a whole generation of practitioners (including myself) and audiences.
Fast forward eighteen years to 2006. The Singaporean landscape has changed a great deal. The social, cultural and linguistic make-up of local society has evolved. Theatrical practices that were innovative in 1988 are now commonplace conventions. New theatre spaces have been built. New audiences and practitioners have come of age. New technologies have crept into all our lives.
So eighteen years on, how could The Theatre Practice revive the now classic script of Mama Looking for Her Cat at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 7–10 Dec 2006 for this present day and age?
Experiencing the 2006 version of Mama, this time from an audience’s perspective on Friday 8 December, was a thought-provoking time for me as I could not help continually comparing the 1988 and current productions together. I felt that this adaptation under Austrian Martina Winkel’s direction was faithful to a certain degree to the spirit of the original, and yet at the same time gave fresh insights in the manner that the script was updated and extended.
One key element remained the same between the two productions: the principle of devising the show in a collaborative fashion among a diverse group of artists. Winkel worked with a much smaller ensemble of five actors (including Goh Guat Kian from the original cast) to give the classic script a pared down, but no less honest, physical and minimalist interpretation of the lack of communication between Mama and her children, forcing Mama to seek solace and companionship with her pet cat. T. Sasitharan, also from the original cast, sat to the side of the stage typing away at a laptop and contributed at key moments to the live action by narrating stage directions from KPK’s script. The onstage action was complemented by video installations of the 1988 production, plus videos of miscellaneous contemporary street scenes interspersed with typed text containing random thoughts related to the issues within the play, taped interviews of the 2006 actors about how the process of creating this new version of Mama affected them, translated transcripts of the actors’ lines when they spoke in different languages, live close-up captures of the actors on stage as well as live internet video feed of actions being carried out by two performers in Vienna. The multimedia slant of the 2006 production was further enhanced by simultaneous online chats on various topics carried out during each performance (I personally took part in the chat on the evening of 9 December) and the simultaneous telecast of the Singapore performance in Vienna via Skype.
I could understand the value of this multimedia approach at various levels. The simultaneous collaboration with Vienna underscored the universality of the themes of Mama. The video installation of the 1988 production and the presence of Guat Kian and Sasi paid homage to the original version and yet stressed the continuity and evolution of Mama over the years. The presence of computers and videos highlighted the pervasiveness of electronic forms of communication in our lives today and how they help or do not help human communication. The multimedia slant was also essential in updating the script within today’s context – Mama now looks forward to receiving email (instead of mere snail mail) from her child abroad and even tries to learn how to use a computer to communicate with her brood. The close-up captures of the actors’ faces at key points magnified their emotions in ways not possible during the 1988 production: most memorable was the freeze-framed look on Guat Kian’s face when she as Mama was troubled by her children’s attention during her birthday.
This multimedia adaptation undeniably added new layers of meaning to the original script and was also perhaps necessary for today’s audiences more attuned to a multi-sensory theatrical experience. However, I personally was quite disenchanted by the presence of multiple TV and projection screens, which for me represented one of the largest departures that Winkel made from the spirit of the 1988 production. In 1988, one of KPK’s aims was to realize the concept of poor theatre where the focus was solely on the actor’s performance to bring out the essence of a play. Compared to the clean bare stage and lack of props/accessories in 1988 where the only colour provided was from the actors, the 2006 production was simply cluttered with technical equipment (as well as actors’ props and costumes). At times, I found it hard to focus on the five actors onstage with so many elements competing for my attention.
The decision to pay homage to the 1988 production via screening excerpts also had its limits. The hardest scene to recreate in Mama Looking for Her Cat is unquestionably the pivotal encounter between Mama and the old Indian man. Perhaps Winkel made the right choice in deciding to screen the original version so poignantly devised and portrayed eighteen years ago by Mdm Ko Kim Hong and Sasi respectively. Yet at the same time, I was disappointed that this 2006 production did not dare break away from the original and find its own interpretation of this critical juncture in the play.
In addition, there was one feature about the connection to 1988 that was not played up. Interviews of the younger actors’ reactions in being involved with the 2006 production were screened. Noticeably absent were the viewpoints of Guat Kian and Sasi. Albeit that 2006 production had to speak to today’s audiences through the younger actors’ responses, I would have loved to find out about how Guat Kian and Sasi felt about reprising their connection with Mama Looking for Her Cat.
When I could focus on the actors on stage, I much enjoyed the 2006 ensemble, each member giving solid individual performances plus blending and supporting each other well. It was touching to see Guat Kian rising to the occasion and from the ranks of the chorus to play Mama after eighteen years with the same gentle toughness that she has brought to motherly roles in other plays. Yeo Yann Yann balanced the sensitivity which she brought to the daughter’s monologue about searching for her mother intent on suicide (the same monologue developed by Guat Kian eighteen years earlier) with the versatility in her portrayal of Cat in the beginning of the play and later on as Harried Daughter impatient with Mama’s need to email messages to her son.
What were outstanding were the new scenes developed by the 2006 ensemble and director that extended the scope and meaning of Mama Looking for Her Cat. Emanorwatty Saleh’s portrayal of two different versions of Mak Cik reporting the activities of Mama to the police were true-to-life. Even more stirring was the incorporation of the conversation between mother-in-Singapore and son-overseas between Ema and Muhd Ghazali Muzakir: the incorporation of the Malay perspective underlined so strongly the universality of the break-down of intergenerational communication.
Two new vital scenes were added. First, there was Mama’s declaration of her attempts at learning how to use a computer to keep up with her children, which served only to break-up the family mahjong game instead of uniting her family together. Second, there was the encounter between Mama and her son, played by Alvin Chiam, where she pleads with him to visit her more often and for longer duration as well as begs him to live with her once again to keep her company.
Witnessing Mama’s attempts at communicating with her children through these two heart wrenching scenes on one hand allowed Mama to seem more proactive in trying to reach out to her children, and on the other, added poignancy to her failure to do so and intensified the unintended callousness of the younger generation toward Mama’s feelings. The latter scene for me was the highlight of the 2006 production: Alvin’s disinterest about Mama’s sense of isolation and preoccupation with his handphone was a painful counterpoint to Guat Kian’s earnest entreaties for familial affection and human companionship. It pointed a direct finger at today’s audiences: how often have we focused on our communication gizmos rather than communicating in the flesh with our elderly parents?
Any new interpretation of a classic must find its own way for it is never possible to recreate the circumstances and conditions of the original production. Eighteen years on, The Theatre Practice has tried its best to bring new life to Mama Looking for Her Cat, intertwining the play’s underlying basic human drama with the pervasiveness of technology that is life today as well as updating and extending the original script. By and large, The Theatre Practice has succeeded in its mission. Nevertheless, since I was part of the original cast and the 1988 production has greatly affected my personal theatrical craft over the years, I cannot help but look back fondly and long for the simplicity and honesty that characterized the very first Mama Looking for Her Cat.
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An Associate Artist with The Substation since 2002, Verena Tay has spent the last twenty years acting, directing and writing for local English-language theatre working at various times with The Necessary Stage, Action Theatre, TheatreWorks and Practice Theatre. Since 1997, she has been concentrating on solo performances, most of which has been featured at The Substation with its support, e.g. Cotton & Jade (2000), Medea: One on One (2002) and 3 Women (2005). The Substation also produced three of Verena’s monologues (directed by Richard Chua, Sonny Lim and Ferlin Jayatissa) as 3 Men Meet 3 Women in 2004.