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Review by RICHARD LORD (continued)
Jenkins and company look at a broad collection of personalities who have contributed to the history of Singapore since Raffles first declared it the property of the British crown. We meet coolies, thieves fortune-hunters, civil servants, domestic servants, dhobies and nightsoil (i.e. excrement) collectors. We get informed and enlightened about how this Singapore was built by the various hands involved in the process: sailors, boat builders, samsui women (female construction site workers), seamstresses, shopkeepers, prostitutes, dance hall girls, gardeners, peons, real estate speculators. Even a few tourists wander in, take a quick look and gulp, before moving off to another scheduled destination.
The trip is exhilarating, and at the end we feel that we have seen so much of the history of this place and wish we could see even more. It’s true that the work as a whole still exhibits a structure which at times seems a little disjointed or too convenient, so the whole stands as a collection of individual gems rather than an integrated work with a clear thrust. But taking the show on its own terms, this objection seems a little beside the point. What Belly does, it does very well, and we should appreciate it for that. Not that every piece in the program is a flawless gem (there are a number of caricatures, such as our tourists, and a few sketches are just too sketchy), but there is much more true value than dross here.
Author-director Jenkins was served beautifully by his highly talented ensemble cast, who handled their multiple roles in a very admirable way. If I had to single out one or two from the cast of six for special praise, I’d choose - no, let’s give them all equal praise, as it's a truly collective achievement we saw here. So, kudos to Wendy Kweh, Lim Yu-Beng, Tony Quek, Gene Sha Rudyn, Catherine Sng and Karen Tan. Whether they were providing a little flesh and blood to historical names figures usually cast in chalky plaster or giving voice to someone whose voice has never really been heard, these actors were all stars for a few minutes, and a little later for several minutes more. Working closely with Jenkins, these performers put real heart into the belly of this carp.
Enter the belly of the carp
REVIEW by Cherylin Tay (continued)
Some of the most memorable characters include Quek's nightsoil collector whose very pragmatic outlook on the status of men and their faeces had the audience in stitches, and the long-suffering punkah-wallah (cloth fan operator) played by the diminutive but endearing Gene Sha Rudyn, whose comical expressions as he pulled the punkah according to the whims and fancies of his European mistress are nothing short of hilarious.
From familiar European characters like Raffles and Farquhar to different sinkhehs (newcomers) with their own success stories or tragic ends, to three generation households where the old clashes with the new, the play progresses through a spectrum of years, culminating in the redeveloped, clean beauty that is the Singapore River stretch today.
The tales are full of a gamut of emotions ranging from laughter to anger, bitterness and resignation. Some tales are lighthearted and endearing while others portray the darker side of life dealt a cruel blow by the hand of Fate.
That is what makes Belly of the Carp so amazing. You are transported back in time, if just for a little while, to see and appreciate the hardships that we will never understand, to learn about our roots and the people who came and paved the way for us to become the modern, technology-driven society we are now.
To sit in the DBS Arts Centre theatre on Merbau Road, only a stone's throw away from the Singapore River, in all its renovated finery, while taking in scenes that take place in the very area where you now sit, there is also a sense of poignancy as the old is juxtaposed against the new.
This is a play that will make you laugh, cry and will leave you clamouring for more. It will also make you think about your own family and where you came from.