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Forbidden City


Forbidden City
Reviewed by Ng Yi-Sheng

I have a confession. I'm deeply distrustful of this show. It's Singapore's most successful musical - first commissioned for the opening of the Esplanade, now in its third run, greeted with interest by American investors who'd like to adapt it for Broadway. Last week, it was presented with TheatreWorks's Diaspora to IMF delegates as a representative of Singapore's theatre fare.

Forbidden City has become Singapore's cultural ambassador. And I hate that.

You see, I've got this anachronistic sense of patriotism, and in earlier reviews I've explained how interested I am in theatre as an arena for non-government voices to propose new definitions of national identity. Composer Dick Lee has been an active participant in this process - his Beauty World recaptured a lost moment of Singaporean history, while his more international works like Fantasia and Nagaland projected us as a city in Asia where different cultures could meet each other for dialogue.

Forbidden City, however, isn't concerned with Singapore. It's about the life of Cixi, the famed Empress Dowager of China. It narrates her struggle for survival behind the secret doors of the Forbidden City, maintaining her power in the face of calumny from her own subjects as well as the English press. All action takes place in China, and all characters are Chinese (or Manchu, if you quibble) except for the British journalist George Morrison and the American painter Kate Carl.

It's an exclusive celebration of the glory of imperial China. And that's doubly troubling to me, because 1) it paints an exotic image of Asia that too many Westerners associate with our country, and 2) it's a heritage embraced by the many Singaporeans who embrace their Chinese ethnicity rather than their non-Chinese citizenship.

As a big, commercial musical, however, I've got to concede it's rather good. Forbidden City has pretty much everything your regular fan of musicals could ask for. You want songs? The introductory number Dragon Lady is thoroughly hummable even two weeks after the production, and I'm extremely satisfied with Dick Lee's harmonies and arrangements, as well as with Stephen Clark's consistently polished lyrics. You want drama? The vicissitudes of Cixi's rise and fall are well paced, and the strategy of telling her story through the eyes of a Western portraitist works remarkably well for an audience that's not immediately familiar with the world of the 19th century Chinese court.

There's also comic relief from the Record Keepers played by the infallible comedians Hossan Leong and Sebastian Tan, and some light (but not overpowering) romance. The glitzy Broadway trimmings weren't quite of international standards - costumes were pretty without being stylised, the set was versatile and minimalist rather than a showcase of opulent spectacle, and the dancing was merely decent - the wushu-inspired choreography of Now China Has a Son turned out a wee bit nancy, in fact, due to the unconvincing pugilism. Nonetheless, the performance was definitely comparable to the classics of the musical comedy genre. I was especially impressed with the pacing - the pattern of reprises and repetitions worked superbly through the three hours of play, with the chaotic politics of the second act conveyed on a solid wave of music and emotion, barely interrupted by unsung dialogue.

So on the whole, I can't help but recommend the show to traditional fans of musical theatre. It's a crowd-pleaser on multiple levels, coming out much stronger than previous commercial musicals in Singapore such as Chang and Eng or The Admiral's Odyssey. One can't judge a musical using the same criteria as an experimental play - after all no-one expects the piece to be ideologically groundbreaking; it's just a feast of eye and ear candy for an evening's pleasure.

What hurt this performance in the end, really, was the insufficient acting skills of the leads. Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco played the young and the old Empress respectively, and neither was able to portray the character's critical moments of vulnerability, let alone convey her as a complex, three-dimensional character. Leigh McDonald gave a more developed rendition of Kate as an individual torn between loyalties, though the individual idiosyncrasy of the character didn't shine through - plus, her American accent was slightly inconsistent. The drama survived such weaknesses, though - it became less heartwarming, but loftier and more epic, populated with grand personalities rather than mere humans.

In spite of all these strengths, I'm still concerned at the prospect of Forbidden City being treated as the iconic Singapore musical. Taken alone, it misrepresents Singapore identity as an offshoot of Chinese heritage - I mean, hell, the only song that hints at diasporic identity is a lament entitled Land of Our Fathers. And what if this show becomes accepted as the template for the model local musical? We could soon be knee-deep in Chinese and Japanese period dramas in English - selling ourselves abroad on the basis of our Asian features much more than a sense of our own history.

Yet against all expectation, I've realised I'm actually hoping Forbidden City makes it to Broadway. It'd be a moment of private pride, like your JC prom queen going to Miss Universe, and it could open doors for the whole of the Singapore theatre community. Most Americans could do with a little more education on Asian history, and with its backdrop of the Opium Wars, the show brings up issues of colonialism and the mudslinging of foreign politicians that remain relevant and sadly unacknowledged, even today.

Maybe it'd be best if the Singaporean provenance of the musical is only known to the big players of the theatre industry - maybe with their help we can export Fried Rice Paradise, lest the outsiders assume we're a monocultural, insular province longing to be geographically reunited with the mainland. Or possibly a future work from the creators of this musical could be put on there - Dick Lee, Stephen Clark and SRT Artistic Director Gaurav Kripalani aren't "Chinese chauvinists" by any means, and Dick hass recently announced his intent to craft a musical based on the Ramayana.

Let's just not allow Forbidden City to be the definitive dramatic text for Singapore. We've got much more to say about ourselves which can't be spoken through the ventriloquism of "mother" cultures - the success of Alfian Sa'at's The Optic Trilogy in Germany and Scandinavia is testament to the wide range of options we have in creating internationally marketable theatre. Let's not pour unjustified scorn on the musical, either - if we as citizens don't trust our cultural ambassador, we don't assassinate it. We start working on giving birth to a new one.

[This article first appeared in The Flying Inkpot , and is reproduced here with permission.]

[Also see the review in Kakiseni.com]