written by Kuo Pao Kun
directed by Jeff Chen
One of Kuo Pao Kun’s most popular plays, Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral was first staged in the 1990s at a time when Singapore was developing into a cosmopolitan state. Drawing parallels between Singapore’s socio-political history and the Ming dynasty eunuch Admiral Zheng He's personal experiences and travels, the piece is rich in its themes of cultural rootlessness, displacement, the search for utopia, and the insidiousness of control. In this bold and irreverent interpretation for The Studios: fifty, director Jeff Chen challenged the audience to reconsider the text through a melange of visual and aural stimulation.
In this post-show dialogue, theatremaker Jeff Chen, together with the cast members, discussed his interpretation of Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, presented as part of The Studios: fifty season (2015).
The playwright’s highly acclaimed Invitation to Treat tells the story of an ambitious lesbian lawyer, Ellen Toh, across three plays, a rare feat in local theatre. Spanning three decades of Toh’s life, the trilogy drew attention to issues related to sexuality, family, marriage, and gender, fleshing out one woman’s journey to find love, face up to its dissolution, as well as gain acceptance and a sense of community.
The oeuvre of Singapore theatre’s doyen spans more than three decades of English, Mandarin, and multilingual plays, many of which have been translated into different languages and staged overseas. The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking on Odd Days were some of his first English monologues, while The Silly Little Girl and The Funny Old Tree was influenced by the Poor Theatre of Jerzy Grotowski and marked a shift towards experimentation for the theatre scene as a whole at the end of the 1980s.
Spell#7 burst onto the scene in the late 1990s with their cool and detached style of writing that bristled with an urban vibe. Balance (2003), about an estranged couple, was a pleasant departure from their earlier works and a precursor to their later string of plays—the duet series (2005–2013)—which employed a deceptively simple confessional writing style that moved with honesty and subtlety.
Natalie Hennedige’s and Leow Puay Tin’s plays marked refreshing approaches towards dramatic writing. Leow’s epic Family (1996), about the history of a Chinese immigrant family, is a multi-sensory work which frequently required the active participation of the audience. Hennedige’s Nothing (2007) and Temple (2008) were multilayered experiences of text, movement, multimedia and soundscapes, juxtaposing moments of tragedy and emotion with bathos.
In 2015, The Studios marked the nation’s 50th birthday with a celebration of Singapore English-language theatre and the practitioners who have contributed to its development. Over a period of five weeks, we revisited some of the stories and characters that not only moved and inspired us, but also captured our collective memories and the pluralism of Singapore identity.
Co-curated by Chong Tze Chien, the season featured five landmark plays reimagined in full (with one staged each week) and 45 dramatised readings categorised thematically; some of which were classics written by our pioneer playwrights, while others were award-winning works by the new generation.
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