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Reviewed by:
  • Mortal Sins
  • Christopher C. Newton
Mortal Sins. By Michael Chiang, Dick Lee. TheatreWorks at Kallang Theatre, Singapore. 5–12 November 1995.

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Figure 1.

Jacqueline Atria (Jacintha Abisheganaden) and Rosy (Wendy Kweh) in Theatre Works’ production of Michael Chiang and Dick Lee’s Mortal Sins directed by Ong Keng Sen. Photo: Nyen/Talking Pictures.

Mortal Sins, a multimedia spectacle produced by Singapore’s premier company TheatreWorks, was conceived to inaugurate a new form: the Singapore musical. A collaborative team of local talent (Ong Keng Sen, Michael Chiang, Dick Lee, and Najip Ali), fresh from their previous success together on a piece entitled BeautyWorld, set themselves a formidable task not only by choosing to adapt the mega-musical model to a Singapore aesthetic, but also by tackling the issue of censorship. Challenging themes are not new to TheatreWorks, however. The company has done extremely important work advocating Singaporean and Asian material by sponsoring local playwrights with the Writers Laboratory and encouraging a style of theatre that draws on the local vernacular (Singlish) and fuses Eastern and Western performance styles.

In Mortal Sins, intersections of the glamorous and the profound are set in precise and subtle motion. The first images on stage include two singing actors representing the hands of a clock through gesture and movement (one spins in a beautifully rhythmic motion around the other). Both figures are dwarfed on a cavernous set bound by a semi-circular ramp upstage. Two towering columns of televisions periodically drop from the flies to support a huge screen, with the effect of subordinating the actors to immense video projections. The unmistakable impression is of a totalitarian environment. Acting approaches are also counterpointed because the big-screen video requires a tight frame and nuance, while the same actors performing live on stage must push their expression with the force of a stylized interpretation out from the immense stage. The unrelenting chorus, clad in black as a swarm of beautiful people, further reinforces the spectacle and the persuasive power of an unforgiving mob. The overwhelming theatrical effect is of hierarchy becoming the villain, squashing individual dreams.

But the play is also about dreams. The plot revolves around two characters with similar dreams from different periods of Singapore’s history. The figures meet in a liminal environment briefly created by the spinning clock figures. Rosie the stripper, frozen in time in the salacious Singapore of the 1960s, meets Jackie Atria, the feminist cum moral guardian of the Singapore censorship board, who hails from the efficient but uptight Singapore of the 1990s. Both women celebrate being at the top of their careers, but recognize a hollowness and [End Page 381] secretly desire more profound fulfillment. The musical’s grand idea is set in motion when Jackie wakes to find herself in a sixties brothel just before Rosie takes the stage. The pluck of the two characters quickly becomes a bond and the source of mutual admiration.

Before Rosie and Jackie can really explore their common Singaporean desires, the chorus interrupts them by bringing life back to modern Singapore with a stunning pastiche of images that draws artistic inspiration from the art of Chinese propaganda films, the power of Leni Reifenstahl’s marching crowds, and the whimsicality of Broadway corporate depictions such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The song “The Nineties” closes the act by displaying the megakilowatt energy of prosperous contemporary Singapore, shouting down the personal connection the two main characters have made across the gulf separating Singapore in 1960 and 1994.

Whereas the visual elements of Mortal Sins incorporate the full range of TheatreWorks’ diverse influences, the music does not stray from Western musical tradition. Jackie’s first song, “I Don’t Care” presents the heroine in a distinctly individual (and ironically Western) perspective. In a twist on the rebel paradigm, Jackie will fight to keep moral standards high in Singapore despite public criticism. But the director generates an effective tension between content and style. The counterpoint of message (maintain collective Asian values) and mode (the actor/character alone on the stage apron) adds to the production’s rich layering.

The most gripping number is...

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pp. 381-383
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