Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Raffles, Hallucinating

So much is going on in downtown Singapore: there are museum exhibits, dance performances, symphony concerts in the botanic gardens, hundreds of clubs with music in every style imaginable, and theater events. And that’s just in a typical weekend. But we live in the suburbs, and too often we forget to go into town to for a dose of the arts.

It took a nudge from a French friend to send us to our first Singaporean play: a rather avant-garde rendition of Stamford Raffles’ last hallucinatory hours. Though Raffles has a prominent statue on the bay and is a well-known name here, Singapore has understandably had a somewhat conflicted opinion of the British colonialist.

So rather than a Raffles reflecting on his successes, we watched a Raffles haunted by past memories - and hamstrung between a love for the exotic jungle-ness of Singapore and a rigid desire for progress. (If this sounds similar to present-day Singapore, you got the Singaporean playwright’s point.)

Feverishly imagining the lure of the rainforest, Raffles finds his bedroom invaded by a poetry-spouting, sprite-like rafflesia bloom, which tempts him to return Singapore to its natural state. At least, that’s what we deciphered from the cryptic poetry. Raffles was the discoverer of the beautiful rafflesia (pictured at left), which is not only the world’s largest flower but also a parasitic plant whose open center reportedly smells like a decaying corpse.

The only thing that seems to frighten the rafflesia away, though, is even more upsetting to Raffles: a living copy of the statue that today stands in his memory. “Come to the future with me,” says the statue. “You’ll like it! You have a statue, a hotel, a luxury airline class!”

Living in Singapore, we could fully appreciate the symbolism as the flower and the statue tried to throttle each other, and we could laugh at many of the in-jokes (though we missed a few Bahasa phrases that most of the audience found hilarious). And we enjoyed the international casting, which we hardly ever see in the US: an actor originally from Mumbai was the perfect Raffles, and his statue was played, to great effect, by a Singaporean.

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