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Though the production is very problematic, it should be considered a feather in Hot Chocolate's cap that this brand-new amateur theatre could do something difficult.

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The Arsonists’ at Hot Chocolate Theatre

Hot Chocolate Theatre, Singapore’s newest playhouse and first local repertory theatre, presented its debut play The Arsonists at Goodman Arts Centre from September 18-21, 2014.

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The Arsonists is Alistair Beaton’s satirical adaptation of Max Frisch’s Fire Raisers, with slight modification by Hot Chocolate founders Prem John and Susan Penrice Tyrie to reflect the Singapore setting.

The play is about a successful businessman, Dilip Chandran (Dhrubajyoti Das), who unwittingly invites two arsonists, Joe (Tushar Ismail) and Billy (Prem John), into his home. Despite strong evidence pointing to the fact that the two house guests are really the arsonists who have been involved in a series of crimes across the city, Chandran tries to convince himself to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Chorus with Gunawardena on the far right
The Chorus with Gunawardena on the far right

Frisch wrote Fire Raisers in 1953 as a radio play, and then adapted it for the stage in 1958, but in both circumstances the play presented a metaphor for evil (in the form of the arsonists) infesting one’s mind and possibly surroundings, through fascist brainwashing especially.

Given that the play was written in the years following World War II, its theme and symbolism would have held special meaning for post-war theatre-goers almost 60 years ago. However, Beaton’s 2007 adaptation fails to inject any turn-of-the-21st-century relevance to Frisch’s initial writing to make the play relatable to audiences of today.

Even an extremely seasoned director tackling this play would not have had an easy time coming up with ancillary sources by way of props, sets, or use of stage to modernise its themes. Director Tyrie more or less stuck to the text with conventional props and sets. Hence even if one were to look at Beaton’s writing as symbolic of general manipulation, normal naivete, or enveloping evil, and without the reference to wartime or fascism, the material on hand just doesn’t have a strong enough story to carry the message across.

Ismail, second from left,  in the dining room scene
Ismail, second from left, in the dining room scene

Incidentally, in Frisch’s original version, there is a useful epilogue that reveals the arsonists to actually be the Devil and Beelzebub who have closed down Hell, and are about to spread their destruction on Earth. This part is left out of Beaton’s adaptation, although it would have finished the play more neatly had it been included.

That’s of course not the fault of the producers or the theatre company. The fault is in the writing. However one does wonder why Hot Chocolate chose this play in the first place when it seemed to be too dated. During the Question and Answer segment, this critic had the chance to ask why this play was chosen, and Tyrie said she had read the play and liked it.

I am still not certain this was the right play for a repertory group starting off, as satire or even general comedy is very hard to pull off when not everyone in the group is an experienced actor. Why didn’t they choose a drama or a tragedy? Tyrie explained that she didn’t set out to choose a play according to genre. However with a mixed bunch of actors, with such varying levels of skills and exposure, a comedy or satire – which requires great comic timing and pitch/tone-perfect delivery of dialogue – really isn’t a good choice for a newly minted repertory collective.

It was such a pity that many of the satirical moments were not well received by the audience, who stayed absolutely silent during the funny parts. Initially this reviewer thought it was because it was matinee session, filled with literature students who may have been too sheltered in their education to understand the satire (please see my postscript below). But a check with a couple of people who attended the evening session of the same play confirmed that most in the audience simply didn’t laugh at the spots at which they were meant to chuckle. A lot of the comedic lines or moments simply fell flat.

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The lighting could have had a part to play in this, as there were portions of the stage that were unusually darkly lit during various parts of the performance and at times you could hardly see the actors. This critic is not sure whether part of the reason the audience didn’t laugh was that they simply couldn’t see clearly.

Also, there is such a fine line between overacting and stage-acting, and quite a few of the actors in this ensemble fell on the side of melodrama and contrived acting, with a couple of the actors even struggling with enunciation of their words.

However, the more seasoned actors such as Tushar Ismail and Arundathi Gunawardena were a delight to watch. Ismail had a very relaxed manner in his portrayal that made his stage presence seem natural but yet captivating. Gunawardena, who was part of the Chorus, imbued a lot of layered subtlety into her secondary role that made her stand out in the group.

In conclusion, Hot Chocolate Theatre is a very young repertory theatre company, and most in the collective aren’t formally trained (please see my other story on Hot Chocolate Theatre). Therefore, whilst this review has criticized the production in the context of the levels of regular professional theatre, it has to be said that for an amateur group starting out, this production should be considered a feather in Hot Chocolate’s cap, as the new company showed it could do something difficult – putting up a play, attracting a paying audience, and getting volunteer talent and crew to work just for passion.

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The Arsonists is just the starting ground for this ensemble. Here’s hoping for more plays and productions from this pioneering repertory group as they grow in their training and exposure. After all, you can’t get hot chocolate ready-made and straight out from a bottle, can you?

Postscript: – To me as an ex-academic, the shockingly literal series of questions coming from 16-year-old literature students (who traditionally should be the most creative group out of all high schoolers) during the play’s Question and Answer session is worrying and a strong indicator of how Singapore’s mostly rote-learning-based education system needs a major overhaul. When literature students, no less, can’t even think, it just might be time to ask the pertinent question why.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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