“Furthest North, Deepest South”
Reviewer: Casidhe Ng
Performance: 22 March 2015
First staged by The Finger Players in 2004, Furthest North, Deepest South tells the story of the eunuch Cheng Ho, and his tumultuous brotherly relationship with Emperor Zhu Di as well as his eventual mission to sail the world in search of new lands.
Entering the performance space, one would immediately notice the unconventional staging. With a minimal amount of sets used, the audience was situated at four ends of a cubic space, a rather peculiar directorial choice that limited the playing space for the actors but allowing intimacy.
This new, abridged staging of the original script written by Chong Tze Chien instead showcases a plethora of symbolic references that ultimately lacks a fixed sense of direction. This causes the play to come across as incoherent and conflicting. Emperor Zhu Di (Jessica Lee Xin) is referenced to and played as a male, despite the fact that the character is played by a female sporting a red dress and platform shoes. “His” mannerisms are similarly and largely feminine, and it is later depicted that he rapes a concubine in anger, leaving this audience member confused and stunned. The other elements of the play, such as costumes and multimedia, do not cohere. The advisors are dressed in apparent contemporary outfits; the crew that sails with Cheng Ho is clad in construction uniforms.
There is a lack of clarity in the time and space in which the production unfolds. There are short scenes of a Miss Universe pageant interspersed in the narratives, leading up to the rather straightforward point that the Emperor wants the universe for himself. While it is fine to confound time and space in the first few scenes, the overall performance eventually becomes a conglomerate of underdeveloped symbols with disparate meanings and distant references with no real indication of purpose.
Notwithstanding the opaque symbolism, Furthest North, Deepest South’s technical aspects manage to contribute effectively to the play’s overall pacing and ideas. There are sparse moments of abstract beauty provided by the multimedia and the soundscapes that created much needed atmosphere and mood in the piece.
Finally, the play would be nothing without powerful performances from its cast, leading with an exceptional portrayal of Cheng Ho by Shannen Tan that echoes Fanny Kee’s original performance of the role. Seah Wenqian and Nur Sofiha similarly offset the unbalanced tragedy of the play with their comedic personas as the cheerful crew, who accompany Cheng Ho on his journey.
Despite its apparent flaws, the Year 3 Theatre Students of the National University of Singapore have provided us with a refreshing and nuanced interpretation of Chong’s original script, one that is booming with potential and possibility for these young and capable actors.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
FURTHEST NORTH, DEEPEST SOUTH by NUS Theatre Studies Year 3
21 – 22 March 2015
UCC Dance Studio
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Casidhe Ng is currently majoring in Theatre and Literature at School of the Arts, Singapore.