Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

The Return
Theatre Company Nottle

Adaptation & Direction: Won Young Oh
Lighting Design: Yoon Kwang Duk
Sound Operation: Lee Eun A
Cast: Lee Jih Yeon, Kim Dae Geon, Teerawat Mulvilai, Lee Jae Eun, Jee Sun Hwa, Chae Jin Soul

reviewed by Jyh Wee Sew[1]

  1. The Return, shown on 8 and 9 June in the Theatre Studio at the Esplanade, Singapore, was part of the Flipside Arts Series in conjunction with the Singapore Festival of Arts 2005. Flipside consisted of arts performances that offered a twist on traditional notions of 'the arts.' The theatre productions in this series were different from what Peter Brook would classify as the dead theatre.[2] Apart from The Return, based on Brecht's epic, Legend of the Dead Soldier, other performances included Lovepuke, a TheatreWorks production, and Boxing Cabaret[3] an Action Theatre production. Lovepuke was another performance adopting a Brechtian approach. And, indeed, Brecht is a suitable choice when it comes to unconventional theatre performance for Asian audiences because it offers a refreshing approach to the conventional mode of realist performing.
  2. The show began with six people holding lit cigarettes on a dimly lit stage. As the actors smoked sequentially, puffing one after another, the darkness drew attention to the glowing tips of the cigarettes, which grew bright as each smoker inhaled and then faint as she or he exhaled. The scene itself symbolised a withdrawn society's fatalistic wait for the arrival of the war. The sombre and depressing mood of pre-war departure was conveyed by the actors all running around in the empty space of the darkened stage.
  3. The meaning of the scene was not difficult to ascertain, as a male actor was carrying a signboard with the word "bus" and perpetually chasing the other actors. The depiction represented the mass exodus of people fearing the worst for their own fate as well as the fate of their homeland. The scene lasted a good eight minutes with a male actor, who was later to perform the role of a (dead) soldier asked, 'Where are you going to?' in Korean, English and Thai to the different actors in separate intervals. No answer was offered in reply because obviously they were not concerned with their destination but with the urgent need to leave the place.
  4. Another scene showed the chosen man as a soldier who was compelled to be a part of the nation's heroic effort to fight for the country. He was brainwashed to serve, and he must always show himself as a nationalist by pleasing the top military man. The character, drum in hand, succeeded in drumming literally to the nationalistic chant repeated in various manners. He drummed with zest and commitment at the beginning and repeated the messages that war was good with sadness, desperation, fearful, and oppressed emotional expressions. It was in this instance at which Bentley's point that Stanislavsky's approach to acting could be incorporated into Brecht's plays rang a bell.[4] That is, there are no Brechtian actors but actors attempting to depict Brecht's scripts on stage.
  5. War is indeed the time to show the true colours of human character. The scene of the burying of the dead soldier sadly depicted opportunistic characters in troubled times. The actors mocked the deceased by searching for valuables if not money and refused to honour him with basic respect until the general who recruited the soldier arrived at the scene. Having failed in his attempt to appeal to their good nature, he threw a stack of money in the air to the screaming elation of three actors, who immediately rushed to put the dead soldier into the cart. This is a brilliant Brechtian style of performance as the actors did not rush for the money which would be a realist convention.
  6. The trademark scene in the Brechtian epic Mother Courage came across vividly with the miming of cry re-enacted by the female actor while pulling the cart. While it is tempting to claim that a scene was borrowed from Mother Courage, it is erroneous to make such claim. I am of the opinion that originality pales in comparison with style of expression. Given the new context of performance and the comical elements inserted into the improvisation, the cry of silence is a creative endeavour that blended into scenes of death and suffering befitting a war.
  7. Although the production was Brechtian in nature, the scenes flowed from one to another in a linear development and the actors portrayed their emotions well in the scenes. The comical expressions along with French music succeeded as support for the glorification of war dead. The medal awarding and the posthumous celebration of the dead soldier's sacrifice for his country contrasted with the parading of the deceased in a mocking manner through disco and techno dance steps when the background music transformed from a sombre opera tune to a hip and funky rhythm. Paradoxically, the audience laughed as the actors cried and bemoaned the plight of the deceased.[5]
  8. Such epic theatre required a thinking audience. There were many lessons on the contrast between the music and the acting, which created discomfort as well as humour for the audience to ponder. The audio-visual dissonance provided the opening to destabilise the accepted hegemonic discourse of nationhood. The audience has to have enough basic theatre literacy and to be familiar with the Brechtian style of performance in order to reap the full entertaining return.


    [1] I am most grateful to James Welker who proofread the three reviews in this section at very short notice.

    [2] Peter Brook, The Empty Space, London: Penguin Books, 1990.

    [3] Jyh Wee Sew, 'Review of Boxing Cabaret,' in Intersections: Gender History and Culture in the Asian Context 14, November 2006, accessed 10 April 2007.

    [4] Eric Bentley, 'Are Stanislavsky and Brecht Commensurable?' in Brecht Sourcebook, ed. Carol Martin & Henry Bial, New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 37–42.

    [5] Bertolt Brecht, 'Theatre for Learning,' trans. Edith Anderson, in Brecht Sourcebook, ed. Carol Martin & Henry Bial, 2000, New York: Routledge, pp. 23–30.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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