I'm a Man, Not a Boy
Lord of the Flies - a novel familiar to many because of its enduring popularity as an English Literature text in school, especially for boys - is about a group of 6- to 12-year-old boys who are stranded on an island after their plane crashes. The discipline and order that a few of the boys try to establish quickly degenerate into chaos as some of the boys realise that without any adult supervision, they are free to do whatever they want. The work explores the dark side of human nature, how, deep down, all of us - even the most innocent, the children - are creatures of fear, paranoia, insecurity and anger with an unquenchable thirst for power because of the false sense of self-importance and security that it brings.
Before I went to watch this adaptation of Lord of the Flies, I told myself that watching adult male actors play the pre-adolescent characters I knew so well as a secondary two student was either going to be horrific beyond measure or else, simply amazing. There was the possibility of painfully over-the-top acting but also the possibility that director Samantha Scott-Blackhall would use the potential of this casting decision to bring greater poignancy to the themes of the play, for example, how the text's cynical assessment of human nature is applicable to so many of today's world leaders. As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts.
To begin with, the fact that the characters were played by men was really never alluded to in the play to create any sort of meta-effect or message; certainly, none that I could see beyond what was already inherent in the original text. Visually, there was no mistaking that these were men: many of the cast clearly had the body shape of grown men, sculpted by years in the gym or from playing rugby. Unfortunately, this only led to problems rather than profundity. For example, suspension of disbelief was certainly required when one smaller actor (Ian Tan) was supposed to overpower and intimidate two bigger men (Andrew Lua and Dick Su) and leave them crying like babies just because he had one of them in an arm-lock. This just looked silly because the actor's other arm was completely free to swing back and grab or hit Tan. Of course, if I had been convinced enough by Lua's and Su's performances to see them as children, I could probably have believed that they were overwhelmed with irrational fear, unable to think straight. But I simply could not forget, at any time during the play, that most of the actors (there was one exception) were adults. This constant distraction marred my enjoyment of the play and I was certainly not the only one with this problem either, if the laughter from the audience at inappropriate points in the play is anything to go by. It made me wonder why Scott-Blackhall didn't simply cast a group of schoolboys to play the parts instead if having the actors be men was not relevant.
This is not to say that the cast was weak. It was a difficult task that the actors were trying to accomplish and all of them showed a lot of focus and discipline in trying to play children. Aside from a petulant Robin Goh who occasionally threw tantrums like a 4-year-old and a lanky Shane Mardjuki who had to bend his knees the entire performance as the very young Perceval, I did not feel that any of the actors overplayed their younger age too badly, or ever slipped out of character (except for some of the cast's ill-advised attempts at a British accent). Indeed, Claudio Girardi as the natural leader Ralph and Michael Corbidge as the pitiable Piggy came very close to registering as fully fledged characters rather than just cartoons - though I would have liked to see a little more variety in Girardi's performance - and, to be fair, many of the cast, like Paul Hannon, had very small ensemble parts that they could do little with anyway.
Essentially, the play, while not bad by any means, was certainly not great either: it neither fully realized the potential of having an adult cast play boys - I'm thinking of, say, the all-male cast productions I have seen of Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus where the change in gender of key roles added new dimensions and flavours to the texts - nor managed to satisfactorily justify the stunt casting by wowing the audience with truly inspired performances, and, here, I'm thinking of Siti Khalijah who was entirely convincing as a primary school girl in Teater Ekamatra's How Did The Cat Get So Fat? (2006) and who, by the way, pulled off a performance so complicated I can think of few actors (and none of the age of the character) who could have managed it.
In Lord of the Flies, it was only Tan who proved convincing and magnetic in his performance as the bad boy, Roger who was as rough as your swaggering neighbourhood pai kia but also as slithery and sinister as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Part of this may be because Tan is younger than some of the other actors; there are no ages listed in the programme but he alone, out of the whole cast, has no other theatre credits to his name. He didn't seem to be trying to be a kid; it seemed more like he was just playing his part as best he could but because he has a naturally youthful demeanour it suited Roger anyway. He made the age of his character the least defining quality of his performance and that helped make it the most authentic.
Unfortunately, while the age of the characters was also de-emphasized in Gani A Karim's performance as the dreamy Simon and Lau's and Su's as Sam and Eric (the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber characters), the actors overplayed Simon's wistfulness and Sam and Eric's slapstick comedy. They were not helped by a script that gave these characters a disproportionately large amount of stage time, certainly much more than was needed; Piggy could have been given more stage time to, for example, heighten the pathos of his eventual death. Simon's extended monologue as he staggered about alone in the forest, abandoned by everyone, was supposed to be powerful (some argue that he is a Christ figure) but really, it flitted about all over the place and Gani did little to ground it. Similarly, Sam and Eric had a couple of scenes which dragged on for far too long and - worse - were trying far too hard to be funny. Playwright Nigel Williams is an award-winning writer but, if not for the fact that the original text itself is already so juicy and rich, I'm not sure this script would have much to recommend it at all. It was merely functional and not particularly inspired. Especially in the first half, the script often meandered pointlessly.
Suven Chan's lighting was suitably atmospheric, helping the play to capture some of the original text's dark mood and magic, especially in the scenes of death or those involving the alleged Beast hiding in the forest: her use of sudden flashes of light was always well-timed. However, I did find her lighting of the night scenes to be simply too dark. Instead of creating a sense of fear or danger, all they did was leave me wondering which actors were speaking at any particular time. Coupled with an unfocused script, the extended night scenes only made my companion, by her own admission, more than a little sleepy. Similarly, Hella Chan's set was both appropriate - I liked the simple use of a square of sand in the middle of the stage to represent the beach, especially because of how the actors interacted with it e.g. Ralph rolling playfully around in the sand as he spoke to Piggy, the actors occasionally tripping over bits of driftwood as they walked around - and distracting: sometimes the sand would fly into the front row of the audience as the actors moved around and the audience would respond instinctively, drawing attention away from the actors.
At the end of the day, I believe there will be those who feel that
I am being overly critical in my review perhaps because of my expectations
of the well-established director and cast going into the play. I also
believe there will be many who feel I am being too generous: the audience
was noticeably smaller after the interval. I think this reflects the
middling nature of the production. It was generally competent with as
much to recommend about it (I should add that I found the fight and
rugby scenes to be very well-choreographed and executed) as to criticize
(sorry I have to mention the awful accents again). What I must emphasize,
however, is that the second half is distinctly much tighter and, therefore,
much more intense and engaging, leading to a satisfying end. My advice
would be to see the play through to the end despite any misgivings you
may have after the flat first half.
Before I went to watch Lord of the Flies, I told myself that watching a play in which a bunch of grown men would act as pre-adolescent boys was either going to be amazing or else, horrific beyond measure. As it turned out, the experience was somewhere down the middle (more painful, in fact, were the attempts by a few of the cast members to adopt British accents) – only a few and not all the actors made the mistake of going over the top in their performance (kudos to Claudio Girardi for his solid lead performance as Ralph, the always-reliable Michael Corbidge as Piggy and a truly magnetic performance by newcomer Ian Tan as Roger, the pai kia). At the end of the day though, the whole time I was watching the play, I found it hard not to be constantly distracted by the thought that these were, indeed, men not boys – and the laughter from the audience at inappropriate moments when the men pranced around and threw tantrums showed that I was not the only one. It, ultimately, seemed like a pointless exercise: why not simply cast a group of students, especially since the casting of adults was not used to any particular effect? Still, the narrative is a powerful one and the play does capture some of the novel's dark magic, especially in the significantly tighter and therefore much more intense and atmospheric second half (the first half is marred by many superfluous scenes that try too hard to impress). I must also give credit to the cast's discipline and focus: what the actors were trying to do was by no means easy but all the actors were clearly 100% present the whole time, with none slipping out of character despite the violence and chaos erupting around them (I was especially impressed by a few of the very well-choreographed and executed rugby and fight scenes).
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /