Sunday, 29 August 2010

SHOPPING FOR CHOPIN / A Play by Phan Ming Yen & Jeremiah Choy / Review

Play by Phan Ming Yen & Jeremiah Choy
John Cheng, Pianist
The Arts House
Thursday (26 August 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 August 2010.

Celebrations of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) has come thick and fast in this his bicentenary year, but none has gone beyond the performance of the music to explore or even speculate on feelings and moods that inspired his creations. Shopping For Chopin, an augmented piano recital or artsy slide show accompanied by “live” music, whichever way you look at it, attempted to scratch the surface.
The plot by first-time playwright Phan Ming Yen (above right) and veteran dramaturg Jeremiah Choy (left) was a simple one. Budding China-born would-be pianist Jun meets a local girl San in the Singapore music shop where he works. She is mute but wants to hear some Chopin. He reciprocates with CDs of his choice, and communicates via a series of letters prompted by her regular visits.

The letters are projected on two walls, while a central screen plays out the action in the form of stills. All these take place while pianist John Cheng performs Chopin selections. His letters convey hope yet hopelessness, an estrangement with his home village but isolation in his adopted land. Identification with his roots, personified by the repeated mention of his mother, is strong. The future in Nanyang, now dashed by his hand injury, remains nebulous.

These were perhaps the very real emotions that tugged at Chopin’s consumption-racked and tormented soul, which ultimately defined his art. The choice of music was also ideal. The nocturne-like Andante Spianato (from Op.22) exuded reassuring calm while the E minor Prélude (Op.28 No.4) portended doom. Played together, and with texts rapidly and randomly inserted, the intended effect was jumbled thoughts and confusion.

The Second Ballade (Op.38) Chopin’s least celebrated of the four, juxtaposed serenity with extreme violence, with the Heroic Polonaise (Op.53) exhibiting tragedy in equal measure. Closing with the D flat major Nocturne (Op.27 No.2), the mood was of quiet resignation. Cheng, who also played Jun on screen, portrayed the protagonist with a stoic dignity.

There are no happy endings with Chopin, only questions. Did San ever receive Jun’s letters, and what was her response? Did Jun return to China? These are left hanging in the air as the 50-minute play drew to a close. When there are no more words to express, the power of Chopin’s music remains an implacable surrogate.

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