The Finger Players’ Dream of the Red Chamber: The Love of Craft and the Craft of Love

Reading Dream of the Red Chamber is no small feat. As one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, the text spans a whopping 80 or 120 chapters, depending on where you stand regarding its authorial history. To adapt this panoramic saga with nearly 40 main characters to the stage demands intelligent curation. Which parts of the story does one focus on? How much of it can one reasonably stage?

For Chong Tze Chien, playwright and director of Dream of the Red Chamber, it was the text’s alternative title, Chronicles of the Stone, which guided his adaptation. That, and the limit of a six-membered cast, which he wanted to cast across ethnicities. Working within these limitations and aspirations, The Finger Players presented a 2-hour English adaptation that was existential, playful, and, at times, surprisingly funny. 

The play follows the life of Jia Baoyu, a celestial stone reincarnated as the scion of a wealthy aristocratic family. Born with a jade in his mouth, Baoyu is raised the favoured heir of the clan. As his family’s fortunes deteriorate, he is caught within the romantic attentions of two cousins, Daiyu and Baochai — a rivalry which tests his understanding of power and love. Ultimately, the story unfolds at the crossroads of class politics and Baoyu’s coming of age, tracing how his wish to love and stand for a good, fair world is challenged by the realities of power hierarchies and romantic afflictions. 

At first glance, it appears that much of the plot is driven by the female characters’ attempts to make safety out of their precarious fates within a patriarchal society. However, it becomes clear that they also move at the mercy of their romantic desires. They suffer for love.

Amidst overt lines about the laws of power which govern the world of the play, a notable thread about love is tugged through Baoyu’s discovery that his universal approach to love is not suitable for those whom he loves. He thinks he loves and cares for his maids and cousins, but his way of loving them stirs up romantic feelings that inadvertently torment them. What is love, then? His maid Xiaoyu tells him to choose just one — one person to love.

Puppets and masks are key to the production, which is driven by a fiercely talented team of performers, designers, and production team members. The multi-role casting, detailed set, as well as pre-recorded lines means a whole host of moving parts — no small feat to coordinate within the compact space of the Drama Centre Black Box plus a dense, marvellous set of organza lotus pads. Costume designer Max Tan’s colourful and lavish pieces are particularly delightful to watch. 

Dream of The Red Chamber by The Finger Players demonstrates the prowess and confidence of a puppet-focused theatre company celebrating its 25th anniversary. Tackling what Chong Tze Chien felt would be the most difficult classic of all, the company’s craft is on full display in this play, as is its ardent faith in the magic of puppets. Myra Loke of The Finger Players called puppets conduits for discussing difficult topics. Perhaps they are ultimately conduits for the most human instrument: our imagination. 

Dream of the Red Chamber by The Finger Players

2 hours, performed in English with no surtitles

Date: 20th-23rd June 2024
Time: 20-22 June 2024, 8PM / 22-23 June 2024, 3PM
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Admission: SGD 38, concessions available for students, senior citizens, and full-time NSF (Purchase your tickets here)

Images courtesy of The Finger Players, on invitation by The Finger Players. Review is done with author’s discretion. Photos by Poh Yu Khing.


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