From Icon to Iron
Imports stretch local actors
By Richard Lord
Back in 1957, a rather minor British actor named David Baron decided to try his hand at playwrighting. Following on a friend’s request, Baron spun a one-act play with roles for this friend and two other actors.
The audiences in Bristol were generally bewildered by this complex piece with the simple title of The Room. But a minority of viewers were quite impressed with the play, as were the three actors involved and some critics. This was all the encouragement the young actor Baron needed to start turning out a flow of plays with a unique vision and style to them.
As a dramatist, Baron dispensed with that stage alias and returned to his real name, Harold Pinter. By the mid-Sixties, that name had become not only one of the best known in the English-speaking theatre world, but it actually had given rise to an adjective promiscuously tossed out in critical circles as well as intellectual cocktail party banter: Pinteresque.
Another term came about early in Pinter’s career, when the respected theatre critic Irving Wardle coined a phrase to aptly describe the then prodigious playwright’s work: comedies of menace. What Wardle caught in that term was the fact that while Pinter’s plays were indeed spiked with much intelligent wit and larded with laughs, they were also dark and disturbing, infused with an element of threat and danger. Indeed, often the laughter was there to cover our discomfort with the dangers lurking around every clever line, loaded into every Pinteresque pause.
The highly accomplished local theatre company luna-id has now turned its attention to the Pinter canon, and they have chosen two shorter works from his early creative spurt to kick off what they forecast as “a long-term exploration of Pinter’s works”.
The evening opened with The Lover, a mischievous look at how the two halves of a mundane middle-class marriage in pre-Swinging London keep the sexual sparks flying wildly between them. Originally written as a script for television, The Lover translates very easily to the live stage, as luna-id’s production nicely demonstrates.
The play opens with Richard, a successful financial wheeler-and-dealer in the City of London, about to head off for work. Before leaving, he casually asks his wife Sarah if her lover will be dropping by that day. Just as casually, Sarah answers that he will. Richard obligingly responds by saying that he’ll try not to return home too early then.
Boom, bang. In this short exchange we have the smoothly distilled essence of early Pinter: the mix of the totally unexpected, maybe even outrageous with what seems to be routine domesticity. Almost a poster couple for Harold Macmillan’s ‘you-never-had-it-so-good’ Britain, Richard and Sarah are a conventional suburban middle-class couple except for this one little quirk of programmed infidelity. Then, in the next scene, we discover that Sarah is not the only one regularly helping herself to a ‘little bit on the side’: hubby Richard has a long-term mistress, as dutiful Sarah casually remarks. Richard immediately corrects his beloved wife on one detail: he admittedly has a whore that he regularly sees, but Richard in no way considers this lady to be his “mistress”. No, the financial whiz stresses, he only visits this whore because their trysts “express and engender lust with all lust’s cunning”.
In this nicely paced work, Pinter soon arranges a visit by Sarah’s raffish lover, Max. To our surprise (when viewing the play for the first time), Max is none other than Richard himself, his cool suburban demeanour shed along with his well-tailored City Warrior’s suit.
Nor will this be the last strange twist in this deliciously clever dramatic titbit. What apparently started out as a harmless game the couple plays to spice up their all-too conventional marriage takes on an excitingly dangerous turn as first Sarah, and then Richard decide to tinker with the rules of the game. By the end of the dramatic pas de deux, the marriage has again achieved an acceptable balance, but now on an even more perilous level than before.
The luna-id production decided to add its own piquant twist to the piece by casting a real-life married couple in the roles of the game-playing pair. (This is not, mind you, the first time this twist has been added; a number of productions in other countries have paired real-life married partners as Sarah and Richard.) In this case, both Tan Keng Hua and Lim Yu Beng give commendable performances. Tan plays Sarah as psychologically fragile, well aware that she is playing with fire, but not realising the danger of the flame until late in the game. Lim’s Richard conveys a distrustful smarminess from the beginning, which fits the character as he develops through the rest of the play. Lim also makes the switch from Richard to Max rather nicely. (Sarah remains Sarah throughout the piece, changing only the way she reacts to changing circumstances.) Moreover, those moments of percolating lust between Sarah and ‘Max’ convey real sparks of sensuality, something hard to realise on the stage.
Yet, this luna-id version was still somewhat unsatisfying, lacking that final spark needed to make The Lover a startling little piece of theatre. The two main actors - along with Chua Enlai in a brief cameo appearance - catch most of the comedy and crunch of the piece, but there is a key ingredient missing: the danger. The moves by Richard and Max to change the rules of the game should be edged with threat, and Sarah, completely unprepared for these changes, should react to the threat in such a way that the relationship and the play become piquant in the process. But Lim’s husband-lover never suggests that these new twists to the game may not really be a game, so the threat remains rather low-key. What we have finally is a Pinter comedy minus the menace, and so much the lesser for that.
The Lover’s companion piece, The Dumb Waiter, was also in its own way disappointing. This one-act was written some five years before The Lover and shows Pinter in his dazzling gestation period as a writer. Its two human characters, Ben and Gus, are a pair of English hitmen who have travelled to Birmingham on their latest assignment. The play covers the final three-quarters of an hour as Gus and Ben wait for their intended victim to appear. Tension fills the air of the small room where they wait, and it defines our look at their relationship as well as revealing a little more about each character as the tension leaks through.
Before long, the play also works in a third key character of sorts - the dumb waiter itself, that old-time restaurant contraption in which orders get sent down to the kitchen and prepared items returned to the dining area. In this case, the fact that the dumb waiter is relaying orders to the pair of contract killers is totally unexpected, as the duo were sure that the scene of this particular job was the basement of an abandoned building. The tension of the piece steadily mounts as the two do their level best to accede to the orders of the mechanical device, however ill-equipped. But this being early Pinter, that tension is punctuated with sly humour.
The Dumb Waiter is less impressive than The Lovers, as Pinter relies a little more on cliché and second-hand characterisation. (Though he did grow up in a working-class section of London’s East End where, he has told us, there were a ready supply of hoods and violent thugs who served as models for the unsavoury types who fill several of his early works.) But it is, for all of that, a darn good piece of low-rent theatre where we in the audience are kept entertained and guessing not simply until the final moments, but even beyond those final moments.
As the play proceeds, the little betrayals and dishonesties the two hitmen practice with each other set the scene for the invitation to the final betrayal - which Pinter wisely decided to keep us guessing about, when the latest victim turns out to be Gus himself. Did Ben actually have any inkling about this turn of events. Did Gus? And will Ben carry out the assignment and kill his long-time colleague? These are all questions cleverly left unanswered in this stew of comedy, resentment and peril.
The roles of Ben and Gus were handled here by Gerald Chew and Lim Yu Beng respectively. Their performances were altogether competent, but lacking the spark to raise this production to a memorable level. Here the tension between the two characters was expressed primarily through the dialogue, not in a palpable feeling of impending danger. Very possibly it was the accents here that diluted the danger. Both Lim and, especially, Chew delivered their lines in polished, refined readings totally inappropriate to the characters or the lower-class idiom Pinter graces them with. Not for one minute did I get the sense that these were two underclass hoods operating at the edges of society. No, the impression was more that of watching two talented actors displaying their goods but never fitting fully into the characters they were portraying.
But the saddest miss on the official opening night performance I caught came with the denouement, where Gus is thrown back into the grungy room, seemingly as startled to find himself staring down the barrel of Ben’s gun as is Ben to see who is at the other end of that barrel. The final build-up to this scene is, admittedly, quite quick, but it is essential that the anxiety mount significantly as Ben calls for Gus to re-emerge from the pantry and take his place for the hit. But here the required tension never got adequately built; as a result, Gus’s appearance was strangely anticlimactic, even confusing. (The response of many people in the audience with me indicated the latter.)
I would also take exception to prize-winning designer Sebastian Zeng’s set for this show. (Those who have been following our QLRS theatre critiques will recall that hitherto, I have been strong in my praise for Zeng’s designs.) First of all, the well-apportioned layout of this basement in no way, shape or form, suggest the skewed world these characters inhabit and the situation they now find themselves in.
Secondly, and more significantly, Zeng places the dumb waiter at the very edge of stage right, where most of the audience is unable to see most of it. This deprives the piece of a key element of threat. As mentioned above, the dumb waiter serves as a kind of third character, a catalyst for further troubled chemistry between Ben and Gus, and its clear presence on stage adds to its sense of threat. For the play to have its full impact, we should see that this contraption is not only ’dumb’, but also blind to the fate of the two hitmen. Here, not being able to view the stoic ‘face’ of the dumb waiter, we get little of that threat.
For the most part, this luna-id package of Pinters displayed competence rather than inspiration, calculated craft rather than magic, and deliberation rather than depth. As a result, this opening period of exploration serves as more of a homage to than a celebration of Pinter. And celebration would have been so much better.
Scottish playwright Rona Munro was still probably a toddler when Pinter had already ascended to the status of cultural icon. (Here that much abused word really fits.) Like many British playwrights over the last 35 years, Munro writes in the long, imposing shadow of Pinter. However, like many of her wisest contemporaries, Munro strategically skirts that shadow to pursue her own brand of theatre.
The first work from Munro that has made its way to these tropical shores is Iron, an engaging prison play which recently snared the John Whiting Award as best play.
You would think that with all the free time, freedom from entertaining distractions and - in many cases - good library facilities provided that prison would prove a better incubator for writers than it has been. But there have been few really great books to come out of prison. Works like Hitler’s Mein Kampf or John Henry Abbot’s In The Heart of The Beast are more interesting as sociological or psychological oddities than as literary works or significant intellectual inquiries.
Actually the drama would seem to be the literary form best suited to writing about prisons, and the available evidence would support this thesis. Probably the best examples are Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, John Herbert’s mid-60s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes or Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes.
Ardent ‘School of Hard Knocks’ alumni may grouse that Rona Munro has not actually paid the dues, which would grant her play full authenticity. After all, Behan, Herbert and Piñero all served time in some kind of penal institution before penning their works. Munro ‘merely’ went about conducting a long series of interviews with women prisoners in order to write the script.
But this criticism wilts in the face of Iron’s solid achievement. With this play, Munro has served up a fine wedge of the prison experience and how it affects those incarcerated, those whose job it is to keep guard over them, and those connected to them by blood and strong emotions.
The main focus of Iron is on Fay, a middle-aged woman serving a life term for the brutal slaying of her husband, and Fay’s daughter Josie. After many years apart, Josie comes for the first time to visit her mother as the play opens. The drama proceeds through Josie’s subsequent visits and the repercussions they elicit. (That drama is largely emotional, as the action remains confined between the four walls of Fay’s cell and the visiting chambers.) We very quickly learn that for Josie, these visits are partially a search for self-discovery, to find something in her mother and her accounts of the killing that will help Josie understand herself. For her part, Fay tries to live vicariously in Josie the life that was lopped off for her by the incarceration. Sadly for the two and their spoiled relationship, Fay is reluctant to share what Josie yearns to discover and Josie has no interest in the social life Fay misses so much.
The characters of Fay and Josie are further delineated through their crisscrossing relationships with Iron’s two subordinate characters - the female and male guard entrusted with watching over Fay and others in this woman’s prison. The play’s strength lies in its integrity: it looks at the full range of its four characters, showing up negative and positive aspects of all four, never trivialising or demonising one in order to put any of the others in a more becoming or damning light.
I was especially taken with the play’s clear-eyed honesty as it wound to a close and Fay finally revealed to Josie the circumstances of her father’s death. After dropping hints all along that the reason may have been utterly noble, perhaps even inevitable - either self-defence or that the husband was abusing or about to abuse their daughter - we discover that it was nothing of that. The couple had been drinking a lot that evening (as they often did, from their first meeting on), and he then callously laughed at something Fay had said or done, which “hurt me”. This revelation then closes off the balanced integrity of the play: while the victim was also not entirely innocent, only a sociopath would argue that this basically decent guy deserved to die for his fall into drunken callousness.
At a press conference here prior to the opening of Iron, playwright Munro was asked if she felt her play would have transport problems moving from her native Scotland to tropical Singapore. She admitted that she had no idea, but was curious to see how it would play here. My verdict is that while it does lose a lot of surface and subtext in its Singapore showcase, the heart and soul of the play still came through intact.
Let us look at that loss side of the ledger first. While Munro’s original text apparently underwent very few alterations, the Scottish idiom obviously did not work as well as it would have on its home soil. As the quintet of local actors eschewed any attempt to affect Scottish brogues (a thoroughly commendable decision), the play shifted out of its native milieu. But by avoiding culture clash, they forfeit some of the cultural associations that enrich Iron. (For the record, the award-winning London Royal Court Theatre production also jettisoned the Scottish brogues, but for working-class English accents.)
One good example is the role of George, the male prison guard. Remesh Panicker gives a wonderfully winning performance here, producing a sympathetic well-rounded character who irritates, soothes and surprises by turns. But Panicker’s delivery is even more polished and refined than that of the two actors in luna-id’s Dumb Waiter. The result is that we lose some of the man’s background, which a production using the original speech patterns would certainly provide. For instance, George lets us know that he is taking an Open University course in Moral Philosophy and Theology, and he demonstrates it with a number of pithy philosophical pronouncements. But these pronouncements lost the ironic edge they may have had if delivered in a solid working-class Scottish accent rather than Panicker’s refined baritone.
But despite this cultural deficit, the Action Theatre production has to be accounted a success. Director Krishin Jit kept the whole masterfully paced and on a nice even psychological keel. Casey Lim’s set, especially as illuminated and changed by Mac Chan’s lighting plot, was wonderfully effective, a model of accomplished design minimalism. (Though some of Lim’s video projections on that set seemed extraneous.)
Three of the four performances were of a Life! Award nomination standard. As mentioned, Remesh Panicker’s guard was splendid, as was Emma Yong’s Josie. This Josie shows the fragility and self-doubt below that confident career woman veneer right from the start. From there, Yong’s keenly drawn performance reveals a young woman whose complexities, resentments and frustrations are as responsible for the failure of the mother-daughter relationship as is Fay herself.
In the central role of Fay, Karen Tan offers another excellent performance. Tan explores every available nook and cranny of this deceptively complex character and grips us with the results of these explorations. She is touching and tough, manic and manipulative, pathetic and uplifting. With this work, Tan capped a year of extremely strong performances in a variety of roles.
The one weak performance in this quartet came from Serena Ho. Ho, who has proven herself increasingly adept at portraying young women in distress or self-destruction, appeared out of her depth with the role of a youngish single mother who first seeks bonds with Fay, then reacts bitterly to Fay’s manipulation and abuse of the guard’s vulnerabilities. Ho’s performance hewed closer to cliché than to insight and she hammered out her lines as if this were the best way to express toughness. It very rarely is.
But let us end this piece with another appreciative nod to Action Theatre for bringing in award-winning plays from the Anglo-American axis while they are still very fresh and pertinent. Plays like Proof, Wit and Iron deserve to be seen by local audiences and to stretch the talents of local actors. Even when something gets lost in transport, what we receive is often a valuable gift of theatre.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004