Speaking Freely In Harness
Richard Lord watches the struggle of the reserved to only connect
By Richard Lord
Not long after the Stage Club closed their rather respectable rendition of Twelfth Night, they put up a production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads - well, to be accurate, three of the original six monologues comprising this show.
Good move, that Talking Heads is the sort of show that seems tailor-made for the Stage Club, composed largely of expats, many of them from the British Isles. It is material they can do exceedingly well; better, I dare say, than any other theatre company in Singapore, professional or otherwise. And, in the event, the company did carry off this production of Bennett's pieces exceedingly well. In fact, save for a very few minor flaws or shortcomings, this was a production that reaps high accolades.
Let us start those accolades with the material itself. Talking Heads was originally written for BBC television, and produced in 1987. The title itself is Alan Bennett's playful poke at the hallowed axiom that 'talking heads make for boring TV'. With the six monologues he put into the original show (he penned a second edition of Heads several years later), Bennett set out to prove that characters sitting in more or less one place, speaking out to the camera, could make for engrossing television. And prove it, he did: Talking Heads was a major success with audiences and critics.
As mentioned, for this production, the Stage Club chose half of the six monologues that made up the original. I am not sure how the selections were made, but I suspect it may have been largely to suit the three actors chosen to do the show.
These three monologues all take a tight, small focus on the lives of rather ordinary people striving to move towards lives less ordinary. They are masterfully crafted pieces that sound absolutely true to the voices of these people, yet which reveal much more about the speakers than they would want ever us to know about themselves. In fact, it is the way the characters try to cover or gloss over certain facts that tell us other, essential information about them. And what more can one ask of a monologue?
Though from different milieus, the three characters share certain similarities: Miss Ruddock is an obsessive writer of letters to the local council, police and other authorities; Graham is more or less permanently 'between jobs' (he is undergoing psychological therapy); Lesley is a bit-part actress just waiting for that big breakthrough role to roll her a break.
All three are lonely people trying to reach out, in different ways, at different lengths, to connect to a world larger than their own small bubbles. And those bubbles are getting even smaller as we enter their private worlds: Miss Ruddock has just lost her mother as her monologue opens, and Graham is afraid of losing his - not to death, but to an old flame who promises to give her a second chance at love and life. Lesley has no discernible family and seeks to pull together her own surrogate family out of the film crew; she fails, of course. The poignancy of Talking Heads is that they all fail, in different ways, and to different extents.
The tragedy of the failures is enhanced by the fact that all three of these characters believe they are doing the right thing or pursuing a successful strategy, be it the son trying to protect his mother from a racist, small-minded roué, the woman writing letters to the police and the local council to right imagined wrongs, or the actress taking on a mindless role in a film and then spontaneously stripping to the buff during a key scene to enhance the psychological depth and artistic quality of that scene.
Even though they all do fail, ultimately small triumphs of different kinds are scrapped out of their failures. And that is what gives the ultimate sheen of warmth and humanity to these playlets.
The thing that has always been quite impressive about Bennett is the way that he can move quickly and effortlessly from comedy to pathos - and then back again. This he demonstrates admirably in all three of these monologues, especially A Chip in the Sugar (Graham's) and Lady of Letters.
The co-directors of this show, Daniel Toyne and Phil McConnell, took a new strategy here that worked well: instead of presenting the three monologues as complete pieces all at a go, they broke them up into smaller, easily digestible sections, moving from one character to another. Bennett himself actually made the breaks in the original, but these were intended for different camera angles and wallpaper switch. By following his lead, Toyne and McConnell shuffled the speakers in a way that seemed natural and easy.
The casting for this Stage Club edition was flawless. You might almost think that Bennett had written these pieces for these three performers. (Actually, he wrote them for some of Britain's professional actors.) The look, the feel, the emotional texture each of the performers brought to her or his role was splendid, sparkling and precise. All three actors were deserving of high praise. (Especially on the night I caught the show, when they had to compete with booming music thundering down from Fort Canning Park as part of a Christian musical festival.)
Steve Armstrong and Maureen McConnell were wonderful at catching the clipped lives of two sad loners. They inhabited their two characters as if they are afraid to leave these personas - just as the characters are afraid to leave their familiar though unsatisfying worlds.
Maureen O'Connell as Miss Ruddock rushed her delivery slightly in the opening section, but as the lights went up on her the second time, she caught the perfect rhythm, which she held through the end of the show. Ultimately, her Miss Ruddock was a gem, with every clutching of her hands or slight movement of her head denoting uncertainty within the character.
Steve Armstrong as Graham was just as strong, with the pain and irritation of his character expressed even more persuasively in his body language than in his well modulated and delivered tale. (Bennett himself originally played Graham in the 1987 BBC show. Armstrong does it with a hint of an Irish brogue.) With both of these performances, a mere twitch or pursing of the lips could reveal something further about the characters.
Blair Earl, splayed across a couch as Lesley, the wannabe actress, was a fine embodiment of a woman who realises that talent alone might not get her where she wants to go. Lesley hustles herself - in multiple meanings of that phrase. If Earl inhabited this character less than her fellow actors did, it is only because Lesley herself is someone ready to move in and out of her own persona to suit whatever a director or producer wants.
The character of Leslie teeters on the edge of cartoonish at a number of points in the monologue, but Bennett always swings this around to show us her touching humanity. Blair Earl took each of these turns nicely and made the character sympathetic, even appealing, though much of what she willingly throws herself into is appalling. Earl was by turns sympathetic, socially inept, rather sexy, comically pathetic and irritating, each one readily giving way to the next. And these are precisely those qualities needed to fill out a comprehensive Lesley.
Blair Earl did not try to hide her Australian accent, which is a good thing. After all, there are quite a few Australian thespians in Britain trying to make it big, waiting for their big chance, for that breakthrough role, usually trying harder than native Britons themselves, so Blair's version fit into the role quite comfortably and believably.
The set was throw-together minimalist, which seemed quite fitting for these pocket pieces. Indeed, Bennett's own suggestions for the sets are "simply furnished", "..furnished with a single bed, a wardrobe, two chairs and nothing much else" or just "She is in her flat."
Oh, yes there was one slight flaw: the lighting was not always pinpoint, giving the impression that some monologue sections ended too early or that the next was not yet ready. This flaw stood out in this rendering of the monologues precisely because of that very successful strategy of breaking up the three pieces and interspersing them.
A while later, at the end of August, as part of its 40th birthday for the Republic of Singapore festivities, the Arts House served up a local monologue of some repute, Teochew Porridge by Desmond Sim.
Porridge is somewhat longer than any of the individual pieces we saw in Talking Heads - more like an extended one-act. The monologue from the earlier show it comes closest to is A Chip in the Sugar. But whereas Bennett's playlet looks at a son's complicated relationship with his mother, Sim's work focuses on a son's even more complicated relationship with his father. (They do tend to be more complicated.) Further, unlike Bennett's play, Teochew Porridge is largely and unabashedly autobiographical.
Sim's mastery of language is no match for Alan Bennett's - not yet, at least. (But then, Bennett has a good thirty years on our local lad.) Still, Teochew Porridge is an able piece of writing that at its best moments is quite moving in the way it explores the convoluted, complicated relationship between the author and his father. (This 2005 edition is apparently a bulked-up version of the original script first performed ten years ago.)
The title refers to a popular meal from the kitchens of the Teochews, that dialect group which Sim's father belonged to. The Teochew porridge includes a variety of dishes, all accompanying the rice porridge that serves as the meal's focus. The special feature of this set is that all the dishes are straightforward, uncomplicated - salty dishes are purely and simply salty, sour dishes sour, sweet items, sweet. You know what you're getting, with no fancy-nancy additions slipped in.
Playwright Sim uses this signature meal of the Teochews as a metaphor for his father. The man was straightforward, uncomplicated, with no room for nuances or quirks. Or at least that was the image he worked so hard to project to the world - including his own children.
In some ways, Teochew Porridge is not really a monologue, but more like a dialogue with the dead. The father himself is given lines and a gruff voice, but only as recalled and resurrected by the son. When the father is quoted here, we sense the man's presence more than in the many unseen characters referred to in the three Talking Heads monologues. This is a man who will have his own say, if only for the brief moments he is channelled through his son's memories.
Unlike Bennett in Talking Heads, Sim does not use a tight focus here, but stands back and presents a broad vista of the relationship between the father and son, moving from the narrator's childhood up through his coming of age and achievement and his reaction to his father's death. It was a difficult journey.
After wading through some tepid introductory material (where Sim tells us about his weight and clothing problems as a child), the mix starts to heat up and thicken.
First, the playwright teases us. He is partway into some filial revelation when he suddenly stops himself and says, "..But we don't like to talk about these things with strangers. We are a typical Chinese family, you know. We don't tell strangers these things." Of course, he is soon telling us many things about his father and their relationship.
Early on, Father says of his son, "He will chase the dreams I could never chase." Yet, being a typical, old-school Chinese father, he wanted his son to chase a particular set of dreams and seemed disappointed that the boy pursued other ambitions, along with a non-traditional lifestyle. The disappointments on both sides soon grow into hurts that allow no emotional salve.
The narrator later tells us that certain hurts "would grow into scars that became walls." As the play goes on, we come to see that these walls formed the basis for a structure that the son used to build his life. This is one of the saddest (though unstated) revelations of Teochew Porridge): that it was largely the narrator's alienation from his father that allowed him to become the person he eventually grew into.
Sim's father as presented here was, like many Singaporean men of his generation, a victim of his own harnessed feelings. But, as the author shows in his candid account, the son occasionally had to harness many of his own feelings just to relate to his father. This play itself is an act of unharnessing many of those feelings and examining the deep under-layers of this particular father-son relationship.
(To be sure, at least two of the characters in the Talking Heads trio were also victims of rigorously harnessed feelings. Graham the dutiful son could almost serve as a poster boy for the condition.)
Lim at one point describes the relationship with a stark image: the father and son were "separated by a gap so wide you can't see yourself across the dining room." But after the narrator has passed through stages of irritation, anger, frustration and rebellion, at the monologue's conclusion, he finally arrives at forgiveness. As is so often the case in the messy game of life, we finally become capable of full forgiveness only when the other person has died. Here, that point is expressed with particular poignancy when the son looks at the paper trail of his father sorrows and failures, proclaims, "You didn't have to be a hero, Pa... You could have shared this with me. But you never knew."
One of the play's more touching moments comes when Sim returns home with disappointing test scores. The father surprises the son at his support. He enters the boy's room and, without saying a word, rests one large hand on his small hand, the other on the boy's shoulder. As the son recalls this year's later, he says, "Sometimes fathers are very surprising. When you most expect them to yell, they do something totally unexpected. They reach out and touch you. Touch you with their silence." The narrator pauses, then dips into a sour part of the porridge: "Then at other times, they crush you with their words."
That moment of silent, loving support lays the ground for the even bigger surprise that waits at the play's end when the son, now a man, finds the press clippings of his work in the diary hidden away in his father's drawer. At this late discovery, the only response the son can utter is a choked up "Thank you."
Actor Peter Sau and director Casey Lim brought the piece to life quite impressively; both were deserving of unstinting praise for their work here. Sau's strong performance the evening I caught the play was especially impressive considering the depressingly sparse audience he was playing to.
In Porridge, the actor is called upon to reach higher and lower on the emotional scale than are the performers in Talking Heads, and Sau hit the right note almost every time. He also displayed wonderful timing, keeping an ebb-and-flow to his performance that kept us engaged from start to finish.
The idiom here was resolutely Singaporean, and that holds not just for the writing. For instance, in speaking of those pieces of fine Spanish porcelain, lladros, Sau spoke of lad-rows, as most Singaporeans do. (The proper Spanish pronunciation is yahd-rows.) He also pronounced poem po-yem, another Singapore rendering. The word 'aneurysm' likewise bulges with nice local colouring.
Casey Lim, who also helmed the original 1995 production, obviously has a sure feel and affection for this piece. Lim, who is also an accomplished video artist, deserves an additional nod of appreciation for not overplaying this card too much - something which many local directors do when they strike out into the realm of multi-media.
There was only one point where the use of the media seemed extraneous: when the son recalls how he never had the courage to distract his father from his TV viewing. Not only was the multi-media call superfluous here, but the volume on the TV set made it distracting. Thankfully, Sau has a strong voice that he was able to pump up so as to keep above the TV actor as well as loud Chinese music that intruded in another part of the recitation.
There were a few other technical glitches throughout the evening, not too forgivable as I caught the show late in the run when such matters should have been settled. For instance, right at the start, there was much too long a delay when the lights went up before the actor came on. This is not to be blamed on the actor, even if he was somehow delayed, as the tech people should always check that the performers are ready to come on before bringing up the lights.
Also, "Danny Boy" (or "Londonderry Air") was played a little too loudly over the half-bitter moments towards the end, which drew from the soft beauty of the moment.
But there was one spot where the tech was spot-on and served as a strong support to Sau's finely tuned performance. This was that one lovely moment at the end where, as the narrator looks towards the heavens to say his final lines, he seems about to speak again, but can't; he puts the diary back and closes the drawer softly, then leaves. The lights followed the character's emotional trajectory wonderfully here, dimming, then going to black as he moved off the stage. This was one of those instances where the tech becomes not just an adjunct, but actually a part of the performance.
There were good lessons in theatre-making here. The monologue is an ostensibly private, but in reality, public act, a platform for showcasing the self while pretending to shield that self. This reversal of intention was handled with assured craft in both of these shows (especially in Talking Heads). The power of the single voice to serve the public soul was displayed well in both of these shows, and the two teams responsible deserve our thanks for doing so.