Progress package for Singapore theatre
By Richard Lord
For Old Possum, April may have been the cruellest month, but for Singapore's theatre scene, it looks like one of the most generous months we have had in a while. After a relative drought of good English-speaking theatre, the month began with a couple of strong shows with a shower of other promising works to open later in the month.
The best-written and best-plotted of the three Fundoshi pieces is the opener, The Perfect Servants. This is also the piece that contains the most pointed social comment, though even here the point is gently rounded so that it tickles more than stabs.
The two 'perfect servants' of the title - one male, one female - are attached to two members of the aristocracy whose behaviour of late has been quite scandalous; scandalous mainly because they both ostentatiously shun the expected round of sexual affairs. As the male servant bemoans, "Without adultery, our society would fall apart - for then what would lords and ladies do with themselves."
His lord readily concedes the servant's point that their city "will forgive everything but the lack of sexual liaisons", but he himself finds lovemaking "unpleasantly enervating."
Indeed, the one 'passion' these two aristocrats seem to share is a love of pure indolence. They are both too devoted to doing nothing to attempt doing anything else. Both love going to bed - but alone, and then only to sleep. As the high lord says at one point, he thinks he has time to slip in a little nap before retiring for the night.
It is not too hard to guess where this all leads: the two servants eventually wind up in a darkened chamber in the lady's home where they fulfill the last of their employer's amorous duties - with zeal. This liaison is all the funnier for us in the audience because we know that the two servants thoroughly despise each other.
When he spies a strutting noble, the humble Taro decides to use his country smarts and take the aristocrat to the cleaner's, as it were. He starts hawking a 'magic fundoshi' that makes the wearer irresistibly attractive to women. The other special feature of this fundoshi is that it is invisible to the male eye; only women can see it and be seized by its charms.
From there, the play swings into wild, hectic slapstick reminiscent of French farce at its most farcical. One of the merchants (played by Jonathan Lim) also gets to pose as the statue. Finally, the goddess herself appears, deeply annoyed at how male visitors have been treating her statue and Japaneses females in general and proceeds to teach them all a lesson. This deus ex machina device is completely contrived, but by this point, the fun has been flowing so freely, we do not really mind.
W!ld Rice's presentation of this work was exemplary. This began, as do most exemplary productions, with superb casting. The four-member, all-male cast presented an excellent balance of types, even as they switched roles (and in three cases, genders as well).
Each of the performers gave an energized, full-blast performance throughout. It would be hard to draw up a hierarchy of the performances here, but the highlights of the evening might be pointed out: Hossan Leong and Jonathan Lim as the servant and maidservant in Perfect Servants; Robin Goh as the wily Taro and Koh Boon Pin as the dupe-to-hero lord in Magic Fundoshi and Emma Yong in a brief cameo as the goddess Benten in the last piece. But it would be unfair not to mention that all of the performers shone in every one of their appearances, even if they were not the spotlight roles in that piece. It would be hard to imagine this group not getting a Life! Theatre Award nomination next year, in the Best Ensemble Acting category.
But it was not only the cast that was standout in this production. As has become a trademark for W!ld Rice shows of late, the production values were most praiseworthy. The praise list might well start with Ivan Heng's set design, a feast for the eyes that included such special features as the gate to Benten's shrine - three huge, bright pink penises.
At least as impressive as the sets were the costumes (designer: Moe Kasim) which were also a feast for their eyes with their swirls of shapes and colours. Ashley Lim's hair and wig designs were also quite impressive.
Yo Shao Ann's lighting put all these visual elements in, well, their best light. And the wonderful Japanese drumming and other sound accompaniments, composed and performed by Philip Tan, proved an indispensable part of this show.
Finally, at helm of the whole thing was director Glen Goei, who earns full marks for his work here. Staging, pacing, everything was superb making a trio of cute plays into a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes of theatre.
Companion opens with an amorously inebriated Lillian steering the repressed Kenneth into her home. Sex seems to be very much on the agenda. Within minutes, Lillian is writhing seductively on the floor, pressing Kenneth's somewhat reluctant hand against her breast.
However, the long-distance loser Kenneth is so out of practice that he has to stumble his way into Lillian's bed. Truth be told, he is even more interested in dragging her into a long-term relationship, partly so that he can escape the mother he has been living with for much too long and the antiques business he and his mum run together.
But Kenneth does not make it to this relationship - or even the shorter trip to Lillian's inviting bed. Just as this mismatched couple is starting to get it on, Lillian's landlady, toting a toilet brush like a domestic version of King Ubu, walks in on the pair. Kenneth is shocked by her sudden appearance as well as by that brush, which he thinks might be intended as a weapon. The landlady, Rosemary, tries to sweep away his fears by claiming that she was just cleaning the toilet, even though it is 2 a.m.
At this point, and for the next few minutes, you might think this is a comedy. But actually what we have here is the beginning of an intriguing journey through the twisted paths of present-day Singapore relationships. Playwright Tan Suet Lee's sterling achievement here is that she is able to focus on these relationships while making the characters thoroughly Singaporean types with very Singaporean problems. And she tells the story in an interesting and assured manner, with scenes swinging back and forth over the history of the main relationships.
Part of that baggage is her complicated relationship with Rosemary, who has been Lillian's landlady-slash-whatever for some 15 years.
Lillian says early on that she does not want to die alone. This is a great fear of hers.
"You know, she tells Kenneth, "I was a wife once." She takes a large part of her identity from that. However, this was no storybook romance: we later learn that she was sold to her future husband by her guardian uncle for $200; she was 15 at the time, her husband already over 30. The husband also was physically unappealing, with one working eye and a huge mole.
Kenneth tells her that we must never fear change, we must embrace it. But this comes from a guy who still lives with his mother at middle-age, who has many his living for years dealing in antiques and who obviously has little experience with members of the opposite sex. (Or his own sex, for that matter.)
Rosemary asks Kenneth - out of the blue - how many tattoos he has. She then wants to know if he belongs to any secret societies. She is all too obviously playing with the hapless fool, trying to psyche him out. After Lillian leaves to attend to some excuse, Rosemary ups the ante: she comes on to Kenneth, offering to suck him off.
(And author Tan makes the come-on quite entertaining. Earlier, the overly domestic Rosemary holds up a rubber glove and tells Ken that she likes the smell of rubber, as it reminds her of her parent's plantation in Malaysia. When she offers the gentleman a blowjob, she says he can wear a condom if he likes, as the taste of rubber is actually a turn-on for her. She also brusquely assures him he need not worry about injury, as she has small teeth.)
But she is not prepared to give in readily to easy kindness. Author Tan does not want to make anything in this play too simple. To test that kindness, Lillian threatens to jump off if Rosemary, who admits to being terminally tone-deaf, doesn't sing. Rosemary reacts to the threat by saying, "That's not fair"; Lillian shoots right back with a bitter "Is life fair?" She should know; married at 15, she is now a widow at 23. And, of course, pregnant to boot.
But she finally does give in to Rosemary's kindness. And she pays her back with a well-intentioned, left-handed compliment: "You're like my husband - very ugly, but got good heart." The scene ends with a beautifully poignant moment, however. Having come down off the ledge, Lillian throws herself into Rosemary's warm and ready arms and starts sobbing heavily.
This tightly constructed scene gives us a good overview of how the relationship between the two women will develop over the next 15 years: rocky, with the all-too-obvious contradictions tripping the pair up at regular intervals.
In the third scene, Lillian arrives at Rosemary's door early one morning, soaked from the rain. She is terrified because loan sharks have turned up at her door to collect unpaid debts of her late husband, threatening to take her baby if she doesn't pay up. Or so she says. That is the thing about Lillian: we do not really know how far we can trust her on anything. We will eventually she is capable of significant lies - especially to himself.
But Rosemary is obviously drawn to Lillian on many levels. When she offers Lillian a warm drink and her guest asks for milk, Rosemary offers a loaded apology instead: "One litre (of milk) is too much for one person. Actually, everything is too much for one person." It is her invitation for Lillian to move into her life. Which she does.
Here and in subsequent scenes, Tan Suet Lee weaves a complex relationship between these two women which the arrival of Kenneth threatens to unravel. (Though, finally, he only succeeds in making the relationship more complex.)
On the surface, Rosemary and Lillian would seem to be a totally mismatched pairing. Lillian is poorly educated, Rosemary a teacher; Lillian is attractive and vivacious, Rosemary plain and home-bound; Lillian loves to prowl the clubs and seek her fun where she can grab it while Rosemary seems to be repressed and emotionally arid. And the disparities go on and on, into fashion, hairstyles and beliefs. Rosemary is amused (when not irritated) by Lillian's adherence to old Chinese superstitions, yet she herself is devoted to the Bible-babble form of Christianity. In other words, each is a credible, full-blooded example of female types one sees frequently in the Lion City.
But Tan skilfully shows us that underneath all these differences, the two are fused together by a mutual need that transcends everything else. "I'm just a teacher," Rosemary laments at one point early on. "I just exist in the eyes of other people's children. This statement sadly echoes Lillian's alcohol-fuelled boast to Kenneth: "You know, I was a wife once." and "I was somebody's wife, I was somebody's wife, I was somebody."
The two have one further bond - Lillian's daughter, Catherine. Rosemary had convinced Lillian not to abort the child and together they raise her. As Rosemary asserts at one point of high tension, Catherine is the daughter of both of them. The problem is that Lillian fears that Rosemary is trying to make her into a mother, second-rank, while Rosemary steps up into the primary maternal duties. She accuses Rosemary of working to turn Catherine against her, to look down on her.
Part of this accusation flows from Lillian's own fear that Catherine, better educated than her mother, would laugh at her, as so many others around her do. And here we see the final, strongest bond between the two women: they are both victims of their own insecurities. Ultimately, many of those major differences between them become the bridges to each other as the one's strength is the other's weakness. They need each other, largely because they need.
As mentioned, the playwright brings these contours out in a strong, convincing way. A Beautiful Companion is packed with good, honest writing and boasts a structure that gets the story told well. Moreover, the play is occasionally leavened with sharp, credible, character-based humour. (Example: Lillian reveals to Kenneth an incident where Rosemary smashed the TV set, then went out and bought a more expensive flat screen model. "Why would she do something like that?" a shocked Kenneth asks. "It was on sale," Lillian replies, completely free of irony.)
The finest achievement of Beautiful Companion (and it is a play of many achievements) is that it gives us a sympathetic but penetrating view of three people whom life has dealt losing hands to. They are now in a late round, late in their lives, and the drama is caught in how they play out these losing hands.
Ultimately, though, the contest belongs to Rosemary because she shares the darkest secret with Lillian: that Catherine is dead and that it was the relationship between the two women, along with something Lillian said to her daughter in anger, that led directly to Catherine's death.
The playwright was served well by the cast and director of this showcase production. Director Jeffrey Tan's staging made the best use possible of the elongated space at the Arts House PlayDen, which is not entirely hospitable to theatrical productions. While some key moments between characters got lost for various parts of the audience, this was kept at a minimum and the blocking served to tell the story as cleanly as the space would allow.
But this is a QLRS critique, so let us point out that Yeo's performance was not perfect. In that second act where we swing back to the opening scene, Lillian had sobered up much too quickly. Also, on the two occasions where Lillian goes off on a sobbing jag, Yeo did not cry with her whole body; most of her body was still, in fact, which diminished these otherwise powerful moments a tad.
Esther Yap's performance was, very appropriately, much more restrained than Yeo's, but superb in its own right. With her severe hairstyle, unflattering eyewear and form-denying attire, Yap played Rosemary as a woman fitted with a tight internal harness, always afraid of what she so desperately needs.
Yap, too, used face and body beautifully to delineate her character, giving us a subtext of a woman who knows she may lose all that she wants, but she will lose on her own terms - which will make her a kind of winner after all. More, Yap gave us a complex Rosemary with many dark corners and burrows. For instance, Yap wore a cutting, triumphal smile when Kenneth was told to leave. It was to the show's benefit that Yap realised this character is too interesting to be totally sympathetic.
The third part of this lopsided triangle, Kenneth, was in the very capable hands of Sonny Lim, and he did not disappoint. Lim again showed how generous he can be as an actor: he will not try to force his presence into a scene if doing so will offset an important balance. As most of the real drama in Companion takes place between Lillian and Rosemary, the script calls for a Kenneth who will readily recede into the background and occasionally become little more than an involved witness. But when called upon to fill this role, Lim did so, but was quite involved and very convincing.
Lim is also extremely good at looking awkward and out of place and this was a perfect fit for Kenneth. This Kenneth is a man who has spent his whole life avoiding opportunities but is now pleasantly surprised that an opportunity has been somehow thrown into his lap. At the times when Kenneth stood there, slack-jawed and sadly clueless as to where exactly he was or why he was there, Lim presented the essence of a loser.
The play ends with a spin into near chaos that flirts with melodrama: Kenneth the consummate antiques dealer wants to show Lillian that the Chinese urn displayed in the living room is a cheap fake. However, this urn holds Catherine's ashes. When Kenneth turns it upside down to show Lillian the distinguishing mark on the bottom, the ashes fly out, spilling onto the floor in a cascade of catastrophe. In that one moment, Kenneth loses the woman whom, minutes before, he seemed to have finally won.
The set for this production (by Dahlia Osman) was a rather interesting minimalist conception whose most interesting feature was the opening to the rear of the flat. This was painted in a modern primitivist manner (the subject of the paintings blurred human forms) and had as its doorway the cut-out figure of a man. The paintings were reflected in two thick strips running along the floor. Played against this construction was the barest minimum of furnishings. As a naturalist set (one's first instinct for a play like this) would not work in the difficult space of the PlayDen, Osman's strategy here can only be applauded.
Oh, one late quibble with director Jeffery Tan and/or his sound engineer: The piece begins with the BBC news on (Rosemary's preferred listening), which gets cut off quickly when the light-headed Lillian and Kenneth walk in. A later scene, from a different time in the story, also opens with the BBC news - and it is exactly the same broadcast. Little details such as this make a production stronger…or less so.
And one last word to the playwright: Some key moments in the play do have whiffs of melodrama, and some of the twists and revelations have the clunk of being a little contrived (i.e., Lillian refuses to ride buses and we discover that her husband and daughter were both killed by buses). As this script is a TheatreLab product, it is presumably not the final version. By ironing out some of these weak spots, what is now a pretty damn good script could be an even better one. Further, one might choose to come up with another title. A Beautiful Companion is just too limp for such an engaging play.