Tackling the Great Singapore Question
Three new plays look at the question from three different angles
By Richard Lord
In August, just as the Hungry Ghosts were dropping in on reverential relatives for their annual snack-fest, the ever ambitious W!ld Rice company offered up its own enticing theatrical rojak, the first Singapore Theatre Festival.
Unfortunately, family duties called me to Europe and America for most of August, so I was only able to catch the Festival's first two offerings, Ovidia Yu's The Silence of the Kittens and Alfian Sa'at's Homesick. Both of these shows boasted their own undeniable virtues; however, both came off as more like late or middle drafts than finished, solid plays.
As it happens, Yu's Kittens proved the more engaging and accomplished of the two. But it was a specific type of accomplishment. This piece was nothing like a well-wrought play; no, more like contrapuntal variations on tangentially related themes.
The hub theme around which the others turned was the treatment of smaller felines here in the Lion City. It is not always that easy being a cat in Singapore, and Ovidia Yu showed us how unpleasant it can get in a number of skits, most of them humorous and imaginative.
Background notes: Singapore has a large number of stray cats - though nowhere near as many as Rome, with its famed legions of strays. But whereas Rome celebrates its street felines in films and eye-catching calendars, Singapore has generally taken a more ambiguous attitude towards the critters. A few years ago, during the SARS scare, the government and related agencies carried out a culling exercise where strays were put down, ostensibly to keep them from spreading the disease. (Though there was no evidence that local cats were ever carriers of the virus.)
Yu, who in the Kittens programme proudly identifies herself as the affectionate room-mate of a number of former strays, sees the urge to cull cats or to otherwise remove them from the streets of Singapore as a symptom of a wider problem: the near-compulsion to create an antiseptic, unhealthily over-protected society.
She explores this notion with much good-hearted vigour. The title of Yu's work is a gross misnomer, as most of the felines she introduces are - much to their credit anything but silent. In fact, they prove quite persuasive in showing us why there is much admired - indeed, emulated - in a cat.
The authoritarian impulse Yu disdains is nicely captured in a child's hurt reply to her father's counsel that "Your mother doesn't like cats." "She doesn't let other people like cats, too," replies the child. Before long, Yu presents a candidate for parliament who would like his fellow Singaporeans to realise all they should or should not like.
The other theme here is how human beings themselves resemble cats and how similar attitudes of control hurt both the human spirit and our fine-whiskered friends. As characters get in touch with their inner cats, these similarities come out clearly. At one point, for instance, one takes on a rebellious tomcat demeanour and then laments, "You sterilise us with mortgages and COE's. You castrate us with children."
Some of these accusations Yu makes touch harshly on sore spots in the Singaporean psyche and are only slightly, if at all, exaggerated. For instance, young Rachel must study hard because her PSLE (Primary School Leaving Exams) are in only two-and-a-half years' time. (My italics.) Yes, uptight and overambitious parents do frequently deprive their children of their childhood and Ovidia offers some entertainingly nasty evidence for this practice.
However, there were also a lot of easy, toss-out-and-move-right-along type of jokes, such as one about loving casinos.
As often happens in an Ovidia Yu work, the author conscientiously avoided a tight and linear structure. What Yu served up here was more like a rich collage of scenes, skits and recitations - some of which clashed with others. When this structure was working, it kept the show lively and surprising; when it was not, it jarred and often left a sense that the work was not heading anywhere in particular, or just ambling along amiably. In fact, it seemed that the play still needs to be raked over once or twice to give it a more focused structure.
The still slightly ragged structure of the piece was most evident in a kind of Chinese dirty dancing sequence which seemed extraneous to everything else going on here.
But the less-than-tight structure was not the only blemish in this Festival opener. The problem with the vision Yu painted in Kittens is that it was not always convincing. For instance, do children really castrate us? Well, sure, kids do tend to cut into parents' cuddle-and-couple times, sometimes drastically. But accusing children of being instruments of societal castration is a cut or two too large. And a lot of Ovidia's 'mistreated cats = mistreated humans' equation is of this same suspect grounding. The conceit makes for some fun scenes and sharp lines, but detracts from the credibility and thus power of her argument.
Indeed, at times the tone of Silence suggested more of a cartoon for thinking adults than a incisive piece of theatre. Nothing really wrong with that, of course, but I do believe Ovidia Yu had her sights set higher. If so, she has yet to reach that goal with this work.
The show was directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, who kept things moving at a fittingly rapid pace so that we never noticed how things often did not hang together all that well. Mosbit, who is herself a fine actress (see our critique of Fundamentally Happy below) generally drew winning performances from her four-member ensemble cast. (With one notable exception: the performers were not quite convincing as cats. They clearly needed more work in cat-like movements and facial gestures to make that important transmogrification plausible.)
Timothy Nga, who was a bit out of his range as Tom Wingfield in I Theatre's recent Glass Menagerie, found himself much more at home here especially when he was on the stray. Nga was also quite nicely nasty as a smarmy government minister, one who offers his own piercing version of the Singaporeans' coveted five C's: capability, competence, character and conformity. He chillingly argues that "Here, all we're trying to do is create a safe, sterile state for our citizens."
The other three cast members were also quite commendable: Esther Yap in her multiple roles, especially that of the cat-phobic mother, Alecia Kim Chua, who shone as the daughter and Mohamed Helmi Fita, who provided strong work in varied roles.
The set (by Yvonne Yuen) was nicely imaginative. The area downstage left was taken up by a kind of kitty litter playbox. The large 'cat' cage was used as a flexible prop, doing triple duty as cage, seat and politician's platform. Of course, the use of the same prop for all three suggested a deeper relationship between the three functions.
A wheel suspended from the ceiling contained eight props hung up with clips that the actors could take down as they needed them. Meanwhile, the floor was covered with newspapers with cat-entious headlines in sharp black and white tones. This set showed us how a clean, minimalist design can convincingly serve both themes and tone of a script.
There was one particularly good moment when one character tried to pick up Nga as a cat and carry him away.
This was an entertaining piece whose message may be a bit too big for it. In any rewriting or reshaping of the work, Yu should decide whether she wants to bring the message to the fore, just entertain an audience, or find a way to make the message be served up completely with the gift to entertain that she clearly has. Clearly.
The other play that opened the Festival was Alfian Sa'at's Homesick which offered a considered look at various attitudes towards being Singaporean and what that really means. Or could mean.
In this opus, Sa'at (himself the resident playwright of W!ld Rice) gathers together an octet bound by blood or marriage and throws them into circumstances whereby they must continuously confront each other and the conflicting points of view of the others.
As Homesick opens, Sa'at has pulled seven members of the Koh family together to help Dad celebrate his 70th birthday. The children all fly in from as such far-flung places as the U.S., Britain, Germany, Australia and China. But upon arrival, they discover the patriarch has inconveniently come down with what might be SARS. As a consequence, the whole brood (except for Dad, who is in a hospital) is confined to house quarantine, where they are given ample opportunity to thrash out all the permutations of their familial problems. And, along the way, peck at the notion of just what it means to be Singaporean.
This device of bringing a group of people together and then making it impossible for them to separate for a certain period is by now a somewhat creaky dramatic instrument. It is, obviously, the stuff of many murder mysteries, with something like Agatha Christie's Death on the Orient Express being only the most famous. (Christie herself called on this device a number of times.) It is also the operating device in The Man Who Came to Dinner and the classic film Grand Hotel. Hell, it is even the principle behind the even more classic film, Casablanca.
In other words, there is nothing new and fresh about this particular 'trapped-together' device. To make it work in an exciting way, a writer has to give the device a new twist or make the arrangement so clever that we are caught out until a key moment. Take our last example from above: Casablanca works so well because the various interesting characters are trapped in the eponymous Moroccan city by the Second World War and its restrictions on movement. The central spine of the story the refugees' zeal to get exit visas to non-combatant nations is sharpened and made more piquant by the Nazi SS conniving to keep its old Czechoslovakian nemesis, Victor Laszlo, from getting out. Plus, the whole melange is made more piquant still when it turns out that Ilsa, Laszlo's wife and fellow refugee on the run, has recently run out on a passionate love affair with Rick, who owns Casablanca's most popular club and is perhaps the one person who can help the couple get out.
All of this is to say that Alfian Sa'at set himself a tough challenge with this script. On the evidence of the show we had before us at the Theatre Festival, his dramatic skills are not yet strong enough to meet such a challenge with total success.
If Ovidia Yu's play was 'underly' structured, Sa'at's Homesick was overly structured. By this, I mean that the piece as it is now comes off as formulaic rather than organic. Characters and situations are too often pulled forth to serve compelling speeches rather than having the speeches serve the natural development of character and situation. At times, I even shook my head and deeply doubted that this particular character would actually roll out this particular speech at this particular moment.
The greatest casualty of this formulaic structure was our feeling for the characters. This became most apparent at those times where characters were drafted to serve as platforms for some view. Platforms, after all, are typically made of wood, so employing a character to serve this function makes for a somewhat wooden character. And more than once in Homesick, we saw characters undergo a reverse-Pinocchio transformation, suddenly turning into wooden figures and following a formula rather than real human feelings.
All the more's the pity, as Alfian Sa'at was tackling some very interesting issues here and he did create some interesting representatives of the 'great Singapore question'. He himself defines a Singaporean as "someone who spends too much time trying to define 'Singaporean' ", but he devotes some good energies in this play to that very question.
Many, if not most of these characters, come in with very shaky notions of Singaporean identity. For instance, eldest son Herbert, a long-time U.K. resident, has fond memories of a loved childhood breakfast spread, but forgets that it is called 'kaya'. On a more serious plane, Herbert's ethnic-Indian brother-in-law later tells him that he always felt he was not fully accepted as an equal member of either the family or the society in which he was born and grew up.
But, as mentioned, in exploring these issues, Sa'at too often lets the issues dominate the characters. This is a good strategy for an essay, but not for a play. To make Homesick the important play Sa'at seems to intend it as, he has a lot more hard work to do.
One thing he can certainly work on is coming up with better comic relief. To wit: Sa'at borrows a very old joke when Herbert relates how his 'English rose' wife was stopped by traffic police who "found some blood in her alcohol stream". That particular joke happens to be much older than playwright Sa'at himself.
But then, humour is not really Sa'at's strong suit. As one character arrives home and promptly hightails it to the loo, one family member mentions that she was travelling light while another remarks, "I'm sure her bladder would disagree." I imagine that few in the audience pissed themselves laughing at that one.
And then, there were lines which I think were intended as humour but worked about as well as lead kites. One example of these lines: when one character tries to soften a disagreement between two family members now living in Britain and America respectively, he reminds them, "Come on, you guys you went to war together in Iraq." If that was, indeed, intended as a joke, it fully fails on a number of levels. Also, one Koh brother, Arthur, is (as Sa'at most aptly describes him) a 'born-again Chinese'. But then he undercuts this nice turn of phrase by having Arthur retort, "It's better to be born-again than stillborn."
Sa'at does get in a few nice lines, such as Manoj pointing out that in Australia, "the seasons are upside-down there", but he needs a good many more good laughs (and of higher calibre than that one) to lighten the heavy material he is working with here.
What Sa'at is good at is making speeches, or rather giving his character's strong speeches of varying lengths. As is typical of this 'trapped-together' form, revelations start spilling out as the days of quarantine go on. For instance, in talking about his marriage to the 'English rose', Herbert finally admits that the marriage is very much on the rocks. More, his wife Victoria is not a school teacher, but a humble cook.
Sa'at also provides a good metaphor for the youngest character in the roster: Patrick is an "accident", an unplanned birth. But Sa'at spins this around nicely when Patrick sees himself as a traffic accident with the other family members walking away from him as he waits for a wheelchair. More such poetic insights into the relationships here would help the script considerably. And Herbert's put-down of brother-in-law Manoj: "He's a business consultant what does he know about business?" is more of a tossed-in light witticism than an insightful statement of their relationship.
Sa'at can also make his script stronger by doing better research and dropping some rather questionable claims. Example: it is hard to grasp why Sa'at, a former medical student, has one character say that SARS is the "first transnational virus". In fact, viruses have been sneaking over national borders for centuries. Also, when Cindy, a PRC 'study mama' whom Dad met at a massage parlour, gives birth to the patriarch's daughter, that child is a half-sister to the other Kohs, not a 'step-sister', as one character calls her.
For that matter, Mother Koh tells wife number two Cindy that you can keep children for nine months at most. This sounds good until you think about it for five seconds or so, at which point it comes off as either another failed attempt at wit or another key inaccuracy.
And while Sa'at is accurate in stating that one in four residents of this modest-sized island is a foreigner, he could have done more to use this truth to illuminate the lives of native Singaporeans who have elected to become foreigners elsewhere.
Jonathan Lim's direction of Homesick was more workman-like than inspired, and this script certainly needed inspiration to make it come fully alive on stage. Admittedly, the talkiness of this play and frequent 'duelling speeches' put a great burden on a director to make it gripping drama and Lim probably did as much as he could do. He did manage to work in some good bits, such as one point when Manoj walks into Patrick's room and finds the under-aged rebel clutching a can of Tiger beer. Manoj tells him to hide it before his mother walks in; Patrick hurriedly stashes it into a bedroom drawer. The production needed more such moments to keep it floating along nicely.
I also feel that the performers did as much as they could to make the script work and where it did not work, it was usually not their fault.
Married couple Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu were fairly convincing as mother and eldest son, though Lim sometimes pushed the ineffectual eldest child element too much, almost to the point of histrionics. In fact, from Lim's performance, I was expecting that his revelation about Victoria, the English wife the others have never seen, would be that she was really a he. In the event, the revelation was something of a dramatic let-down.
Serena Ho also pushed the element of the committed activist too busy to have a personal life a little too much. Ho was much more convincing when she let us see the more personal, more vulnerable aspects of Daphne Koh.
As her sister Marianne, Eleanor Tan was effective though she never dominated any scene, even those that invited a more assertive Marianne. As her husband Manoj, Remesh Panicker again displayed the strengths of his imposing presence and resonant voice. But even Panicker was unable to make Manoj believable at those moments when the character was more of a platform than a character.
Hansel Tan was generally admirable as Patrick, the 'baby' of the family (until the coda scene where Cindy gives birth to another Koh). Tan nicely caught the mix of insecurities, bravado and disappointments of this young man searching for his full sense of self. However, Tan did stumble when the script presented an awkward challenge. For instant, Cindy's pregnancy-test mini-scene was quite contrived overall, especially Patrick's impatience. This was place where a weakness in the script was matched by a weakness in the acting. (No one in this scene was able to make it seem real.)
Nelson Chia, however, was a standout as Arthur, that 'born-again Chinese'. Chia was especially good in embarrassment over the sudden appearance of 'his girlfriend', whom he knows is his father's mistress, but his grasp on the character's clenched emotion was fairly sure throughout.
Chermaine Ang was likewise commendable as Cindy, the recent immigrant from China who joins the clan late. This character has the fewest dimensions and complexities of anyone in the cast, but Ang did whatever she had to do with the character well. (Except for that pregnancy-test bit, where she joined the others in straining our credibility.)
One of the performances of Homesick was followed by a forum discussion on the topic 'Stayers and Quitters'. (The two categories into which former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong placed Singaporeans in a major 2002 speech.) It is tempting to say that Sa'at's play probably served better as a launching pad for this discussion than as a thoroughly successful evening of theatre.
But when Patrick, who earlier moaned that "Singapore is just a prison with room service" decides at the end of the play to stay in his home country rather than return to Australia in order "to say "No!' and not 'Yes, you win' to the power", we see where Sa'at's skills measured up to his ambitions. This turnabout, close to the end, is one of the strongest moments in the play, a point where sincerity and integrity yoke character and speech together quite well. Sa'at should now go back to the play and try to achieve this throughout.
Another new play, one which closed out this past quarter, also dealt with the phenomena of a troubled homecoming linked to a search for one's sense of self. This play, however, was rather less ambitious than Sa'at's Homesick, but was - perhaps because of that fact - also much more successful as a play. It was, in fact, one of the most gratifying evenings of theatre I can recall The Necessary Stage serving up in recent years.
This work, Fundamentally Happy, by The Necessary Stage's resident playwright Harish Sharma, likewise dealt with debts the past accumulates, then leaves to the present to deal with. But Sharma proved more adept at handling this theme than Alfian Sa'at had.
The script clearly knows where it is going right from the opening moments. Eric, now a social worker in Melbourne, has returned to his native Singapore to attend his father's funeral. While there, he drops in on Habiba, his old Malay neighbour. (Eric himself is ethnic Chinese.) Habiba and husband Ismail's apartment was like a second home for Eric twenty years earlier, when he was ten. Initially, we find Eric flipping through what seems like nothing but fond memories of those childhood days with his 'Kak' Biba (Aunt Biba). However, in the midst of all this good-ole-days stuff, Eric suddenly (perhaps a measure too suddenly, in fact) recovers some highly unpleasant memories of how he was sexually molested by 'Uncle' Ismail back in those days. In the following scenes, the victim 'outs' the perpetrator, then discovers that he was not the only victim of Uncle Ismail's paedophilic impulses and, further, that Habiba herself was aware of his transgressions but she dutifully ignored them (as much as possible) so as to to preserve her marriage.
In pursuing these themes, Sharma manages to capture in a minor key, admittedly some of the domestic tragedy Ibsen achieved in The Wild Duck, wherein the high-minded search to uncover dark family secrets ultimately destroys that family much to the dismay of him who initiated the destruction.
In this case, Ismail is first taken in by the police, then disappears, while Habiba prepares to abandon the place that has been her home for over two decades. Not only that, but Eric who first reports the abuse to the police, then recants - comes to admit that he was not a totally unwilling victim: the physical affection Ismail spilled on him was, he realises, the most honest source of warmth he knew in his childhood.
This is pretty combustible material and Sharma could have rendered it all in high melodrama or something maudlin. Instead, he presents the story in deft strokes that move skilfully up and down a beautifully calibrated emotional register, all carefully paced.
Playwright Sharma, himself an ethnic Indian, here spins out a convincing small world where the differences in race and religion between the two protagonists (who are also the only characters we ever see) are handled sensitively and intelligently, but also bravely. As the dark secrets of what happened in this seemingly safe and cosy home are revealed, the two trade accusations and recriminations that threaten to sink forever what strong affection they still have for each other.
The accusations spring naturally from the differences between the two and their lives today. Eric, for instance, has become a social worker who frequently deals with physically and sexually abused women and children. As he says, in a speech that borders on the self-righteous, "It is not personal, not subjective. One always has to be objective, to be responsible for one's views, one's memories. That's my stand... It's about truth. A truth which must be spoken."
For Habiba, a devout woman who teaches at a local madrassah, truth has many doors, many windows and you must always be aware which ones can be opened, should be opened. Before Eric reveals what he has come to remember, Habiba tells him that she longs to teach happiness. When Eric asks her how she does this, she replies, "You know, lah, in Singapore, everything must be efficient, cannot fail, everyone always rushing...So we must slow down, think about God, his teaching, all that, lah." She also points out that in Singapore, "...we are lucky. But that doesn't mean we are happy. We are blessed, but doesn't mean we feel blessed."
Later, when Eric discovers that Habiba knew - in the broadest sense - not only what was happening between him and her husband but that Ismail was also illicitly involved with other children, this seemingly innocent, even uplifting speech takes on darker overtones. Eric at one point even explodes at what he sees as her hypocrisy: "You fucking preach about god! You teach at a madrassah. You talk about happiness. Happiness! And you keep lying to me. Don't fucking lie to me!"
He also asks her in an accusatory tone, "You teach these young children, these teenagers. Do you talk to them about abuse? Or is that anathema in your community?" Although he never mentions about religious affiliation of his own, Eric's position follows the Christian dictum that "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set ye free." But in Habiba's world, there are truths that do anything but set you free and she means to protect herself and her family from such truths.
But then it turns out that Eric has hidden truths of his own, in particular that he was more drawn to Uncle Ismail and his sexual advances than he was repulsed by them. In fact, his enduring affection for the man competes with what his head tells him he should condemn.
Sharma's writing here is deft and persuasive, capturing the rhythms and idioms of local speech, in particular with Habiba. In fact, there are often sharp contrasts in the speech patterns of the two that underscore their different world views: Eric often speaks in the well-honed, sociology-dipped phrases of an upwardly mobile professional while Habiba's speech is more along the lines of Singlish with its casual grammar and syntax.
Indeed, in contrast to the dialogue in Alfian Sa'at's Homesick, the speeches here touchingly convey the personalities of the characters. Sharma proved especially good in the way he showed how people politely evade and step around unpleasant matters. (Be it the death of Eric's father or Ismail's list of under-aged cuddle buddies.) He also was good at showing how people insinuate in the local idiom or knock an adversary off balance with a seemingly polite question or remark.
Towards the end of the play (just after Eric has officially withdrawn his charges), he claims that he is forgiving Uncle Ismail for himself, so that he, Eric, can move on. But this is still not enough for Habiba, who does not want to move on but needs to move beyond or else to stay put, emotionally. Ultimately, for her, a marriage involves something more than discovering and forgiving. In the play's closing moments, she advises Eric to return to his fiancιe in Australia with these words:"You stay with her. You close your eyes, When you open, twenty years pass already. And then you see...nobody..nobody is more important than her."
This speech comes at a moment wherein Habiba offers..not a defence, but a defiant statement of why she has stayed with Ismail even though she has long been aware of his proclivities and strayings. The speech thus takes on a gripping power that serves as an emotional counterpoint to what happens next.
At the very end of the play, Habiba slips off her tudung, then goes to Eric. They embrace, an act of painful reconciliation. As rendered in this production, it was a beautiful, touching moment as both actors were perfect in their timing and their projection of difficult feelings. She then hands him that carpet that she was about to throw away. (The same carpet where Uncle Ismail molested the young Eric.) He then leaves, the carpet under his arm, while Habiba turns off the lights in her home for the last time.
We know then that all the wounds are still there, that they will remain for a long time, possibly forever. But we also know that there is a healing that has taken place, there in another part of the human heart that we reserve for those who have meant the most to us in our lives. It was, in short, a perfect ending to this play honest, warm, telling and beyond the reach of words.
The success of the show was due not only to Sharma's strong script but also to Alvin Tan's sure-handed direction. Tan has been known to insert his directorial mark on a script, but here he put his skills in deferential service to the tight script, keeping it quite simple, letting it move to its own natural peaks of power in short, skilfully bringing out the script's inherent strengths.
This show was filled with so many good moments, beginning early on when Eric stares intently at the living room rug while Habiba is on the phone, her back to him. We know that the rug has some intense meaning for him and that it is going to play a key role, but he pretends that he has seen nothing when Habiba returns to him. Alvin Tan and his two actors (Chua Enlai and Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit) brought such key moments out very admirably.
Actually, Chua's performance on the opening weekend had not yet settled in fully. His characterisation of Eric could have been a little more textured. This underscored a feeling that Chua had not yet fully inhabited the character. The actor's skills were clearly there, but something deeper had not yet emerged.
Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, on the other hand, was just superb as Habiba. Her characterisation managed to be, by turns, taut, balanced, warm and sharp. This is a rather complex character here masquerading as a simple women, and Mosbit captured all the painful complexity of the conflicted woman. There was only one false note at one key point, just before her own confession, Habiba was drinking a Coke (almost as if to give her courage) and it was too clear she was not really drinking anything.
The set, by Vincent Lim, was clean and efficient if spare. It covered the basics, but deserves no special kudos. The lighting, by Mac Chan, also did the job required without achieving any heroics.
Alvin Tan's use of music is the one place where I would fault his direction. For instance, the play opens inexplicably with the song about Lola and Tony from Copacabana, which has nothing to do with what's about to transpire. Also, a number of times, music came on during a scene to intensify the mood, but the sound levels were too high. Instead of serving the scene, the music drew too much attention to itself. This was especially true when Eric delivered his own confession, a moment when the preservation of mood was so vital.
But despite any opening-weekend flaws, this was a production to be proud of, bringing to life a play that in its tightly focused way said as much about Singaporean life as the more ambitious works that Ovidia Yu and Alfian Sa'at gave us to open the first (of many, one would hope) Singapore Theatre Festival. In fact, Singaporean theatre in the fullest sense of that phrase has rarely looked as healthy as it has recently. Or as sharp in posing questions about Singapore itself.QLRS Vol. 6 No. 1 Oct 2006