[Theatre Review] Grinning and Bearing It

Happy Waiting
Grain Performance & Research Lab
12 July 2019
Stamford Arts Centre Black Box
12‒13 July 2019

Even if you were unfamiliar with the works of Samuel Beckett, you might know the famous pronouncement that his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, is a “play in which nothing happens […]”

Unfortunately, modern adaptations or productions styled after Beckett takes that too literally and conveniently forgets the second half of that quote by literary critic, Vivian Mercier, “[…] that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”

Happy Waiting, written by Beverly Yuen and directed by Bernice Lee, is one such stunning example.

Taking the general premise of Beckett’s Happy Days, Happy Waiting sees Vicky passing her days in a mound; going through her daily routine of getting ready, making breakfast for her husband, and hoping her husband returns home for dinner. In between, we see her recall the past; engage in inane chatter; and finding and losing things. Unlike Beckett’s original, we don’t get a clear presence of her husband except for punctuations of dance sequences by a man only known to us as Bobo (Neo Yan Zhong).

The existential conceit is clear: we trap ourselves in a mound of obsession, desires, wants, and hopes in a general landscape of meaninglessness.

But why would audience be glued to their seats? How dreary it is to trudge through an arduous day, only to be told that we have gone through life and trap ourselves?

What makes Beckett different from Yuen’s adaptation is the presence of danger and humanity. In Beckett’s original, things go wrong or could go wrong—the woman’s parasol catches fire and the presence of a revolver throughout the play is menacing. It is within this shadow, that the woman tries to make the best of what she has and, in the process, reveals the fragility of humanity. The process of getting on, and the mention of a certain Mr Shower asking what it means painfully reminds us of our struggle of making sense of it all, and our need to have our existence acknowledged. And yet the looming possibility of things changing for the worse keeps us where we are.

By contrast, Happy Waiting is absolutely sanitised. There is no threat and nothing actually goes wrong. Vicky (Sonia Kwek) simply grates on one’s nerves as she prattles about, trying to please her husband by cooking his favourite things or recreating dates that they used to go on. Without any further context and external impositions, we simply see her as stewing in her own pathetic self-pity.

What of the performance? The decision only to show the actor’s legs and hands for most of the first part may be a nice touch and change from the original, but it is undermined by Kwek’s inability to imbue more flexibility in the movement of her limbs. We soon fail to see the nuances of character that is supposed to be endowed in her stiletto-adorned feet. Kwek’s general portrayal is a caricature of a Stepford wife, rather than a woman who either truly believes everything is fine or has talked herself into believing so. Her saccharine chime of the day being great rings hollow, and one digs one’s nails deeper into one’s skin every time she says so.

Heap on the usual cheap devices of opening one’s mouth but not being able to say anything, or indicating the presence of tragicomedy by laughing till one cries, and you get bouts of exasperated sighs in the audience (many were heard on opening night) or a lady to my right investigating the split-ends of her hairs.

The slight saving grace is Neo Yan Zhong’s dancing as he displays versatility as he replicates tap dancing in silent movies by merely shuffling his feet; turn into a ghoul that only grunts; or a flamboyant Latin dancer, complete with big sheer ruffles around his neck.

That said, that are other elements that seemed to be added to the original: the play seems to take place over seven days (seven days of creation?); recurring motif of butterflies (an allusion to the Butterfly Lovers?); five baubles (our five senses?) suspended over the main opening of the mound; and the mound looking like a skeletal structure lying over red lights in a  blackout. But all of them are conceptually hazy, and end up being window dressing of a superficial absurdist play.

To be charitable with these elements is merely to create another mound; to justify that one cannot happily wait to recover the 90 minutes that has just been lost. The joke is already on us.

Other Reviews

“Review: Happy Waiting by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Review: ‘Happy Waiting’ by Grain Performance & Research Lab” by Jeremy Lee, The Mad Scene

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