[Book Review] Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

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Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2015)/ 408 pp./ SGD 29.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

If one were to peruse the syllabus of a Singapore English-Language Theatre module offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it categorises the playwrights into three generations. The publication of Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1 marks the start of the fourth generation.

The whole collection is tinged with a deep sense of ambivalence. Rather than focus on what constitutes Singapore theatre or champion certain issues which were the main concerns of the previous generations, Tan explores what it means to be living in Singapore and dealing with what life throws at you. To aid this exploration, he constantly uses the context of failed or unfulfilled relationships, in subtly different ways, to show the complexity and vulnerability of his characters.

In Family Outing, Joseph plans to come out to his family as a gay man. He gets electrocuted after a freak accident and his boyfriend, Daniel, tells his family the truth a year later. On the surface, this plot appears to be about a family accepting or rejecting the son’s sexual orientation. However, there underlies a certain uneasiness about family relationships and what it means to be a gay man.

After the initial outrage, Joseph’s mother and brother try to reconcile Joseph’s sexual orientation with the Joseph whom they know. Scenes from the past and present intersect one another on stage as they negotiate and come to terms with Joseph’s sexuality. While one’s sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity, does it mean that the Joseph the family knows is less of a person? If so, does one sexual orientation matter more to one’s identity as compared to other areas of one’s life?

Towards the end of the play, there are intimations that Joseph’s mother and brother have a slight inkling about his homosexuality but chose to ignore it due to their deep religious beliefs. This throws a new complexion on the matter as this has got to do with familial relationships and the violence members of family inflict on one another through denial or the supposed desire to protect. This estrangement is further enhanced when we realise that what we are seeing is Joseph’s fantasy which leaves open the possibility that the family might reject him instead.

With this being one of his earliest plays, Tan displays a great deal of sophistication in being able to pack all these into a light-hearted play which is brought out by the brother’s antics and the mother who is slightly prone to histrionics. While Tan manages to balance the moods of the play well, he is a little overambitious with including all these different layers in the play especially—as Tan himself admits— the fact that it is Joseph’s fantasy may not come across clearly.

The ambivalence of being a gay man is also seen in That Daniel but it focuses on a young man fitting into the gay culture. In this deeply personal monodrama, Tan displays his linguistic dexterity in expounding on the pressures of conforming to a certain type and how this might affect one’s relationship with food. This is best encapsulated by the metaphor of noodles as Daniel says:

“We are noodles, we begin life as lumps of human starchiness, sliced by the noodle-cutter of life into pretty shapes, acceptable to the human eye and fit for human consumption, palatable” (271).

The richness of the gastronomical descriptions enhances the poignancy of the play as Daniel realises that he has pursued unrequited love at the expense of a certain happiness that he finds in food. It might be tempting to say that everyone faces a similar pressure to conform, but—as Isherwood’s A Single Man points out—it unfairly whitewashes the experiences of the individual. While this play does not enlighten us about the particularities of the pressures faced by gay men, it compels sympathy and reflection that hopefully precedes conversation.

That said, I wished this play was a wee bit longer. Tan sees this play as an optimistic one because he sees Daniel making a positive change after coming to a certain realisation. However, we only see Daniel coming to terms with his hurt and it stops there. This realisation could have made a positive or negative impact on Daniel which is why there should be a hint of what is to come.

Aside from linguistic versatility, Tan is keen to experiment with form and structure which is clearly seen in Postgrads and People.

The phrase “true to life” has been used and abused by critics of all stripes, but this term is most apt for Postgrads. The trajectory of life’s events does not follow a curve of climax and resolution, some conversations are never had, and some relationships remain unfulfilled. More importantly, one does not necessarily have a clear reason for doing something. And that is what confounds a group of housemates who are postgraduate students when one of them decides to drop out of the PHD programme.

While the conversations consist of feel-good reminiscences, private regrets, and banal chatter, there is a mounting sense of resignation and sadness. The atmosphere may be relatively serene, but the conversations appear to be a desperate attempt to forestall the final goodbye. Despite the fact that the play is crafted in a certain way due to the demands of the commission, Tan excels in infusing a certain sensitivity and subtlety to his play and it does not feel that he is consciously working around certain limitations that were placed on him.

The vignettes in People, which are either monologues or duologues, make it the most ambitious play in the whole collection. Tan once again returns to the motif of estranged relationships and see variations of it play out across a cross-section of society.  Set in either Singapore or Tokyo, there is a distinctively urban sensibility to it as we see the characters relate to others either across geography, class, or on a spiritual level. Tan’s ear for dialogue is apparent as he captures the milieu that the characters operate in. The litmus test for any playwright with regard to Singaporean dialogue is to balance between Singlish and whatever language the working class character speaks. In the hands of a careless writer, the dialogue makes the character nothing more than a caricature. While Francis the mobile phone seller has certain speech quirks that one—rightly or wrongly—associates with the working class, Tan is careful not to overdo it. Additionally, Tan even experiments with verse in the monologues of Nicholas who decides to leave the priesthood.

Given that Tan allows the director to arrange the vignettes as she pleases, this play merits several re-stagings just to see what can be excavated from the text.

Speaking of estranged relationships, the one in Hotel is the most ugly and toxic. Within a few pages, Tan raises all the ugly implications of economic success through the explosive arguments of the rich couple. What is notable is that Tan resists any form of resolution—the argument at the end of the play is interrupted and will probably occur again. Bearing in mind that Hotel is supposed to be a reimagined history of The Arts House (Singapore’s former parliament house), the play serves as a fitting platform for Tan to rail against the excesses of Singapore. Its brevity also ensures that it does not go overboard.

Mosaic explores another form of emotional violence in our lives—the destruction of physical space, and the memories that go with it, in the name of progress. However, violence is also inflicted upon one’s memories if it is co-opted and turned into some kind of fetish or commercial enterprise. This play thus juxtaposes both forms of violence and expresses a deep sense of ambivalence towards the efficacy and appropriacy of popular causes such as heritage activism.

This is embodied by Sharon, the protagonist who ropes in her boyfriend and tries to organise a demonstration against the authorities tearing down an old playground. She is clearly unable to rally people to her cause and when asked what how she is going about the event, she retorts: “Nothing is going to happen, why must thing always happen? What we’re doing is symbolic […]” (212, original emphasis). Later on, she tells Rong Cheng, a passer-by who lives nearby and used to play in the playground that the “playground is like a tile in the giant mosaic that is the things I care about” (222). However, a mosaic on the whole should form a coherent picture but her specious replies and lack of planning cast doubts on the coherence of her pet causes. The conflict between Sharon and Rong Cheng also raises the question of whether someone can legitimately oppose any governmental re-development projects if she does not have any prior relationship to the place.

Tan’s talents are seen in how, on one level, the characters are symbolic of certain things and their conflicts and interactions becomes a dialectic about activism. On another level, the settings and situations are entirely naturalistic and the characters are not reduced to being mouthpieces for a certain position. At the end, Tan could not help but employ the same motif of a failed relationship to bring up themes of moving on, letting go, and the difficulty of doing so as we often have a complex relationship with the past.

The Way We Go is a reworking of Tan’s second full length play that was written as part of a playwriting module at NUS. In it, he explores what it means to love yourself and another by having two parallel romances; the lesbian relationship between two convent school students (Gillian and Lee-Ying) and that of the school’s principal and a cousin of her colleague (Agatha and Edmund). The former relationship fails due to a difference in temperament and goals while the latter is disrupted by death.

Tan employs counter-directional narratives to allow for the parallel relationships to be shown on stage in an economical way. It also shows Edmund dealing with the hurt and finding his way back to the first moment he saw Agatha. This allows him to find closure and begin again. This play rewards the careful reader as a careless one will only see it as containing snapshots of the lives of the characters and nothing more.

That said, Violet (Edmund’s cousin and Agatha’s colleague) feels like a convenient device for the couple to meet and the two romances could have been a little more inter-connected in some way.

Perhaps, it is due to this early and extended exploration of dealing with love, lost, and moving on that led Tan to re-use the motif of failed relationships over and over again. While there is an effort to use it in various ways, Tan has stretched it to its limits this early in his career.

However, this does not detract from the sensitivity, subtlety, and a strong voice which Tan clearly possesses. In this collection, he resists being didactic and focuses on the individual and sometimes painful story of simply dealing with everyday life. He has also shown that he can use this lens to reflect on wider societal issues.

In the interview that is included in the book, he says he is interested in writing political plays which are rooted in the experience of living in Singapore rather than those which preach to the choir. Judging from his output in this collection, I await the next phase of his writing career with much excitement.

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A Hypothetical Anthology

This semester, I took a module on Singapore English-Language Theatre. It made me realise how rich our local theatre history is and how one generation of playwrights builds on the previous generation. As part of our course assessment, we are required to put together a hypothetical anthology and write a critical introduction to said anthology. The following is an excerpt from the introduction which offers a brief analysis of all the plays to be included in the anthology based on the theme of invisibility.

If you are interested in reading the plays, click on the links to either purchase or borrow (when they are not freely available) the collections which feature the particular play.

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This collection starts with Elangovan’s Talaq. It is arguably the most controversial play of the collection as it was perceived to be against Islamic principles which offended the Indian Muslim community (Hamilton 1999). This resulted in the English version being banned in 2000. Talaq explores the plight of Muslim brides from India being married off to Indian Muslim husbands in Singapore. They are often ill-treated and Islamic precepts are intentionally misinterpreted as a justification for their subjugation. The use of monodrama thus empowers the wives as we only hear their perspective and anguish which is normally silenced in the public sphere. Having the wife voicing the comments made by her husband and her community gives one a vivid impression of how she is personally affected by it. Cyril Wong (2014) also notes that it evokes a sense of schizophrenia and that “[i]n a world gone insane, patriarchy is the unscalable wall that the victimised woman in the monologue rams and rails against, and predictably to no avail.” In a society that is so afraid to discuss anything pertaining to religion, Talaq boldly breaks the silence and insists we take a look at what is happening to Indian Muslim women.

Apart from its historical importance of it being used as incriminating evidence against members of Third Stage, Esperanza by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng, presents the struggle of maids trying to earn a living in Singapore (Li 2012). It is unfortunate that, despite a rise in advocacy of their rights, some of the scenes in the play still ring true almost 30 years on. The employment of naturalism allows the playwrights to present situations that mirror the treatment of maids in some households.  This affords easy identification with the plight of the maids which is evident from the sympathetic and positive press reviews of the performance (Speeden and Sampang 1986). Yet, Esperanza is controversial in other ways. It raises the question of why there was a clamp down on this rather tame play with modest ambitions and whether the maid character is truly pitiable considering that she did certain things out of revenge. While there are no easy answers, this play should not be dismissed simply because it was mired in some political controversy.

Russell Heng’s Lest The Demons Get to Me is one of the few plays that depicts the experience of a transsexual in the face of societal pressures and expectations. While it is also a monodrama, Heng adds an additional layer by including the voices of other characters but they are only heard off-stage. This gives a sense of the public intruding on the private—familial and societal demands encroaching on the privacy of Kim Choon (KC) as she has to decide whether to capitulate and conduct her father’s funeral rites as the only son, or to secretly pay her respects as the disgraced son-turned-daughter. To make matters worse, the impending closure of Bugis Street also threatens the collective memory of her and other transsexuals. Should she hold on to the identity that she identifies with or should she conform to that which society puts on her? Unlike other plays which present issues about transsexuals within a socio-political framework as camp is used to subvert societal norms, Heng’s poignant piece is firmly grounded in a personal struggle. The title is most fitting for as a child, KC wears an earring to ward off traditional supernatural demons. But as an adult, she must decide if she wants to don her earrings to reclaim her identity and fend against demons of tradition.

While the prevalence of dementia is generally known, it is rarely talked about. Haresh Sharma’s Don’t Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association of Singapore. Such a collaboration shows that organisations can tap into the potential of theatre to inform without resorting to a skit filled with clichés and awkward writing. This lyrical piece juxtaposes the reality of the dementia patient to that of the caregiver and it depicts the struggles that both face. Getting the mother and daughter to converse in different languages not only marks the generation gap but it also emphasises the difference between the two realities as both try to reach out to the other. Kenneth, the day care centre manager, delivers the medical information but without sounding as if he is reciting a medical brochure. The ability to write such a heartfelt piece while including the need of educating the audience about taking care of dementia patients is a strong testament to Sharma’s skill as a playwright. It is unfortunate that this play had a short run before touring to selected communities for it deserves more attention not only for the message, but for the writing as well.

In terms of technique, Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings can be said to be the most complicated of this collection. Similar to Asian Boys Vol. 1, this play has a strong inter-textual element in which Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris (1992) lies at the heart of the play. The play revolves around Joe who sets out to write a novel called Peculiar Chris. In the process of crafting his novel, his Muse and the characters in the story will question his authorial choices and the audience gets to see the storyline of the novel being enacted. Based on this simple premise which is enhanced by meta-theatrical (the actor playing Joe will play Chris) and meta-narrative (the Muse and characters asking him whether the plot should be that way) devices, Alfian Sa’at presents us with a typology of gay men and some of them will be based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in a hetero-normative society. We are thus compelled to examine our own perceptions, especially if we are heterosexual, of the gay community. This is emphasised further by the characters discriminating among themselves or arguing over whether they should agitate for change or be content with the limited freedoms that they have. Whatever opinion one holds, Happy Endings makes you recognise that the gay community is not homogeneous and perhaps convince you to get to know the individuals better.

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All the plays in this anthology have received previous publication. The details are as follows:

Elangovan. “Talaq.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 13-53. Print.

Heng, Russell. “Lest The Demons Get To Me.” Fat Virgins, Fast Cars and Asian Values. Singapore: Times International, 1993. 28-53. Print.

Sa’at, Alfian. “Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings.” Collected Plays Two: The Asian Boys Trilogy. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 191-272. Print

Sharma, Haresh. “Don’t Forget To Remember Me.” Don’t Forget To Remember Me. Singapore: Necessary Stage, 2013. 124-146. Print

Wong, Souk Yee, and Tay, Hong Seng. “Esperenza.” 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of  Five Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chuan. Third Stage, 2004. 100-129. Print.

 

Works Cited

Hamilton, Andrea. “The Rights of Marriage: A One-woman Play Has Caused a Stir in       Singapore’s Little India.” Asia Week. Cable News Network, 26 Mar. 1999. Web. 12    Apr. 2015. <http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0326/feat3.html&gt;.

Lee, Johann S. Peculiar Chris. Singapore: Cannon International, 1992. Print.

Li, Lisa. “Third Stage: Theatre Company or “Marxist Network”?” Remembering 1987. 26 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015 <https://remembering1987.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/third-stage-theatre-company-or-marxist-network/&gt;

Speeden, Muriel, and Crisanta Sampang. “Play May Help Bridge A Yawning Chasm.” The Straits Times 7 June 1986. 34. Print.

Wong, Cyril. “Preface.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 5-9. Print.

[Anthology Review] This Is My Family: New Singapore Plays Volume 2

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This Is My Family: New Singapore Plays Volume 2

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2014)/ 283 pp./ SGD 24.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

Part I

[Transcript]

The Untitled Funeral Play by Luke Vijay Somasundram

This is a comedy of errors surrounding a family that consists of an Indian husband and a Chinese wife. Hilarity ensues when the undertaker is late and the husband’s uncle and the wife’s mother arrive unannounced to help with the funeral arrangement.

This play criticises bureaucracy and how inflexible it is. While one may see the influence drawn from Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, Somasundram certainly has his own voice that makes this play absolutely hilarious. I was literally laughing out loud, as I was reading his play in my room, to the point of squawking. Yes, squawking.

Aside from criticising bureaucracy, this play stands out by exploring a diverse range of issues such as interracial marriage, negotiation between the races, and what death means to the living. These themes are well placed in the play and it doesn’t feel like that playwright is anxious to discuss everything that interests him at one go.

Finally, as a testament to the skill of his writing, the play does not merely start from being somewhat funny before escalating the humour. Instead, it actually starts on a slightly tense and poignant note before transiting to the funny bits. The transition is not rushed and it feels like a natural progression.

This play is certainly refreshing as most plays that comment on social issues are often serious and morose. One hopes that the playwright continues honing his craft and puts his stamp of comedy on the Singapore stage.

 

For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng

For Better Or For Worse by Faith Ng was nominated for best script at the Life! Theatre Awards and it’s not difficult to see why. This play depicts the long marriage between Gerald and Swen; warts and all. It is structured with alternating scenes between the couple as they are now and when they were young. Ng’s ability to portray the differences between a young, hopeful love as compared to one with years of emotional baggage shows Ng to be a sensitive and perceptive writer.

The choice to play with absences by making all the other characters invisible allows us to hone in on the marriage of Gerald and Swen. If you remove everyone and everything that one must deal with when one is married, what does marriage; this relationship between two people mean?

Perhaps the greatest merit of the play is that it does not offer any easy resolution. Yet, the readers are taken on a journey as we experience all the joys, pains, laughter, and sorrows that comes with life. We are made to dwell in a shared humanity.

The only bone to pick with this play is that the level of colloquialism in the dialogue seems to be overdone. Given that Gerald has a diploma and Swen studied at a very good school, they are generally better than average in terms of education for their generation. That said, I am open to the fact that it might not sound so jarring when spoken considering that the theatre reviews did not raise this issue.

 

Maggie And Milly And Molly And May by Leonard Augustine Choo

Three gay men in their 30s and one gay teenager, for their own individual reasons, decide to throw themselves off a cliff. Interestingly, all of them chose the same cliff as they each arrive at different times only to find that someone is already there. They bicker, taunt, challenge, and justify why they should commit suicide. In this morbid situation, they form an unlikely bond.

What makes this play a good read is the subtlety in exploring issues about homosexuality. Gay stereotypes and tropes are weapons used by the characters to annoy and confront each other which make for great comedy. Yet underneath the comic exterior, the conflicts among the characters disclose personal difficulties they face as gay men in society.

The choice for the slow reveal captured my attention as I was eager to find out what drove them to suicide. Choo certainly struck a right balance between entertainment and mystery which makes for an intriguing and thought-provoking piece.

While the gay men are not related by blood, the bond that they form is just like one regardless of whether they would like to admit it or not.

Part 2

[Transcript]

#UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An

I had immense pleasure reading #UnicornMoment by Oon Shu An because it brought back happy memories of watching the stage production earlier this year. It reminded me why I liked the play so much. To top it off, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my review of the production was quoted to promote the play! For those who are interested to read the whole review, I’ve placed the link in the description below.

#UnicornMoment is sort of a partial auto-biography of Oon, except that it is much more daunting for her. Rather than just recollecting various episodes of her life, she went back and asked the questions she has always carried with her. Based on a series of interviews with family, friends, and teachers, what emerged is an honest and witty script that captures the various facets of life. It is impossible not to identify with at least one of the scenes.

It is rare for one to say this but I am impressed by the stage directions of the last movement sequence. When I was watching the show a few months ago, I was wondering what would the stage directions say and guessed it would just say “final movement sequence.” But what was written in the script did capture the essence of what I saw.

I don’t see this play being restaged at all because it is inextricably tied to a point in Oon’s life. But it is worth publishing based on the writing and how it captures a deeply personal experience. After revisiting this play, the title of my theatre review still rings true: #UnicornMoment #Heartfelt #Compelling.

 

Family Outing by Joel Tan

Before reading this play, I thought Family Outing would probably be about everyone being too busy with life and they finally realise the importance of spending time with each other. After reading it, I can’t get over how clever the title actually is as you’ll soon find out.

Due to an absurd accident, Joseph is electrocuted while trying to fix the TV. One year later, Joseph’s boyfriend, Daniel—in accordance with Joseph’s wishes—appears at Joseph’s family dinner commemoration to tell them that their son is gay. This does not bode well for them, especially Joseph’s mother who is a staunch Christian. Family Outing thus explores what happens when a son posthumously comes out to his family. Get the cleverness of the title now?

One thing that stood out to me is how Joel Tan deals with memory by weaving the past and present into the same scene. While this is nothing new, I like how he uses the same device to show the family reminiscing or re-constructing the past. The revelation of Joseph’s sexuality then forces the family to deal with how to carry on their lives while holding the memory of Joseph dear to their hearts.

While it is possible to criticise the ending for being too easy and too neat, I think it captures the wonderful thing about familial bonds. It is this indescribable instinct we have of our family members, and they of us; a sort of inherent knowing. We love and hate this instinct at the same time, that’s what makes being part of a family so intriguing.

While the play explores the conflict between religion and sexuality among other issues, Family Outing is more about love than anything else.

 

Recalling Mother by Claire Wong & Noorlinah Mohamed

As the title suggests, Recalling Mother is a play in which Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed play as themselves and they recall what their mothers are like at various stages of their lives.

Parallels and contrasts are at the heart of this play. We are made aware of the different backgrounds and cultures of both women, yet certain struggles or concerns are very similar in any parent-child relationship.

One element that fleshes out these parallels and contrasts is language. From the get-go Cantonese and Malay are used whenever they converse with their mothers. In certain situations, the mother tongue represents a generational and language gap. In others, it is comforting as it allows both ladies to access their childhood memories. It is, at the same time, a tool of isolation and reconciliation.

This review would be incomplete without discussing the words in the script itself. The simple conversational style makes it very accessible. In fact, the shortest sentences tug at one’s heart strings the hardest. It is no wonder The Straits Times review of the stage production states that the play will “make you go home and hug your mother much harder.” I couldn’t agree more.

 

Conclusion

If I were to sum up my experience of reading this anthology in a sentence, it is this: reading these plays makes me regret not catching these productions when they were staged. So if you are free and have some cash to spare, go catch a local play. You never know, you might be the first to encounter a gem.