[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.

[Theatre Review] The Joy of Playing Dress-up

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Photo: Albert Lim KS / Courtesy of W!ld Rice

The Emperor’s New Clothes
W!ld Rice
21 November 2015
Drama Centre Theatre
10 November–12 December 2015

There is a difficulty in adapting the popular tale by Hans Christian Andersen as a pantomime. It needs to have wonderful costumes, it has to be fun, and—most importantly—it must not be pretentious as the main point of the story is to mock the pretentions of society.

W!ld Rice excels on all counts.

Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng) and Khairul No Surname (Sezairi) are orphans who become tailors. They are commissioned by the  ministers in the hopes of getting them to create a wonderful outfit for the vainglorious Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) for free. Khairul eventually convinces Nathan that they should take it as it is a good exposure for their business. They later find out that the Emperor arrests all who take the attention away from his outfit during the National Dress Parade (NDP) and decide to teach the Emperor a lesson with his “new outfit” for the 50th NDP.

Nothing is safe from satire as Joel Tan’s witty script references Lee Kuan Yew, lawsuits against foreign media, incompetency of the ministers, ISA, banning  musical instruments during Thaipusam, mediocrity of Mediacorp dramas, SG 50, and absurdity of national day parades.

With Tan’s clever employment of puns, acronyms, and Singlish, the audience experiences a bellyache of laughs throughout the two hours. The greatest merit of this sparkling script is that it does not belabour the various criticisms that it puts across. This makes the play snappy while packing in quite a lot at the same time.

Additionally, its injection of self-deprecating jokes such as mentioning Ivana Heng, the crazy theatre director who designed a rainbow outfit for the Emperor, or the Emperor asking his Minister of Retribution (Andrew Lua) to keep tabs on Sam Willows (a band that Kheng is part of) makes it all the more delicious.

Director Pam Oei pulls out all the stops and makes her cast showcase whatever talent they have or even acquiring new ones just for the show. Most of them sing, dance, and play instruments live on stage.

Benjamin Kheng’s anxious Nathan is a nice contrast to Sezairi’s laidback Khairul. Aside from their singing which they are known for, their dancing is tight and there is a wonderful synergy between them as we can easily believe that they are “brothers from another mother.”

Lim Kay Siu (Emperor Henry Lim) brings out his youthful and vain side as he preens and poses throughout the show. Audrey Luo (Empress Jeanette How) plays the melodramatic caricature of local actress Jeanette Aw to the hilt. This could not come at a worse time as Aw is currently facing criticisms about her inability to sing in Beauty World.

Other notable performances include Siti Khalijah Zainal (Nafisa bte Jasmani, Minister of Finance), Andrew Lua’s  (Wong Bok Siu, Minister of Retribution), Benjamin Wong and his counter-tenor vocal range as the aptly named Aplhonsus Kan Sing Low, Andrew Marko as the Thai fashion reviewer, and Candice de Rozario as Arppeggio Chong.

Julian Wong keeps our toes tapping with his catchy tunes that range from joget music to the moving, ballad-like “Open Up” when the tailors and the Empress confront the Emperor. Set designer Eucien Chia adopts the comic book aesthetic by having skyscrapers pointing inwards. The monochromatic set allows costume designers Phisit and Saxit from Tube Gallery to unleash a largely neon palette onto the stage.

All these elements make for a fun, energetic, zany, and hilarious musical that calls on the powers that be to reflect on their style of governance and perhaps renew their commitment to serving the people.

With Singapore celebrating her Jubilee and witnessing a heated election, I could not think of a more befitting production to end the year. If only we could nudge our ministers into the theatre.

Other Reviews

“The Emperor’s New Clothes pantomime has audience in stitches” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Time Out Singapore: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ Review” by Gwen Pew, Gwen Pew (originally published in Time Out Singapore

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisiting SG50 Through the Wittiest Musical” by Sheryl Teo, Popspoken

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ at Wild Rice” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, BlogCritics

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: A Treat For All Ages” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“The emperor’s new clothes” by Jes, Jesme

“Review: The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Jordan Chia, Youth.sg

[Listing] The Emperor’s New Clothes by W!ld Rice

Emperor's New Clothes

Once upon a time, in a kingdom not so far away, ruled a vain and pompous Emperor, who was crazy about his clothes, himself and little else. So obsessed with fashion was he that he decreed that the 50th anniversary of his reign be celebrated with the most extravagant National Dress Parade of all time. But, as he primped and preened, he neglected his citizens, who could only get his attention by complimenting him on his appearance.

One day, two cheeky tailors decide to teach him a lesson. Presenting the Emperor with an eye-popping ensemble literally woven out of thin air, they convince him that only the smartest and most competent people in the land can see it.

What can be done to stop the nation’s biggest wardrobe malfunction? Why won’t the Emperor’s courtiers and the aristocracy speak up? Is there anyone who’s brave enough to tell the naked truth?

This holiday season, W!ld Rice puts a Singaporean spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale about the ultimate fashion victim. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a brand new musical with a razor-sharp script by Joel Tan and a sparkling score by Julian Wong. Its stellar cast includes Lim Kay Siu as the Emperor, Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows, Singapore Idol’s Sezairi Sazali and Siti Khalijah Zainal—all playing musical instruments live on stage!

Fun and laughter never go out of fashion. Don’t miss the most hilarious, heartwarming musical of the holiday season!

Catch The Emperor’s New Clothes from 20 November – 12 December at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.

[Book 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.