>HALF CENTURY by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 13 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Russell Heng's much-awaited new play, HALF CENTURY, is not for the faint-hearted. Audiences hoping for a coherent narrative will be left baffled by the multi-layered structure that hopelessly confuses fiction and reality, and will be simultaneously unsettled by the provocative portrayal of Singapore as a quasi-police state in which "mediocrity goes a long way as long as we have the PAP."

The play opens in a straightforward enough manner. Curly, an embittered bookshop-owner, knows he is likely to be taken in for questioning by the Internal Security Department (ISD) over a "subversive" newspaper he publishes. Just as the police come calling, however, the scene blows apart as the actors step out of character - at least character as established so far - and reveal that everything we have seen so far is part of a play written by Curly, based on his own experiences. Just as we are getting used to this play-within-a-play, Heng hits us with another coup de théâtre. Even the scenes of the playgroup rehearsing Curly's play, ostensibly in the last months of 1999, are not "real" - both the internal and external drama are part of yet another play, this time being written by a woman called Diamond, in 1987, the year that the members of drama group Third Stage were arrested for allegedly being part of a Marxist conspiracy. Which leaves us with the play we are watching, by Russell Heng (in 2001), the play Curly is writing (in 1999) and Diamond's play (in 1987). As if there weren't already enough confusion in the air, all three plays are called HALF CENTURY. Characters move crazily between the different levels of narrative - so Diamond is Diamond in two of the plays, and Mrs Lee in the third. Paul Sim plays a man called Michael who plays a man called Francis Ang, whom Curly claims is based on a "real" Francis Ang - a violinist - but is in fact a lightly fictionalised version of Francis Seow.

>>'For its faults this production has a ring of truth about it'

All of this has the effect of keeping the audience permanently on their toes, which is perhaps necessary in this play which seeks to challenge assumptions and constantly shift the moral ground from beneath our feet. Heng resists easy polemic, choosing instead to investigate the necessity of political supervision in exchange for stability. The ISD henchmen are not partisan goons, but smooth-talkers who sound eminently reasonable when presenting their reasons for detaining Curly. Like the state in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', we are shown a government which believes in dictatorship through bureaucracy, and like Winston Smith, Curly is finally made to realise it is impossible to fight a bland, faceless enemy that responds only to its own, internal logic.

Heng makes the trenchant point that what is practised in Singapore is not so much self- as mutual-censorship. We oppress each other out of fear of retribution from the state. It is difficult to dismiss the fears shown here as meaningless - Curly's lover, Ai Meng, walks two blocks to use the phone because she worries that the public phone downstairs is tapped - when we see (on stage) Curly being spied on and then detained by the ISD, or (in real life) people being taken in for questioning with little or no opportunity to defend themselves. This, the playwright suggests, is the price of our material affluence, which he throws at us along with an accusatory reference to our "little fears and petty impotence".

Jeremiah Choy's production has an unfinished feel to it, as if it were a dress rehearsal by yet another amateur playgroup. The actors make good use of the stage, but are not as sure of their lines as they could be, and mispronounce several words - Gani Abdul Karim, as Curly, is particularly guilty of this, saying things like "vesTIges of truth" (instead of "VESTiges"). No one seems sure of whether Ernest Seah's character is called "Alvin" or "Albert". The set, as with all sets in the TheatreWorks 'Thirty Plays' series, is minimal.

The cast works well as an ensemble, and in some cases produces fine individual performances - especially Fanny Kee as Ai Meng, all cheekbones and coiled energy, and Tan Cheng Hung as Diamond. Peggy Ferroa and Mervyn Goh turn in a touching vignette of middle-aged love, undermined by not quite being middle-aged themselves. This is in fact a general problem with the cast - we are told several times in the play that they are fifty, or in Heng's phrase "half-Centurions", but in most cases the actors look at least fifteen years off the mark.

The different plays collapse together after the penultimate, Pirandello-esque scene in which the various characters collectively demand that Diamond write them an ending. In the last scene Heng deftly draws the different strands of narrative together and adds a last, disturbing twist. For its faults this production has a ring of truth about it, and the script's ultimate condemnation of Singapore's soulless prosperity is as unsettling as it is insightful: "Forget about passion and you'll find it's not such a bad country after all."