>MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS and WILLS AND SECESSIONS by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date: 24 mar 2001
>time: 6pm & 9pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>rating: ***1/2

>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.
 

>>>>>WOMEN IN LOVE

Although loosely connected, Eleanor Wong's two plays are very different entities. In MERGERS & ACCUSATIONS, strong-willed lawyer Ellen has to conceal her homosexuality in order to get on in society. Tired of hiding, she marries Jon and has a child by him, only to find that she cannot live a lie; they separate. WILLS & SECESSIONS, set several years later, shows Ellen married again, this time to a woman - Lesley, whom we first meet in MERGERS as her lover.

MERGERS is the more comic of the two plays, replete with one-liners and darkly humorous situations. Mark Richmond, as Jon, has a repertoire of funny faces and voices that he deploys skilfully. Tan Kheng Hua, playing Ellen, is slightly less comfortable with the patter, occasionally mistaking speed for energy and rushing her lines. She is far better at domestic tragedy, which is the dominant mood for the second half of the play.

And of course tragedy is the end-state. The marriage of a straight man to a lesbian can only have disastrous consequences. The script realises the impossible situation with economy - showing Jon trying and failing to cope with the fact that his wife is having an affair with a woman, an affair he agreed to in order to keep her. The effect is of a precarious structure that only stays up because its participants will themselves to be blind to the obvious.

The third corner of the triangle is Beatrice Chia as Ellen's lover, Lesley. She is certainly luminously beautiful, but her awkward physicality makes her hard to imagine as an object of lust, especially following on from the easy chemistry between Tan and Richmond. She is not comfortable with the space, choosing to hug the walls whenever possible, and playing voracious sexuality with all the sophistication of a girl in her mother's clothes and make-up.

>>'Both MERGERS and WILLS are stylish plays written with great emotional honesty.'

For all that MERGERS works extremely well, demonstrating how life is about making compromises, and showing that Ellen's attempt to have it all is doomed from the start. It also contains a penetrating criticism of how the private life cannot be divorced from the public - the audience incidentally confirming what the play says about Singapore's narrow social mores by laughing heartily at each cruel slur about Lesley's sexuality.

Whereas MERGERS takes place largely in the corporate world, WILLS is more domestic. We are introduced to Ellen's bible-bashing sister, Grace, several years after the events of the first play. Ellen is now married to Lesley and holds custody of her daughter with Jon. She has also moved to London, where her sexuality is not, she claims, an impediment.

There are many interesting issues at stake here - conflicting loyalties to family and self, the blight of religious guilt - but they are all torpedoed by the actress playing Grace, Linh-Dan Pham. She has an impressive CV, having starred opposite Catherine Deneuve in the movie 'Indochine' (Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 1993), but the girl cannot act. Her thin voice and obvious unfamiliarity with the English language make her frequently inaudible. Worse, she creates a vast emotional vaccum at the heart of the play, completely failing to capture the complexity of Grace, a strong character torn between her devotion to God and her equally fierce loyalty to her sister.

Beatrice Chia is better in WILLS than in the preceding play, evoking the anger and pathos of a young person struck down by cancer. Still, like Pham, she is acted off the stage by Tan Kheng Hua, who is so compelling that she draws focus from the other two actresses even when all she is doing is sitting in a corner with her back to us.

The evening belongs to Tan, with her portrayal of Ellen as a fiercely determined woman with a core of vulnerability - a warm, funny and truthful character who is so emotionally repressed that her idea of a pick-up line is "I think your strategy on the non-disclosure issue was brilliant". Tan is completely at home on the stage, using every inch of the minimalist set to brilliant effect.

Goh Boon Teck's direction is a mixture of good ideas and lack of attention to detail. His blocking feels ill-thought-out, especially in MERGERS, where a vast circular bed in the centre of the stage means the actors can do little more beyond walking around it. The lack of production values which Theatreworks is attempting to present as a virtue in its 'Thirty Plays' series ("raw, unfinished quality full of possibilities" etc) is getting annoying. One forgives the costumes (do real lawyers wear quite so much leather?), but need the background music have been quite so intrusive? And why, why was a climactic scene punctuated with highlights from the 'Evita' soundtrack? And please, could someone fix the air conditioning, so that when Grace talks about hellfire we do not feel as if we were already experiencing it?

Both MERGERS and WILLS are stylish plays written with great emotional honesty. They capture both the vast pain that human beings can cause each other with the best of intentions, and the limitless potential we have for recovering from these hurts. It is a pity that the cast -- Tan and Richmond aside -- was so disappointing (except the excellent Selena Tan, who was badly underused in a small part). One can only hope that Theatreworks will give the plays a fuller production, because they deserve to be seen by a wider audience in more salubrious surroundings, and because Tan Kheng Hua's is a talent that deserves a better showcase than this.