With My Rifle and My Baby and Me
Gather a group of able-bodied nineteen-year-old Singaporean males together and they will engage in solipsistic poppycock about their exhaustingly eventful National Service lives thus far. Whoever has the craziest warrant officer, the most epic of field camp disasters, and the longest guard duty will be (grudgingly) crowned the winner in this competition between Singaporean male superegos. Relegated to the sidelines of this heated discussion are the lowly clerks and storemen (a.k.a. the PES Cs, PES Es, OOCs and the 302s*) who have no place in this glorified rite of passage.
The Ordinary Theatre's latest offering, Serve, casts the spotlight on these largely ignored "misfits", stripping away the clichés of "boys becoming men", and revealing them to be icons of a subservient military culture that breeds apathy. In fact, Serve cleverly exploits the prosaic nature of its context for a wider purpose: it challenges the assumption that to think and question is "high art" exclusive to the "radicalised English-educated" bourgeoisie, and jolts us out of our familiar complacency.
And playwright (and Inkpot writer - Editor) Ng Yi-Sheng delivers this challenge with outrageous flair. The protagonist, Cheong, is a NS boy who believes he is pregnant - but this shocking pregnancy is the occasion rather than the subject of Serve. Ng is not simply smashing old taboos or writing a dippy sequel to Ivan Reitman's 1994 stinker, Junior (where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a male scientist who, for inconceivable reasons, agrees to carry a foetus in his own body). Instead he uses this provocative pregnancy to question the stifling political and social boundaries that the "gahmen" prescribes for its citizens in this nanny state.
And these piercing questions are communicated powerfully through the two protagonists, Cheong and his soul mate, Nadim. At first, both seem ubiquitous in our society: Cheong is the typical NSF who expects to toil through his two years of mandatory service with few major glitches while Nadim is the 302 who, under any other circumstance, would have been co-opted into militaristic bureaucracy as a clerk. And this is where Ng displays the virtuosity of his craft: he turns these expectations on their heads with unapologetic alacrity. Little does Cheong expect his "glitch" to be as major as a nature-defying pregnancy, while Nadim defies the 302 stereotype, being given superspy status that is far more prestigious than that of any officer, widely regarded as the peak of military rank.
Both embark on turbulent journeys of rediscovery - specifically the rediscovery of the self each has lost to "the system". Slowly but surely, Cheong finds the fundamentals of "the system" (which comprises Magnolia, Cheong's superficial girlfriend, Harry, his army buddy and even the medical officer Cheong desperately turns to for help) alien and divorced from his own. He turns to his only soul mate, Nadim, who is also caught in the same self-defeating conflict: Nadim finds the superficial glamour of his vocation fading quickly and he begins to question the ruthless scheme of killing he engages in and the uneasy satisfaction he derives from it; but more importantly he mourns the tragic loss of his being. Both fittingly explode into soliloquies at the end, each probing and altering their own and the audience's consciousness. At the end of Serve, Nadim embarks on his final mission while Cheong goes into labour... and something is born. That Ng leaves the audience to decide the fates of Cheong and Nadim is no coincidence.
Justin Kan (Cheong) and Zulfikar Ali (Nadim) fitted into their characters like a dream. Kan superbly conveyed the frenetic isolation of Cheong, manifested through the character's contrived "I-have-faith-in-the-system!" shtick. Kan magically disappears under the skin of his character, transforming from an infantile NSF to a man caught in a nightmare, scouring for empathy with a hunted look in his eyes, choked with incommunicable passion as he tries to deny, then rationalise his pregnancy. Zulfikar Ali is also outstanding as Nadim, tempering the characteristic theatricality we might expect from a character such as Nadim with slow-moving melancholy and glum fatalism. It would have been easy for Ali to be lost in the sensuous, treacherous world that Nadim himself was lost in. Yet instead of allowing himself to be upstaged by his character's outrageous dresses, campiness and eroticism, he reins in Nadim with remarkable poise and dignity.
Under the competent direction of Hoo Kuan Cien and Terence Tan, the rest of the cast provided vital support for the protagonists. Both Magnolia and Harry were plot functions rather than fully developed characters, acting as foils for Cheong's unorthodoxy. Yet, both Audrey Luo and Varian Lim gave performances worthy of protagonists, injecting real personality into their characters. Textbook perfect as Magnolia, Luo rattles off bimboticisms, and preens and pouts onstage with Ah-Lian-meets-ditzy-schoolgirl charm. Luo also switches from brassy bimbo to disgruntled sergeant with ease, effortlessly steering the slapstick momentum of the play. Equally impressive was Varian Lim as Harry, the Ah Beng army buddy every Singaporean male seems to have. As crass as his stage persona is, Lim's crystal interpretation lends an easy air of familiarity to Harry, helping him click delightfully with the rest of the cast.
Unfortunately, despite Serve's accomplishments, I couldn't help but notice minor flaws that damaged certain dramatic sequences. Sound was a letdown: the grainy sound quality gave the feel of old tunes blaring across the school's PA system during morning assembly. This hurt the dramatic potential of segments of the play (such as Nadim's missions, where sound was crucial in creating the atmosphere of treachery and mystery in which Nadim both thrives and falters). There were few directorial missteps, but the dismal staging of Cheong's failed suicide attempt was glaring. In a poorly engineered scene that left me bewildered, Cheong jumped off the bed, pranced about, stepped onto a box, cried out a few less-than-coherent lines, jumped off the box while making curious loud noises and hopped back into bed before suddenly going limp. Hmm... The scene had degenerated into unwitting farce, when it could have been a keen exploration of Cheong's psyche. Finally, while the cast rarely flubbed their lines, the delivery sometimes lacked fluency. This was especially obvious in scenes where both Cheong's and Nadim's monologues ran parallel to each other: in parts, Lim or Ali came in too early, tripping over each other's lines, giving the feel of an exploratory workshop exercise still awaiting integration into a complete performance. These are minor scratches on the gem that is Serve - but they are scratches nonetheless, rendering it unpolished.
Nevertheless, Serve is madly enjoyable and deserves much applause. Parodic and introspective, it has mass appeal, yet preserves the sacred elements and qualities that make it a resounding artistic triumph. This is another clarion call to think, debate, question and push the boundaries - and perhaps the most persuasive I have heard.
*Military jargon for Physical Employment Status, a medical classification scheme denoting a soldier is unfit for a significant portion of (PES C), or most (PES E) National Service duties.
"OOC" is an acronym for "out-of-course". Servicemen normally go out-of-course after they incur injuries that prevent them from continuing their training.
"302"s are servicemen who have declared that they are gay during the medical check-ups conducted pre-enlistment. Homosexuality is deemed a "social problem" in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and these individuals normally become clerks in respective SAF offices.
Guest reviewer Amos graduated from Victoria Junior College in 2005 and is willing to sell his soul for higher education i.e. sink into a) tiny bureaucratic tinkering for six years, or b) mind-blowing debt for the rest of eternity to read English in England or America. However, where Amos is willing, the scholarship boards are weak. When he eventually stops deluding himself, he will probably slouch about in the NUS Law faculty and hope to attain Legally Blonde status.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /