Homesick was a disappointment and a delight, a triumph and an embarrassment. It succeeded beyond expectations and it just wasn't good enough.
What am I talking about? Mainly, I'm talking about the hype. Well before the curtain went up for this first-ever play of the Singapore Theatre Festival, Homesick had been touted as the play to watch. A family drama about "stayers" and "quitters" during the time of SARS, by famed writer Alfian Sa'at and the consistently excellent W!ld Rice, coupled with political dialogue at the Art and Life Forums and a kickass poster to boot - it's no wonder so many nights sold out, and seats got filled with the bums of both virgins and veterans of theatre. Frankly, I thought it was going to be better than sex.
But Homesick opened with a first act that was clumsy - painfully clumsy - largely due to an amateurish script. To begin with, it was too damn wordy: the diasporic Koh family discussed their relationships to the nation-state in eloquent circumlocutions that belonged in textbooks, not popular theatre. As sociologist Kwok Kian Woon was later to observe, many of the characters themselves spoke like sociologists.
This verbosity wouldn't have been a problem if only we'd had gripping, three-dimensional personalities we could fall in love with. Yet by and large, the people we encountered in the play appeared as stereotypes or political mouthpieces. Even an actor as excellent as Lim Kay Siu, who played the Anglophile Herbert with post-colonial, pinkie-raising, paranoiac-schizoid aplomb, couldn't quite raise much empathy with the audience. Worse was the case of Euro-activist Daphne (Serena Ho), a caricatured über-feminist screaming for the rights of culled cats - though even she looked good beside the American émigré character of Marianne (Eleanor Tan), who, aside from her marriage to an Indian man, had pretty much zero character (and, may I add, could not even conjure up an accent for verisimilitude).
Watching the play, one felt just like the Koh family - suffocated, trapped in quarantine in a house too full of people you didn't care about. For shame - W!ld Rice, with its celebrated repertoire of tried-and-true Singapore plays, usually doesn't perform such weak material. What exactly happened here? How did Alfian's pen go astray?
First, let's remember that for all his renown, the playwright doesn't have much experience in full-length dramas in English - Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2, The Optic Trilogy and sex.violence.blood.gore were all episodic plays, and Anak Bulan di Kampong Wa'Hassan and Fugitives played in the more homely, intimate arenas of Malay and Mandarin language theatre respectively - quite distant from the lofty imported accents of the migrant Koh family. Second, let's remember our fact that the play's thematic premise was pretty tenuous. SARS and the "stayers" and "quitters" debate have a pretty oblique connection, in spite of all the clever monologues you may throw at the audience on the semiotics of a transnational virus.
Third and most importantly, it's really hard to marry the genres of family drama and social theatre. The heritage of the first lies in the soap opera, while the second lies in the manifesto and political pamphlet, and Alfian was unstinting in borrowing from both disciplines. Homesick was thus a tour of antique plot devices - characters entering one by one for a family reunion, sibling rivalries, infidelities and shameful secrets - combined with long lectures on the nature of patriarchy and the definition of nationhood.
Alfian was probably misguided in holding fast to both the traditions of soap and the political essay. The two frequently combined to deadening effect: as a debate between two characters ended, lights would go out and theme music would play, bluntly underscoring the final speaker's line as the last word in the argument. Many a habitué of theatre was alternately bored by the banality of the teledrama and the dryness of the academic babble.
Yet this refusal to compromise was also Alfian's triumph. Amidst my matinee crowd, I could see that many in audience were able to engage in the play precisely because of the Channel 8-style theatrical devices that turned me off. The playwright's ambition seems to have been to embrace the non-initiates of theatre, all the folk newly welcomed into the fold of drama, and speak the unabridged truth to them on what is happening to the country.
And speak he did. Long after my irritation with the dramaturgy has faded, I'm still able to recall some classic lines: "Singapore is a small town that thinks it's a city." "I feel like I'm trapped in an old man's dream, and the only way to break free of that dream is to shout so loud that he'll wake up." And the words aren't only resonating with this reviewer - they've been quoted by Ken Kwek and Zuraidah Ibrahim in Straits Times articles since.
Furthermore, by act two, the melodrama had started to work. Planting the character of Cindy (Chermaine Ang), the pei du mama from the PRC, was a masterstroke - deepening both discussions of citizenship as well as generating a delicious frisson of tension as the sick father's mistress. Her presence also generated a superb performance from Neo Swee Lin, in her role as the mother Patricia Koh, as she first displayed tenderness towards Cindy, then subjected her to a show-stopping display of imperious authority in the role of a first wife in traditional Peranakan households, having the second wife massage her feet. It was Neo's handling of the finale that finally brought the play to a level of excellence when her character made a firm decision to migrate to America with her daughter, leaving her adulterous husband to fend for himself with his new wife.
It's sad, however, that Patricia was one of the few characters granted a clear journey of development. No other characters were seen to change as fundamentally or as dramatically, which is a real pity in a play that relies on an ensemble cast as much as this one. There might have been potential for a similar blossoming in the character of the youngest son, Patrick, who makes the decision to serve NS in Singapore rather than absconding to Australia. Hansel Tan's rendition of this part, however, was as the blinking everyman, confused by the new possibilities before him, not quite distinct enough to be arresting - yet his delivery of a final speech actually moved me to tears. And I quote, poorly:
Patrick: I think that every time you leave a place, you're saying "Yes. Yes, you win, I give up. I can't change anything." For once, I want to be able to say "No".
For many of us in the world of the arts, that's exceptionally resonant - and a hell of an argument for not packing your bags and switching passports. It's an amazing, heartbreaking ending that touches you to the core, much deeper than most dramatic writing does - but while one is ready to forgive the creators for a shoddy beginning, one never quite forgets.
What could have saved this play? A script doctor of some kind? A director who refused to accept a draft with so many flaws, or who would unflinchingly circumcise the talky bits? Or perhaps a platform with a little less hype? It's becoming clearer in retrospect that Glen Goei never intended the Singapore Theatre Festival to be a showcase of the great stars of Singapore theatre - it's a grand platform for experiment, to allow the Singapore playwright to speak his or her piece in full view of the public. But in the early 90s, in the heyday of Singapore playwriting, extreme censorship forced playwrights to rework their scripts until they attained a polished sheen - nowhere near the cumbersome bulk of Homesick that ultimately made it to the packed aisles of the Drama Centre.
I'm glad that Alfian has chosen to explore the difficult form of the intelligent family drama, and that W!ld Rice has given him a chance to do so - the form is indeed possible to do well in Singapore, as we know from The Necessary Stage's Three Years in the Life and Death of Land. Both author and company should, however, remember their legacies of presenting strong, earthy characters full of idiosyncrasy, and should bring them back into their plays to give them new life.
One also wonders about the future of Homesick. It's ultimately an extremely resonant essay on national identity, tripped up by its cumbersome excess of ideas. One almost hopes it could suffer the fate of Off Centre and Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, becoming a dramatic text taught in Singaporean schools, where its ideas could be disseminated at leisure to breed a truly thinking batch of students. Woe betide the kids who attempt a full-length staging of this though - unless a kinder, more compact version becomes available.
It wouldn't be a bad idea - Homesick, published and distributed as an MOE text. It is, after all, less a play than an educational experience, terribly suited to the purposes of a subversive schoolteacher. Call it a lecture or call it a propaganda serial; it has nonetheless reached out to a full auditorium of Singaporeans and used drama to make them think. In print, it could reach a whole new appreciative audience - as a show no-one should have seen, but everyone should know.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /