At Swim, Two Boys ... and a Girl
Devotees of the pectoral, deltoid and other fine muscle groups will find much to savour as supertoned, ultratanned swimming instructor Ah Guan (Lim Wee Hong) struts across the public pool set in nothing but a pair of skimpy trunks. Unfortunately, there is little else worth watching in ACTION Theatre’s latest revival of The Swimming Instructor. Better off as a flesh and fashion (BODYNITS is strategically emblazoned across Lim’s posterior – product placement, anyone?) parade than a play, this production is the perfect occasion for a couple of hotties like Lim to shimmy across the stage in as few clothes as is NC-16 permissible.
Unfortunately, the NC-16 world demands less hanky panky and a lot more plot. Cue Desmond Sim’s soggy exploration of sexuality, love and loss, which has the actors plunging headlong into moody journeys of self-discovery. Sim milks the repressed homosexual stereotype for as many melodramatic plot twists as this production’s length can manage. A straight man seemingly cocksure about his sexuality who, alas, turns out to be a secretly gay emotional basketcase? Check. A gay man who, seemingly cocksure about his sexuality, also turns out to be an emotional basketcase? Check. Throw in a go-getting seductress, the perfect catalyst for a perplexing love triangle and voila! There is drama at the pool.
To complicate matters these characters all have secret pasts, alluded to in “never-before-seen” film sequences that should have remained exactly that way – never before seen. Several sequences reveal that Stereotype Number Three (a.k.a. Go-Getting Seductress), Isabella Chiam’s Jan, is not a caricature of a spoilt rich girl, but of a spoilt rich girl dogged by her parents’ adultery. These sequences predictably involve a toyboy Jan’s age, her equally go-getting mother, and some butoh dancing in the living room.
Such banality persists as filmmaker Sherman Ong attempts to re-create a Brokeback Mountain-esque romance that haunts Stereotype Number One, Ah Guan himself. In these sequences, Ah Guan and another boy fall asleep in front of the telly, fiddle with fishing rods at a jetty and stare into space on a pool deck. Both are maddeningly silent throughout: we are expected to discern a forbidden longing from their deadpan expressions. Finally, the boy comes out and confesses a crush on Ah Guan, only for the latter to reject him. He promptly commits suicide.
Stereotype Number Two’s back-story tempers the tiresome melodrama of his counterparts’ with equally tiresome comedy. Unable to subdue his stalker’s increasingly vociferous advances, Dave (Jeremy Lee) finds himself mired in clichéd gay farce that escalates into a predictably embarrassing scene at a restaurant.
When he recalls The Stalker Episode at the swimming complex, Dave splashes water about violently, becomes delirious and throws fits. It is a (over)reaction as random and bewildering as the film sequences themselves.
As their lives intersect and their pasts are dragged into the present, these characters decide that the best way to confront their troubles is to revel in self-indulgent musings on a variety of Life’s subjects. Under Loretta Chen’s clumsy direction, they move from one end of the stage to the other to talk. And talk. And talk and talk and talk. The play unfolds not so much through a series of events as the tedious dialogue issuing from the actors’ mouths.
While Dave ponders love’s auditory qualities (“…sometimes it’s really there. And we have to listen to it.”), her parents’ disintegrating marriage provokes Jan to rant, “People say at marriages ‘I love you’ when we mean, I love you today, and tomorrow we’ll see what happens!” Thoughtful questions also punctuate the dialogue: have you ever wondered “why do people stop loving each other?” And just in case the script, or what passes for one, gets too subtle, the characters are made to mouth tacky one-liners like, “We’re all looking for that special someone right!”
The torpor is leavened by some howlingly awful sexual repartee. Humour is obviously not Sim’s strong suit: when he is not fishing for cheap laughs (to Ah Guan’s insinuation that she is a slut, Jan retorts, “I may behave like a mamasan, but that doesn’t mean this nightclub is open to public!”), he resorts to talky inanities like “Introductions are so redundant after you’ve touched someone all over”.
A weak, uninspired cast rounds off The Swimming Instructor’s woes. That the actors lack nuance and subtlety in their delivery is a gross understatement. Initially, this reviewer is pleasantly surprised when Lim convincingly captures the coarseness of a typically boorish swimming instructor. However, one soon realizes that his performance keeps banging on that one note. He constantly shouts his lines, and seems to think that all sorts of emotions – anger, impatience, disappointment, lust – can be expressed in one single grimace.
As the poorly closeted, uptight Dave, Lee is a handsome face and an unnatural accent in search of a character. Lee is as secure of his acting abilities as Dave is of his sexuality: he stumbles over more than a few lines, and seems distinctly uncomfortable on stage. Chiam, on the other hand, is less constipated as wily go-getting Jan. However, given the limited emotional range of her character, this is not difficult. At first, she preens and pouts, then settles for screechy angst-laden rants in the latter half of the play. For Chiam, it is a matter of arranging her face rather than of expressing any plausible motive or emotion.
The Swimming Instructor’s abruptly tragic close (another
repressed homosexual bites the dust) raises potentially interesting
ideas about human reaction to loss. Characteristically enough, neither
the producers nor the actors have any notion of how to explore them.
Such undiluted nonsense is best suited for aficionados of soap opera
theatrics involving beautiful and stupid young people. And if Lim ever
finds a director willing to allow him to perform fully clothed throughout
the play, there will be no stopping him.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /