The Living Dead
Guess what, guys? Old is the new gay! After years of over-representing the queer community in drama, our theatremakers have finally hit on a new demographic sector to focus on: the elderly. That's why recent productions like Blood Binds, Postcards from Rosa and Catching Adam Cheng have been so terribly fixated on representing senescence, giving a voice to the marginalised senior community, a growing market who need outlets to flamboyantly celebrate their oldness. There's even a whole theatre group emerging, formed by The Necessary Stage and fully staffed by over-55s - one more major step in the movement for grey pride.
First Light, however, isn't exactly about old age: it's about death. While all seven of the play's characters are old men and women, they're all already dead, now trapped in limbo before being allowed to pass on into the afterlife. They've each been tasked with choosing the one moment from their lives that they'd most like to relive; once they've shared this memory with each other, they'll be free.
Director Nelson Chia complements this idea with some strong minimalist visuals, playing off the similarities between the black box theatre space and an otherworldly limbo. The first tech cue is impressive: light comes up on a tableau vivant of actors in theatre seats at the far end of the wall, watching us. Suddenly, they rise to their feet and shuffle to the side to witness a freshly deceased newcomer arriving via the stage door. And over the next hour and a half, more magic: a shower of invisible, audio-recorded rain, a mailbox descending from the flybar, deliveries of obituary clippings and ineffable instructions from higher authorities - a touch of the absurd in the midst of the spiritual.
But all in all, I'm not a big fan of the work, and I've got reasons galore for my discontent. First of all, the premise seems like a gigantic rip-off of the Japanese film Afterlife, even though Chia says it's a devised work inspired by Taiwanese playwright Stan Lai's Red Sky.
Second of all, the piece is terribly stagnant, with barely any plot development and zero sense of urgency or momentum. There are no stakes to worry about, no threat of hellish consequences or promise of divine ecstasy: only the tender annoyance of everyday ennui, played out on stage. The characters play mahjong, reflect on their lives, play Chinese chess, reflect on their lives, watch TV, reflect on their lives, and generally get on each other's nerves. (Richard Dawkins was right. There is no life after death.)
Third of all (if that's even an accepted term), the play makes a claim to being thought-provoking while never actually saying anything original. The only controversial issue raised is that of euthanasia, with one character, Madam Loh, having offed herself gracefully and legally in the Netherlands to avoid the pain of terminal disease. Sure, it's a promising idea, but there's barely any follow-up, no real exploration of the implications - just an unrelated twist when we discover that her Dutch husband had been cheating on her for years before she died. Nor does it help that actress Mia Chee plays the role with the blandness of a talking mannequin. No substance, no interest.
Fourth of all - well, a lot of the characters are terribly superficial. I'm particularly peeved that Neo Swee Lin's character, the grassroots leader Madam Tan, is basically a carbon copy of all the bubbly, gung-ho older woman roles she's played in the past, from Ah Choo in Beauty World (1998) to Ah Ma in the sitcom Phua Chu Kang. Not even an attempt at political commentary based on her profession, not even one - which is a terrible waste of talent in a woman who's also played Gertrude and Lady Macbeth.
I'm more ambivalent about the treatment of other characters, as their triviality is often played for comedy - probably a deliberate decision on the part of the playwright/director to counterbalance the rhetoric of death. Sally Fairy, a mother whose son never supported her singing career, is too jovial and silly to recognise her own tragedy - but in the meantime, the audience can laugh at her songstress pretensions. Grumpy Sim and the deaf maths teacher Mrs Lim receive good comedic portrayals by Rei Poh and Koh Wan Ching respectively, to the extent that it actually feels significant when one of them reveals some depth - such as Mrs Lim's casual revelation that she's aware the television set she's been watching is broken.
These characters are, after all, mere witnesses to the main relationship in the play, that between the newest member of the group, the taxi driver Daniel Chong, and his wheelchair-bound wife Peck Choo who can neither remember nor recognise her husband. The roles are performed by theatre veterans Lim Kay Siu and Janice Koh, and the chemistry between them really works for a lot of the audience - my fellow Inkpot reviewer Kenneth Kwok found their performance "heartbreaking", and was touched by "a couple who find love and salvation against all odds". I wasn't quite so moved - Janice Koh's efforts to mimic the stammering of an Alzheimer's/stroke-ridden patient appeared more Grotowski than actually convincing, and I suppose I was distracted by the incongruousness of such celebrated actors being present in such a problematic play. I even felt a little manipulated - some moments were practically screaming out "cue the lachrymose violins" - but my tears remained in their ducts, stubbornly refusing to be jerked.
Nonetheless, the re-remembered romance between Daniel and Peck Choo deserves mention for being the only part of the play where characters seem actually alive, rather than simply playing out mindless repetitions of their former lives and personality traits. It really is quite depressing.
Fifth and last of all - well, it's to do with those crisp, smart, minimalist visuals I love so much. They're constantly being disrupted by the bathos of the play, as the characters yell at each other, recount how they won someone's love by standing on their heads in the rain, and sing I'm A Little Teapot (complete with actions) en masse. Sure, it's a great aim for Chia to try and balance refinement with silliness, but it all requires a level of skill as a theatremaker that I'm not sure he has yet.
Maybe the odd mix of sentimentality, sophistication and endearing dumbness in the play would've worked a lot better in Mandarin. It'd definitely have been more believable to have old Chinese Singaporeans chatting in Mandarin rather than English, and I've always found that mother tongues (for want of a better word) sound more intimate on a local stage, instantaneously making that emotional connection to the family that English doesn't. Or maybe Chia just shouldn't have directed the same stuff he'd written - it's hard to make objective artistic judgments when you do that.
As it is, however, First Light is neither here nor there, never succeeding in delivering emotional or intellectual epiphanies and too slow to qualify as really good entertainment. The visual aesthetics can't save it, either: they form a beautiful shell around a centre that's ultimately hollow. There's never a sense that there's something the creator desperately wants to say, and that saps the show of life - the very thing a play about death should be replete with.
Kenneth Kwok disagrees with me, of course - below, you'll see how he makes a case for the restraint of this play, which he finds admirable. But personally, I felt a little deader after watching this play. Please, let that never happen again.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression (***1/2)
Some plays intentionally push their audience away while others prefer to tower over them. Then there are those which invite the audience round for tea and a hug. That's First Light for you. It is the story of seven people looking back on their lives as they wait in limbo to move on to the afterlife and it is told in a simple, straightforward manner that mainstream audiences will find embracing and warm. First Light moves gently back and forth between light comedy and human drama, and director Nelson Chia tries to balance the two carefully so that the play does not feel manipulative. He doesn't always succeed but he does steer clear of over-sentimentality better than most plays of this type. Chia is aided by an amiable ensemble cast; praise goes especially to Lim Kay Siu and Janice Koh for their heartbreaking turns as a couple who find love and salvation against all odds.
Ng Yi-Sheng's First Impression
There's a surprising amount of laughter in First Light - not exactly what you'd expect in a show about old people waiting to escape a Sartrean limbo between death and the afterlife. Earthily comedic actors like Neo Swee Lin and Mia Chee ham it up as a garrulous grassroots leader and a half-deaf retired teacher, injecting a dose of light-hearted entertainment into a play that's otherwise very sombre. Yes, there are tender moments, especially in the central relationship between the taxi-driver and his wheelchair-bound wife, but the overall mood is bleak and heavy: this is a tale that's set in purgatory.
As a director, Nelson Chia's created some rather beautiful stage-pictures, but his playwriting often seems amiss: the script's so light on plot development that it feels pretty stagnant over its 90 minutes, and while he touches on issues like euthanasia and care for the disabled, the treatment of the topics isn't insightful or original at all. Plus, the language often seems overly sophisticated for a bunch of Chinese Singaporean elders - I've a feeling the whole piece would've worked much better in Mandarin than in English.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /