>KUO PAO KUN DOUBLE-BILL by the National Arts Council

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 6 jun 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>rating: ***

>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.


One of the top selling performances in this year's Arts Festival, the Kuo Pao Kun Double-Bill featured two of his early plays - THE COFFIN IS TOO BIG FOR THE HOLE and NO PARKING ON ODD DAYS. Kuo is seen as the father of Singaporean theatre and these two plays, which were written in the 1980's, were instrumental in creating a voice and identity for the fledgling Singaporean theatre scene then, a time when original works by Singaporeans were scarce.

As the present theatre scene becomes more vibrant and confident, and as it moves into a new century, it is indeed an opportune moment to showcase the works of Kuo Pao Kun to a new generation of theatregoers who have not seen them before. Moreover, this double-bill acts as a timely reminder to younger audiences of the significant development that has taken place in the short history of Singaporean theatre. The better to accomplish this, this production has been restaged by four different sets of directors with four different actors in four different languages. For the English-language production, Krishen Jit was in the directorial seat while Neo Swee Lin took the lead role that had once been performed by Lim Kay Tong.

But this revival begets an important question: will the plays be able to remain relevant in the contemporary culture of Singapore, a culture that has changed much since the 1980's? Will their ideas be able to resonate clearly as they did in the 1980's, so that a new audience will be able to identity with them? It is in this aspect that both plays succeeded and failed to varying degrees.

Both of the plays are monologues that are essentially social satires, where an individual is pitted against the inflexible, bureaucratic system that governs Singapore. In the case of THE COFFIN IS TOO BIG FOR THE HOLE, the story is about the attempts of an oldest grandchild to provide a proper burial for his grandfather, after discovering that the coffin is too big for the hole allocated; but he is unable to do so when faced with impenetrable bureaucratic red tape.

It was through this predicament that many ideas were skillfully and subtly explored - the role of tradition in the world of the "new economy", the individual and its relation to the state, the attempts of a system to nullify any form of difference or "otherness" in its citizens, such that everybody will literally fit into the plot of land allocated. In fact, in the end when a bigger plot was finally designated, the play seemed to suggest ironically and cynically that the system would allow "difference" only insofar as these differences helped to affirm that the system was indeed dynamic and able to accommodate disruption and change.

But for all of Jit's attempts to "plunge it into the here and now", there was a dated quality to the play, located primarily in its slightly stilted language. What once sounded funny and fresh has not aged well and now sounds tired and at times clichéd. It was very telling that laughter from the audience came not because of the humour of the language but more because of the absurdities of the plot.

>>'This double-bill clearly revealed why Kuo Pao Kun's vision of a Singaporean theatrical voice has earned him the title of doyen of Singapore theatre'

Moreover, many of its themes and its ideas of an oppressive system have since been more interestingly presented and examined, and to a jaded new audience, the premise of COFFIN was simply not enough to sustain audience engagement. There was also an uneasy balance between a specific historical context and situation (what with the references to the coolies who helped carry the coffin) and a more universal, almost mythic plane within which the play tried to locate itself. This uneasiness was not helped by the surreal set - a large and intricate piece of netting was used as a backdrop and was lit with an eerie green glow, suggesting perhaps the impending technological net that is to be cast over Singapore.

Using Neo Swee Lin in the place of the usual male lead introduced another level of tension in the play - the position of women in the maintaining of patriarchal traditions. This production is presented in association with W!ld Rice, whose debut production of Stella Kon's 'Emily on Emerald Hill' used the drag performance of Ivan Heng in the role of the matriarch to deconstruct and challenge the image of a submissive woman. However, in COFFIN, any gender irony was never properly addressed; here the idea of the construction of Asian gender roles in relation to the way patriarchal tradition is created and maintained was too subtly alluded to. In fact, at times I wondered why Neo Swee Lin was cast in the first place.

But then I remembered why - Neo Swee Lin is simply one of Singapore's best stage actresses. In COFFIN, she gave a stellar performance, balancing the comic and the tragic elements of the play with panache. With great ease, she shifted from quiet pathos at the death of the grandfather to an acute sense of the absurd with incredible comic timing.

NO PARKING ON ODD DAYS tells the story of a middle-aged mother who, goaded by her young son, single handedly tries to do battle with the traffic police by exposing their hypocrisy, and revealing the absurdity of their rigid rules and the inconsistencies of their regulations. The mother donned a pair of boxing gloves for this production, making her battles with the traffic police highly literal: every attack on either side became a punch, every complaint was a jab, every retort was a strike. And it was in doing this that Neo was in her element. Performing with ferocious energy and gutsy enthusiasm, she portrayed the character with energetic zeal.

But the constant reminders of the 1980s - what with the use of the song 'Eye Of The Tiger' whenever the mother was preparing for battle and the references to Perry Mason (everybody's mother's favourite lawyer-themed TV series) - firmly located the play in a specific context, making it at times too distant for the younger audience to relate to. But despite this, the wry and hilarious script with its subject matter that everyone could easily connect with - that of receiving parking fines - made it a lively and engaging performance. It also helped that by playing up the role of the underdog, Neo had the audience rooting for her throughout.

The play constantly highlighted the tension between the youthful idealism of the son and the unquestioning acceptance of rules by his mother, thereby pointing to how the advent of adulthood brings a passiveness and lack of resistance towards the unyielding regulations of an oppressive system. In fact, with the play ending with a limerick that concluded with the words "ha ha ha", I couldn't help feeling that the mocking laughter was aimed at the audience, whose hypocrisy in complaining that we pay too much in fines is only matched by our inaction and inertia.

This double-bill showed that some of the original pieces of Singaporean theatre might not have aged that well, but it clearly revealed why Kuo Pao Kun's vision of a Singaporean theatrical voice has earned him the title of doyen of Singaporean theatre.