>THIS CHORD AND OTHERS by the necessary stage

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 9 mar 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall
>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.


Perhaps the most insidious aspect of racism is that it could have all been one big joke. Indeed, laughter, wisecracks, parodies and teases are abound in the play, replete with the usual stereotypes that are mocked at and yet reinforced at the same time. Racism is an ugly word that no one wants to deal with, and so we invent jokes in and around it just so we can take racism at its lightest. But like lies that we tell to mask the truth, we tell jokes to conceal the underlying tensions that inhere in our society. Issues regarding ethnicity and religion reverberate underneath the seemingly benign façade that relate to our relationships to the Self and the Other. If we are made to see the jokes for what they are and if we are made to take our different ethnic identities seriously, we will be laughing hardest where it hurts us most.

These are the messages inherent in THIS CHORD AND OTHERS and the themes of race relations and ethnic identity are foregrounded rather obviously. Written and directed by Haresh Sharma who also wrote and acted in the same play nine years ago, THIS CHORD tells the ostensible tale of three male friends, Thomas (Eurasian), Sukhdev (Sikh) and Gerald (Chinese) who live together and work in the same office. All things appear hunky dory and they are even preparing for a talentime together. However, they each begin striking the wrong chords when it becomes apparent that they will have to fight each other for a promotion. As their friendship slowly breaks down and turns verbally and physically acrimonious with increasing potshots taken and aimed at each other, they find that at the heart of matter lies their own unspoken discomforts with racial and religious issues. Sukhdev (Karl Suriya) has an axe to grind with Gerald (David Yee) for being of the right race and religion and thus nabbing the promotion. Gerald has a bone to pick with Dev for dating his sister and has misgivings about his sister being a potential Sukhdev Singh. Thomas (Mark Richmond) contemplates migrating to Australia as he feels like a pariah in his own country having been categorized as "Others" and no recognized mother tongue, race and religion.

The theme of race and religion also extends inwards into a questioning of one's identity and what surfaces is the struggle one faces with the arbitrariness of tradition ( like Dev's tale of a grandmother who served a headless and backless turkey just so it would fit into the oven) and ethnic fixity, and the fact that confronting change means that something will always be left behind or betrayed. Here the three characters are dispatched into different role-plays as they transform to perform the roles of the relatives. Dev plays Gerald's father, Thomas has a turn as Dev's mother and Gerald performs the role of Thomas' girlfriend. At these junctures, inconsistencies with racial and religious precepts, traditions and expectations are exposed. Gerald comes back from Australia with a new accent, lifestyle and a Christian faith. His father accuses him of forgetting his roots and sniffs at his palliative gifts. Gerald tries to be a good son by not forcing his parents to convert but his religion tells him that they will have to go to hell for that. Dev has a tussle with his mother for cutting his hair, for anglicizing his name to Dave (but praises Gerald's same act as an exemplar of global citizenship) and for not dating Punjabi but Chinese girls. At the core is also the question of whether the conversions/changes are genuinely for their own sake or that they are actually symptomatic of a deeper inferiority complex and playing the gambit of one-upmanship. The realities of life forces them into a situation of self-loathing as Thomas' identity crisis leads him to constant denial and Dev admits that he hates his own kind.

>>'The racist jibes are damn funny when they are damn bad. So what does that tell us about ourselves?'

The ugliness of the predicament and debacle culminates in an imaginary, caricaturized state of retribution. Dev is made half-deaf by an enormous billowy turban on stuck on his head, Gerald's arm are broken and constrained by plaster casts attached to wings made of portraits inscribed with Buddha palms, and Thomas is blinded and effaced by swathes of bandages. Predictably, they now have to depend upon each other for their daily functions. Dev helps Gerald unzip his pants to pee and makes the meals, Thomas relies on Gerald for directions and both assist in trying to communicate their thoughts to Dev.

Whilst the play touches on the pertinent issues of race and religion, it does so rather superficially and lacks the critical impetus and apparatus to make its themes soar or allow them to get under your skin. Its indictment of racial politics at the personal level does not sustain its depth of penetration but subsists on moments of insight that punctuates the play. Sharma's interpretation of the themes is in itself a little dated and predictable. It would have been more interesting to invest a little more thought into the dynamics inherent in the older generations and bring out its disjunctions. As a female reviewer, I was rather disappointed in the lack of a distinct female voice and the ellision of the potential minefield of race, gender and politics.

It does not help the play much when it becomes self-indulgent in its nostalgia and sentimentality, lapsing into rather pat analogies and allegories of duty and harmony. Like the tale of the plant that grew between two trees and bounded the trees into a single entity (unless that is a form of sardonic take on state propaganda, which the actors did not deliver). The play is also too caught within its own generation of comedy to make any of its gravity stick. Slapstick mimicry, funny one-liners and the "thrill" of seeing celebrities gyrate, titillate and making a fool of themselves threatened to overshadow the deeper intentions of the play. I wonder if that is the price one pays for having celebrities on stage and thus upping the temptations to do some vicarious exploitation of their fame? (evident in the rather gratuitous dance performance by the three men at the end.) The actors (if one can call them that) do not do justice to the play having performed unevenly. It seems that they are less preoccupied with grappling with the issues and problems at hand than with their ability to mine the laughter from the audience. The play will only work when the actors take their characters' ethnic identities seriously enough because ethnicity is the source of the discomfort when deployed with other socio-political and interpersonal factors. It may well be that postmodern sensibilities take apart the notion of any unified identities but the explosion of tensions is testimony to the fact that conflicts arise because not everything goes in ethnic morphology. It is because our ethnic identities do matter that transgressions do create major upsets. The actors do not seem to be asking, 'what does it mean to be of my race/religion?'

At the end of the day, what is served up is too easily digestible. It should have gone to greater heights and newer places but it did not. But that is not to say that it is a bad play. Perhaps the audience may have gotten away with less to chew on but judging from the laughter at the performance that night, they sure had one heck of an enjoyable time. The polyphony of retro tunes from Cher, Alanis and Culture Club made it one great party. The racist jibes are damn funny when they are damn bad. So what does that tell us about ourselves.