>HALF CENTURY by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 12 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>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.


HALF CENTURY is a play of protest. It was written by Russell Heng more than seven years ago to correct what he saw as a partial and unjust relation of events that led up to the arrest and detention of twenty-two Roman Catholics in 1987; these Marian disciples had been thought by higher authorities to be plotting the overthrow of the Singapore government, and were purported to be of the Marxist persuasion. There was extensive media coverage of the event at that time, but this signally failed to adequately represent the defendants' version of things.

In HALF CENTURY, the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy has been cleverly linked to the Malayan Insurgency of 1948-60 and the 1972 political fracas when members of the foreign press in Singapore were charged with printing material deemed subversive by the Singaporean Government. The play is set in the present day and opens with the stage divided into two halves - the first is set in London, where two political exiles, one from the Insurgency (Mother) and the other from the 1972 case (Francis Ang), are now quartered; the second shows a Singapore flat belonging to Mother's daughter, Ai Meng, and her live-in partner, Curly. Their mad neighbour, Mrs. Lee, makes regular incursions into their home, as does Curly's best mate and fellow political dissident, Henessey.

The action in the first half alternates between these two groups, and is nicely linked by a letter which Ai Meng's brother (a homosexual in self-imposed exile) has written her from London; a deft directorial touch makes use of semi-opaque bamboo shades, hung in-between the actors and the audience, as a curtain for each side. All the characters are dressed in white - traditional PAP colours. Conversation between the characters fills us in on their complex and intertwining histories, taking us to the present day where Curly and Henessey run an independent paper decrying various governmental acts ('Second Opinion'; it has a circulation of 100.) Things start to get exciting when Henessey manages to lay hands on a piece of damning information regarding the Establishment - they are barely able to secrete it away (with the help of the distracted Mrs. Lee, played to excellent humorous effect by Tan Cheng Hung) before the ISD come a-pounding on the door.

>>'Structural failures were exacerbated by poor casting and even worse acting on the part of major characters'

Just as Mrs Lee seems likely to give the game away, the most amazing volte face occurs: the lights go out and the whole thing is suddenly called off - everything that we have viewed up to that point has really been a rehearsal for a play. Before we have quite time to gather our wits about us, the eight characters are marching confidently to the fore of the stage and introducing themselves - their 'real' selves this time - together with the reasons why they have decided to act in a play as politically explosive as 'Half Century'. Some of the characters play themselves (e.g. Ai Meng, Curly and Henessey) but the rest are either friends, or friends of friends; one of them, Jude, is an old flame of Henessey's.

The rest of the play describes how the group reacts when Curly is subsequently hauled in by the ISD (the real McCoy this time) for questioning. Fault lines which have hitherto been masked by cooperation on the play now emerge, and a painfully long sequence of scenes spotlight the various cliques in turn. Although talk here is informative, especially with regards to Singapore's recent political history, it is also didactic and draggy, and then simply confusing - relationships between characters multiply at an exponential level, and it turns out that the ISD is not really after Curly (who masterminded the play together with Henessey) but someone else; it also turns out that Curly didn't actually write the play (Diamond, a mousy civil servant who plays Mrs. Lee, did), and that the play in any case doesn't have a conclusion - what does happen when the ISD nabs Curly both in the play and in real life?

HALF CENTURY's ending coincides with that of its theatrical namesake when furious knocking at the doors of the Black Box stops the company from playing out their last scene, upon Curly's eventual release. We are of course meant to be alarmed, but as with all crude attempts to collapse the distinction between stage and reality, HALF CENTURY doesn't quite pull it off. The absence of impact is the cumulative result of a play that has been too clever by halves - using every trick in the book (including the stage equivalent of 'I woke up and it was all a dream'-type devices), it simply tried to do too much. It also tries to say too much in a clumsy and confusing attempt to link issues of artistic censorship with those of political repression.

Structural failures were exacerbated by poor casting and even worse acting on the part of major characters - the spry youth that Mervyn Goh is makes his coupling with Peggy Ferroa a gross mismatch; Gani Abdul simply does not have it in him to play the Angry-Young-Man-pushing-fifty that Curly is meant to be. Besides, he keeps forgetting his lines. Indeed, this seemed to be a common malaise amongst the cast members (with the exception of the excellent Fanny Kee, who plays Ai Meng), and along with the inconsistent use of stage properties (Guang Gong is imagined but Curly's and Henessey's class photo is not), speaks of an inexcusable lack of preparation. Minimalism may be fine and well as a feature of a production, but should not be used as an excuse for the lack of professionalism.

Society has a short memory and it is laudable that Heng should have attempted to rescue these figures from obscurity and infamy. That he believes in giving the Singaporean audience an alternative version of the truth is just as praiseworthy. Pity then that HALF CENTURY confuses more than it explains, and in its first execution, makes official history seem a far more attractive option.