>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 24 mar 2001
>time: 6pm & 9pm
>venue: the fort canning black box
>rating: see below

>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.



Eleanor Wong's MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS is the sort of play every serious actor dreams of landing the lead for: Ellen Toh is a sharp-talking closet lesbian lawyer who agrees to go into partnership - of the matrimonial variety - with a similarly sharp-talking though stridently heterosexual colleague, Jonathan Chin. He's in it for the children ("I'll have them if I could") and although they all remind her of fish, she agrees for the security and companionship that Chin offers; after all, she gets to retain the freedom to see other lovers provided she returns home by 11 p.m. The marriage is strictly one of convenience - in principle anyway. But the human heart is a frail thing and four years and one child on, we find a deeply unhappy Chin who having forsaken his plum prospects at the firm to keep house for his high-flying wife (by now a junior partner,) finds himself increasingly unable to accept the terms on which their partnership is based. When in the course of work Ellen meets "Lesley the lesbian lawyer from London", a highly attractive and forward homosexual, the fragile pax between Toh and Chin finally breaks down in an excellently conceived penultimate and last scene.

What we have then is realist drama of an order uncommonly found in Singapore. Here under the helm of director Goh Boon Teck, this production of MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS was sparing with the stage properties and what there was of it seemed latently symbolic a round low bed strewn with dried red roses set in the centre on which Ellen and Chin would throw themselves (Chin would later gather the flowers in an angry heap as he packs up to leave Ellen and their marriage,) columns draped with gauzy material to one side, and similarly draped structures in the courtyard outside the theatre, where the fore of the room was cleared for the performance and its two doors left open throughout the show. The audience thus looked not only onto the players on stage, but onto the setting evening in the courtyard beyond, an interesting effect as Ellen and Chin played out their bittersweet relationship to its unhappy end.

Issues of setting and properties aside, it is very often the quality of acting that makes or breaks a play; MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS, more so than most, holds to this general rule. For while verbal wit and clever repartee abound, there are deeper currents of emotion under the veneer of levity Ellen and Chin, but especially the latter, assume. Tan Kheng Hua as Ellen did the character every justice - entirely convincing was her portrayal of the slightly embittered closet homosexual afraid of where her desires will take her, afraid of hurting her husband and yet unable to see that she could not have failed to, given that their relationship was predicated on the exclusive sacrifice of one partner's interests - Chin's - to the other. Having seen her play Ellen Toh (a role which she here reprises, having been in the original production,) it is difficult to imagine anyone else quite as able to fill out the heights and depths of this difficult character as she does here.

This brings us to the other linchpin of the play Jonathan Chin. Like Ellen Toh, Chin is a difficult character because although a man capable of great depth of feeling, he masks a great deal of this in inconsequential banter and in the various poses he strikes throughout the play. Mark Richmond managed to pull of this character with aplomb, even if he tended to sound a tad artificial (beyond the requirements of his role) in the occasional monotonic line ending. The only other reservation this reviewer has in an otherwise stellar performance on the part of the leads is their slightly flat final scene - Chin and Ellen accidentally bump into each other some time after their separation and for the former at least, the hurt is still there. The show is meant to end on an uneasy note as both attempt the old familiarity by launching into a song and dance routine only to stop, finding it "embarrassed, awkward, wrong"(stage directions, MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS.) This doesn't quite come through, however, and perhaps this production would have done better finishing off with the penultimate scene, Chin's departure from their home.

>>'Eleanor Wong's MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS is the sort of play every serious actor dreams of landing the lead for'


That said MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS left most of the audience eager for more. WILLS AND SECESSION, Wong's sequel to the first play, was staged one and a half hours later with Tan and Beatrice Chia once again in the roles of Ellen and Lesley, with the time now six years later. While MERGERS is about the relationship between Ellen and Chin, WILLS is very much a play about the family the ties and duties associated with it, and the complexities of emotion that arise when the older child/ elder sister of a conservative Christian family is married to someone else of the same sex. The plot: Ellen and Grace's mother has passed away and the latter inveigles Ellen - and by extension, Lesley - into coming back to Singapore to take care of their ailing father, who remains unseen throughout the play. But Lesley is herself dying of cancer and the play also focuses a great deal on the unlikely affection that grows up between her and Grace as the latter witnesses her last days with Ellen.

Indeed Ellen Toh here shares much of the limelight with her sister. One could even argue that WILLS AND SECESSION is really Grace's play, for the play charts her evolution from a woman deeply uneasy with her older sister's sexuality and spiritual apostasy to one who is able to accept and love both her sister and her partner for whom they are. More importantly, Grace is a highly nuanced character, not simply some pharisaic assistant pastor's wife parroting the party line, functioning as a crucial balance to Ellen's emotive rhetoric which sometimes borders on the casuistic.

The opening scene therefore came as a nasty shock when it quickly became obvious that Grace's role had been given to an excruciatingly bad actress, the Vietnamese Linh-Dan Pham. Not only was she incapable of speaking her lines properly (and really, having a foreign accent is no excuse for poor pronunciation and voice projection,) she spent most of her time on stage with her hands folded across her chest, or else shouting her lines with misplaced anger when what was called for was controlled, understated emotion - that is of course when she remembered her lines to say them, which was not always the case. It was all Tan could do as "the redoubtable Ellen Toh" to soldier gamely on during their exchanges, although even she had little hope of saving the play, brilliant an actress as she was. Chia, as the dying Lesley, wasn't spectacular either she seemed slightly ill at ease with the fact that her body belonged to a cancer-stricken lesbian, and although her awkward sexuality wasn't obvious in the first play, it became an apparent flaw in her rendition of Lesley's character here.

It also didn't help that some of the scenes were vaguely presented. In the first, for example, Ellen and Grace were meant to be clearing up their mother's personal effects. But the rose motif, so successfully employed in the first show, became simply laborious and obfuscated the plot when Ellen and Grace treated the flowers (now white) as old photographs or gifts to their mother. Furthermore, the direction for actors could have stood for improvement in scenes which only required two of the three women on stage. Instead Goh, who directed this play as well, had the women make brief and distracting excursions outside, where they would stroll round the courtyard or drape themselves on the structures (now metallic and hard, sans gauzy material). This reviewer was further distracted by lines of dripping water that would fall occasionally from the leaky ceiling on to an unfortunately placed stage prop that here doubled up as a chair as well as a bit of furniture for Tan's character to play around with. The choice of music too was bizarre at best, inappropriate and overly loud at worst, drowning out certain bits of conversation on occasion.

For a script as full of potential as WILLS AND SECESSION, and with as talented an actress as Tan in the role of Ellen Toh, this production proved a true miscarriage of justice. This night out on Fort Canning Hill had started with a bang; most lamentably, however, it ended with a sorry whimper.