>UNDERCOVER by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 17 mar 2001
>time: 3pm
>venue: The Black Box, Fort Canning
>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.


Tan Tarn How's UNDERCOVER is ostensibly based on several clever conceits: an independently minded man wants to stage an unflattering play about the Internal Security Department of "an imaginary country"; only, as he observes, being allowed to stage it would actually make void such a critique as the play purports to make. In the event, of course, Tan's UNDERCOVER, itself a play about the workings of that mysterious organ of the government, was staged in The Black Box in 1994, hot on the heels of its iconoclastic sister, 'The Lady of Soul and the Ultimate 'S' Machine', which had escaped the censor's knife by the skin of her teeth under the then newly passed censorship laws.

But beneath the self-referential asides the play delights in making, UNDERCOVER is really a rather woolly piece as far as political plays go. The plot: an attractive new woman, Jane, has been sent to the Department which comprises of two Machiavellian male chauvinists, the Head and his Deputy. They set her to snare Qiang, the civic minded playwright, in a honey trap while at the same time plotting to get rid of the other. Qiang, a debonair Oxonian type, falls for it and is duly taken in for questioning. However, he quickly becomes the subject around which the Head and the Deputy play out their power struggle.

>>'UNDERCOVER, despite the occasional draggy didactism, is in fact a very witty script.'

This is when things get messy, for the play skirts the whole issue about Singapore's brand of political detention (one presumes because Tan is himself fortunately ignorant of what actually happens when playwrights get nabbed) and is instead content to entrammel itself in the petty politicking between the Head and his Deputy, as well as in the Qiang-Jane romance. So Qiang is roughed up a bit by an overenthusiastic Deputy but otherwise escapes unscathed and in fact, comes out rather well from the whole affair - Jane admits her affections for him to her superior and obtains his full blessings.

Admittedly, the play ends with the uneasy laughter of Jane and her Head, as if conscious that pat endings seldom feature in the rough and tumble of actual political life. As Qiang says of his play, "I want to make them laugh ... then when they are really enjoying themselves, they may suddenly realise that this is really not funny at all." The fact remains, however, that UNDERCOVER disappointingly fudges important political issues by its frequent excursions into sexism-in-the-office and the usual comments on bureaucracy and office politics.

Now how much of this is the fault of Tan's text and how much that of this particular production is another question; for UNDERCOVER, despite the occasional draggy didactism, is in fact a very witty script. It was all too apparent, however, that neither the direction nor the actors for the Head, the Deputy and Qiang were quite up to the level of sophistication that Tan's - much less putative Oxford/ Harvard graduates' - urbanity required. Lines such as "You appear to have confused fornication with subversion" were either swallowed up by poor diction, or sounded fake and put upon, as if the actors had simply learned their lines off without having organically absorbed their spirit.

In mitigation, the play was rehearsed all of three weeks and there is every intention of revising it for its next showing in April. Still, given the tightness of the timing, it was distinctly ill-advised to have further chosen to cast women in the roles of the Head and the Deputy - not only did their shrill giggling jar, their sexism was unconvincing because not fully understood, digested, or exploited.

So clever as UNDERCOVER may be, it does not here rise above the slap-dash, rough-around-the-edges feel of an amateur school play. Political fuzziness may be forgiven if you make the audience laugh. Unhappily, there wasn't very much of that today.