>close - in my face by the necessary stage

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 25 sep 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the marine parade community centre theatrette
>rating: ****1/2

>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.


The Necessary Stage's latest attempts to engage with the politics of culture and location have culminated in their most recent production, CLOSE - IN MY FACE. Directed by TNS's own Associate Artistic Director, Sean Tobin, CLOSE - IN MY FACE uncovers, uproots and exposes the Singaporean urban (read HDB) 'myth', and relocates it onto the stage of a theatrette located in the heart of an archetypal heartland district.

Not a conventional story and certainly not told in the conventional, holistic or coherent narrative form, CLOSE - IN MY FACE is a piece of devised drama that explores the readily identifiable issues of - as Tobin mentions in the programme - "closeness and closed-ness" in Singapore, these being conditions peculiar to a nation whose population density remains among the chart-toppers, and whose people live, relate and engage with each other in inescapably tight spaces.

Performed by an impressively mature cast who inhabited their multiple roles of archetypical heartlanders well, CLOSE was a "communal collage" and a "gallery of snapshots from the lives of many individuals and families" from the South-East CDC who contributed to its devised script. In what was superficially a playful production of fragmented narratives and cultural clichés, CLOSE sought to hold a mirror up to the conditions of everyday life in Singapore. Be the topics significant (social prejudice, inter-racial marriage, political apathy) or be they mundane (social grace, sharing spaces and places) the cast, which included such notables as Kumar and Andrew Seow, effectively and convincingly portrayed the distinctive Singaporean heartlander.

Although this production was a stage debut for some of the actors, it was an extraordinary ensemble. The cast worked well together on stage, resulting in a dramatic interaction between the characters that was forceful and believable. Playing stock characters often proves to be a demanding task because the shadow of clichés and truisms can overwhelm the actor. CLOSE's cast, however, found an equilibrium that balanced the familiarity of archetypes with the unique originality of their own characters. What was staged, then, was a self-conscious, humourous presentation of the familiar that both alleviated the anxieties and concealed the weightiness of the issues concerned.

>>'The production's seemingly cursory treatment of a multitude of social issues had a more than sufficient dosage of sense and acuity'

While most of the cast should be complimented for their professionalism, Serena Ho deserves special mention because, as Kumar notes in an out-of-character address to the audience, she stole the show with her dominating presence. Her ability to assume multiple roles - constantly switching from one to the other in a short span of time - demonstrated her remarkable adaptability and skill as an actor. Her performance, however, with its excessive screams and wails, was reminiscent of the mad-woman she portrayed in TNS's recent production, 'BOTE'.

Similarly, Seow's stage debut saw him re-playing in many ways the role of Gary Tay from television's 'Growing Up' series. Cast as a newly wed husband, Andrew and his wife, played by Faith Lew, represent the emerging young nomad middle class searching for a perfect home and a neighbourhood that is trouble-free. They soon learn that the utopian idyll does not exist.

Kumar played both (wo)man and beast in an all too familiar re-staging of his acts at the Boom-Boom Room. Be it a deliberate directorial decision or (dramatic) coincidence, Kumar depicted prejudice in the form of a crow who was seemingly the only creature that liked the land when other characters, such as Grace Tan - who was clearly representative of the modern young Singaporean seeking future and fortunes abroad - were weary of and disillusioned by it. Along with his other character, a woman seeking being and belonging in a new environment and community, the metaphor of (wo)man/beast became a powerful statement on displacement, estrangement and social segregation.

One can place many laurels on this unconventional yet compelling production, and its fluent sequences and provocative script evoked gems of afterthought that haunted one's conscience beneath the hilarity and laughter. In a particularly outstanding sequence, the actors metamorphosed into metaphors of clothing, with each actor portraying a piece of clothing made in a particular country. Hanging on a typical HDB bamboo stick, the clothes' squabbles became a commentary on the politics and social milieu of Singapore. Foreign talent, domestic and national policies, social conservatism, and fines and punishment were some of the topics that struck a chord with the audience.

The set was little to boast about, but in its simplicity it showed familiar icons of heartlander-living. The miniaturised flat with extremely close windows effectively depicted the closed-ness of HDB units. As one character mentioned, we live in boxes placed alongside, atop and below others. But if we were to cut through these boxes and peer beyond, we would see the people inside: their hurts, fears, joys and anxieties... Perhaps this is the irony of HDB-living: we live so close and yet remain closed, remote and alienated from each other.

Following the conventions of "unconventional" theatrical forms, other media elements were employed to augment the dramatic action on stage. Multimedia (read live video-feed), courtesy of TNS's resident director Jeff Chen, thankfully complimented the action without obscuring it. Although one often pondered on the sense and meaning of its use when scenes of common-sight HDB corridors and walkways were merely repeated and recycled, this 'inter-media' effect and the collusion of stage and screen proved somewhat effective to convey distance and mediation. With a camera fitted into what was a lift on stage, the live action was transferred to the screen when the doors closed. The congestion, claustrophobia and the unseen action of real-life drama in an HDB lift were projected on the screen. This strange union of media produced an experience that was at once remote yet recognisable, even if it was the conventional human drama that captured the hearts of the audience.

But it wasn't just feel-good fodder: the production's seemingly cursory treatment of a multitude of social issues had a more than sufficient dosage of sense and acuity. While the play's humour and wit meant that one could do little but laugh while watching it, one departed from the theatrette with the realisation that the issues dramatised were all too real and all too close to one's own context and condition. Its nameless characters, like Shakespeare's tragic heroes, were corporeal reflections of who we are in a place and context that defines what we are.