>invitation to treat: mergers and accusations by w!ld rice

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 7 apr 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>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.


It's hard to believe that MERGERS AND ACCUSATIONS (M&A) was first staged nearly ten years ago in 1993. Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, girl meets girl, girl leaves boy, girl marries girl - it all sounds fairly innocuous now but, gosh, it must have been revolutionary ten years back.

Tan Kheng Hua reprises the role of straight talking, no-nonsense lesbian lawyer Ellen Toh in W!ld Rice's 2003 restaging of M&A, in which Ellen weds her male best friend, Jon (played by Tan's real life husband Lim Yu Beng), in a marriage of convenience. Of course things don't work out quite the way they planned, and it only gets worse when Ellen falls for her new colleague, Lesley (Claire Devine). Ellen must then decide what she really wants and whether she has the courage to demand it. M&A is Eleanor Wong's first instalment in what would become a trilogy of Ellen's legal sagas of love, family and belonging in Singapore. 'Wills & Secession' was staged soon after M&A in the 1990s and the third instalment, 'Jointly & Severably', was finished recently. And yes, Wong is a legal eagle, hence the titles… and the abundance of lawyer jokes in her plays.

As a stand-alone piece and the first instalment of the trilogy, M&A is an outstanding piece of work. Admittedly, it started shakily with dodgy lawyer jokes that didn't quite take off and stiff lines that seemed more verbal warm-up than real dialogue. However, this awkward transition into real dialogue seemed more an issue of stylistics than skill, and once you settled into Wong's unique groove of legal jargon and deadpan humour, the pleasure started sinking in.

>>'What places M&A firmly ahead of the two other instalments is its illumination of the universality of love, commitment and belonging'

Wong's strength lies in her perceptive insights into her characters' inner demons and the world around them and in her ability to bring all of this out without being didactic or obvious. All her characters are written with great finesse (especially Ellen) and she doesn't reduce them to mouthpieces or clichés, as many of our local playwrights tend to do. Coupled with her uncanny sense of the human heart, Wong's sharp writing has crafted some very memorably human characters. Indeed Wong is particularly good with the messy details of being human - Ellen is one of the most attractive confused individuals I've ever met (see, I even think she's real) and it is to Wong's credit that Ellen's sexual confusion feels wholly authentic rather than a necessary plot device.

But what places M&A firmly ahead of the two other instalments is its illumination of the universality of love, commitment and belonging. True, the situation - lesbian lawyer choosing between platonic husband and newfound lover - is specific but Wong has brought out the broader issues beautifully. The pressures to conform and to honour one's social duties and responsibilities are themes relevant to all, and you don't have to be lesbian to understand Ellen's painful negotiation between personal desire and social expectation. While probably a nod to more conservative social mores a decade ago, Ellen's marriage to Jon echoes contemporary notions of marrying a person, not a gender, making it (perhaps) unconsciously progressive.

Of course what would M&A be without Tan Kheng Hua's tour-de-force performance of Ellen? One would be hard pressed to state singularly why Tan's performance was as breathtaking as it was. It could be her understated ease in being Ellen without specially trying to be a lesbian; her melding of Ellen's steely determination and cowardly inertia in one conflicted glance; her delightful bochap swagger; her unapologetic Singaporean accent… as much as M&A is universal, Tan's Ellen brought out how local it is. If her hard nosed pragmatism hadn't made you proud already, then the mobile sets with two sturdy Justice Court pillars holding up the sky reminded you that it takes a Singaporean to see our city with clarity and honesty.

The impressive supporting cast of Claire Devine, Lim Yu Beng and Anne James - and Tan's natural rapport with them - made it clear that there are no small parts in M&A. Devine proved a steady tango partner to Tan as the "lesbian lawyer from London" Lesley, while Lim created a sympathetic and believable figure out of Jon, a guy who married his lesbian best friend just for children and didn't even cheat on the side. And Anne James proved that being a mother figure need not be dour and boring - a mischievous glint in her eyes made her brief scenes treats in themselves.

W!ld Rice has once again pulled off a stylish, provocative production without sacrificing substance for style or vice versa. Director Claire Wong's clear idea of M&A ensured less was more, synergising with (Eleanor) Wong's deft writing by ensuring that emotions were starkly raw and movements focused and unembellished. Even the set's rotating retro-chic orchid/pastel/cityscape print had a wallpaper (*) feel to it.

One review of M&A questioned Ellen's lack of eloquence on her preference for women and posited that this muted the overall production somewhat. From what I could see, the lady didn't have to shout, simply because in a sentence and a look, she could say it all.