Tails of the City
I knew I
wanted to watch The Silence of the Kittens the moment I saw
the publicity for it. The whole issue of cat culling a few years ago
was something that had really upset me, especially when you consider
that I have two cats at home that I had taken in as strays. I was interested
to see how this topic would be explored as a play and was particularly
intrigued by references in the publicity that there would be satirical
and political undertones to the work.
The central narrative is of a young girl who wants to keep a cat she has found while her father, a Minister, is, ironically, advocating the culling of such stray animals. Fundamental to the play's success was its clever central conceit: the harsh culling of stray cats as a metaphor for how Singapore as a country lacks tolerance when dealing with any element of society that doesn't fit into our idealised vision for our country or which is considered improper, dirty or unclean. Playwright Ovidia Yu's choice of cats to represent the outsiders or "strays" of society works well because of the fierce independence and strong will both are associated with when romanticised. Her celebration of these qualities reminded me of the scene in the film Meet The Parents where Robert de Niro's character contrasts cats with dogs:
At the same time, Yu also tended to oversell her metaphors and in spelling everything out for the audience, she often blunted the otherwise sharp edge of her commentary. It was when she used a more subtle approach that I felt the script had more bite. One example was when she simply substituted specific words in comments made about homosexuality by MP candidates earlier in the year so that they now referred to stray cats instead. I do acknowledge that when targeting a mainstream audience as Kittens clearly did, you might lose your audience if your references are too obscure or your messages are hidden under too many layers. However, I still expected more deftness from an experienced playwright like Yu and felt she did not walk this fine line very well. Quite a few of the scenes came across as safe, obvious or didactic.
(In the programme, Yu professes to not wanting to write an overtly political play. I'm not sure if she is being ironic but, at any rate, her comparatively uninspired family drama was certainly not meaty enough to sustain the production on its own.)
Politics aside, the script was also often on dangerous ground when it attempted comedy because Yu was simply trying too hard to be funny. She peppered her script with too many low-level gags and so the humour came across as contrived. Many of the jokes – especially an extended skit in the beginning filled with puns about cats where, for example, an actress mimes herself driving a fancy car and says she's a "jaguar" - fell flat and there was often an uncomfortable silence as the audience kept silent even though they knew they were supposed to be laughing. Having said that, the play was not without its funny moments either. What worked well were the scenes where the cast were allowed to let themselves go and have fun: actors suddenly breaking out into flashy dance numbers or a deliciously surreal catfight between two warring neighbours.
In a nutshell, I did feel that there was a really strong script somewhere in there but that much more judicious editing was needed. If the role of the Singapore Theatre Festival is to showcase the finest Singaporean writing, then I must admit this falls quite some way short. However, if its aim is to provide a platform for new works to be staged so that they can be further explored and developed, then I would say that the script for Kittens is an arguably worthy selection for the promise that it shows.
In terms of the cast, I had mixed feelings too, though the overall impression was largely positive. All the actors were comfortable with one another and played their roles out nicely. I liked how Mohamed Fita Helmi managed to switch energy and mannerisms to take on a variety of different characters (son, MP candidate, delivery man, cat etc.) and felt that Esther Yap, although a little stiff in scenes where she was angry with her Minister husband, found success in scenes of sadness or hilarity or those which involved her lolling around as a cat. Timothy Nga also came across well and was a solid presence in the play, both because of his more prominent role as the Minister but also due to his cool confidence onstage. Unlike an otherwise likeable Alecia Kim Chua who had energy to spare but whose inexperience showed in places where I felt she came across a little over-rehearsed, Nga never felt the need to oversell his part. Still, I felt that director Aidli "Alin" Mosbit could have pushed the cast harder. They were certainly competent but I did not always feel as if they were totally in the moment and would have preferred more fire in their bellies to make this cat on a hot tin roof jump a little higher.
The set design stood out because it was so full of potential that was only partly realised. There was some interesting use of cages as a motif (the idea of cats - and people - being trapped) but this seemed half-hearted at best and never really pushed to its limits. Costuming was effective if not terribly imaginative: actors were generally dressed all in white, the colour of our leading political party. Against the backdrop of the behind-the-scenes family drama of a Minister, this served to emphasise the point that the political is, indeed, personal. One reading of the play is that the government is made up of Singaporeans and is therefore essentially a reflection of its people. To put it another way, we deserve the government we get.
If we chide the government for being too impersonal, arrogant or unaccommodating, for being too strict and cold towards the oppressed, we need to ask ourselves what our own attitude is towards difference and diversity in our society, for example, the plight of young single mothers or the disenfranchised gay community (to use examples also cited by Yu in the play). Do we chide the government for ignoring the plight of the lower class but then turn a blind eye to the homeless cat on the roadside or, indeed, the blind man selling packets of tissue paper?
On the whole, while I feel that the big ideas in Kittens were not always well-served, the play was not without its merits. I would certainly be interested to see it restaged even by the same team but with more confidence so that it would really go for the jugular. Let's hear the kitty roar!
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /