Good People is a deceptively simple play. In many ways, together with last year's critically lauded Fundamentally Happy, it appears to mark a shift towards a back to basics approach for the Necessary Stage. BOTE, godeatgod and Revelations seemed to be more interested in the aesthetics of theatre, in pushing artistic boundaries and in exploring how evocation of mood could be used to investigate abstract themes like devastation, destruction and spirituality. Good People, however, is realist theatre focusing on a single story - that of terminally ill Radha (Sukania Venugopal) who has been warded to a hospice under the care of Nurse Yati (Siti Khalijah) and Medical Director Miguel (Rody Vera) - to comment on concrete social issues. Although there are comic touches, the play is not the camp fest of the company's Mardi Gras or Top Or Bottom but a relatively somber and low-key affair featuring a small ensemble cast.
At the same time, there are aspects of the play, both in its creative process and in the final product, that belie this simplistic description of Good People. For example, the three actors were cast early this year before a single line of the play had been written. They then worked with playwright Haresh Sharma on devising the script through improvisations which were informed by visits to a hospice and interviews with hospice personnel. After Sharma had crafted a working script, this was further redrafted over a few months based on feedback from the cast and director as well as a preview audience. As a result, the play appears before the audience fully formed. At 80 minutes, it is tight and focused with little fat.
The performances also ring true because the roles have been written not just with the actors in mind, but have actually been co-created by the actors. On a simple performance level, this means the roles play to the actors' strengths. The best example of this is probably Siti's nurse who seems to have an endless store of nasty little verbal jabs at hand: when Radha notes that there is a garden in the hospice, Yati replies cuttingly, "Got mosquitoes at night" and quips to Miguel, "They are already going to die and you want them to get dengue?" Siti has the perfect poker face to pull off such dry humour and executes each barb with perfect timing such that they never seem like a writer's device but a real part of an authentic character.
On a deeper level, it also means that the characters actually reflect the actors in a very fundamental way: the characters' races and religions mirror those of the actors playing the part (Miguel is Catholic and Filipino like Rody Vera, etc.). This adds to the realism of the play and, since the different characters are influenced by different religious beliefs, gives the play a natural context for presenting diverse opinions on the central issue of death. In addition, having different ethnicities represented in the creative team also allows the play some license in dealing with issues about race and religion, and the script takes the bull by the horns. Miguel laments, at one point, for example, how troublesome Muslims are for praying five times a day. These pointed comments to expose the hypocrisy and prejudices people still hold with regard to race and religion are not the main concern of the play but nonetheless help to give it its edge. Also, as an audience member, I am constantly reminded that the play would be very different with a different cast of actors. There is something very powerful about that: it is as if TNS has captured lightning in a bottle, as if the play exists as it is only for this specific moment that we, the audience, are privileged to share in.
The play is also not as linear as it may first appear. For one thing it cuts across time and there are, in fact, a couple of moments which are a surreal: there is an unexpected sing-a-long musical interlude about halfway through the play and an extended closing scene that, in its complete wordlessness and nearly absolute stillness, is a frozen image bursting with visual power. These, however, do not overwhelm the play. They add colour and texture rather than obscure and obstruct.
The play is also not realist in the traditional sense that we are given insight into every aspect of a character which determines his or her defining actions. Not afraid to have high expectations of the audience, the play is boldly ambiguous about some of the characters' motivations and actions and the characters do not always behave consistently as well. This, however, is actually more true to life. The script is, in fact, trying to capture the internal contradictions that all of us have: no one is entirely and always good or selfish, naïve or calculating. We are all six of one and half a dozen of the other and switch between the two depending on the situation and the mood we are in.
And that is at the heart of the play. I see the title "Good People" as being ironic: declaring someone as "good" is a reductive way to look at the world around us, as if we can all be divided into us and them, those who are on the path of righteousness and those who are not. The fact is that all of us have to make difficult decisions everyday and what is the ethical choice is actually more subjective than we may realise. Some may say that religion defines right or wrong; others, the legal system. The play, however, argues that both are sometimes too big and unwieldy to appreciate the nuances in life's dilemmas ("Illegal doesn't mean wrong, just illegal," says Radha). The play uses Radha's personal situation - what does it mean to sentence to death a woman with only a few months to live, especially if she actually welcomes that death? - as the crux of the play but I was actually more interested in how it was explored through the way Miguel has to deal with the bureaucracy of his job; his situation is less contrived than Radha's and therefore something easier to identify with and relate to. Miguel is mocked and even demonised by Yati and Radha because he is a jobsworth, always going by the book in carrying out his duties. He is seen by them to be pandering to his superiors in a bid to secure a promotion. In an impassioned outburst, however, Miguel pleads his case: that he compromises and strategizes so that he can perform a greater good - in this case his actions keep the hospice going so that it can continue to serve the poor people in the community. This is a reasonable argument, but Yati and Radha remain unconvinced. He is a good man in his own eyes but to the two women, he will always be "ambitious, anal-retentive" and, to the end, he is accused of detesting Radha simply because she is of a different religion. Whose judgment is correct?
Although Sharma is careful not to overload the play and does his best to administer a light touch to the various issues being explored in the play, inevitably, some sections are slightly too heavy with exposition. The actors, however, help to alleviate this problem with heartfelt and sensitive performances. I was particularly impressed by Siti who first came to my notice in How Did The Cat Get So Fat? This young actress has the skills of a character actor but the star quality of a lead: there is just something about her that commands your attention and excites you as an audience member. In fact, even more than the others, she brings her character vividly and effortlessly to life with all its complexity and shading. You are never quite sure what the young and temperamental Yati, still trying to find her place in the world and being alternately confused and inspired by Radha's choices, will do next, but Siti makes us believe in the character and want to accompany her on her journey. Yati is sullen, playful, lost, angry, scared... and Siti convinces us at every turn without striking a single false note.
Having said that, I do not mean to take veteran actors Vera and Sukania for granted either: both have striking stage presence and the steadiness and experience to deliver strong performances that bring out the full flavour of their characters. I would also be amiss if I did not mention the atmospheric soundscape and minimalist but striking set which complemented the action on stage and helped to make the play feel complete and whole. The drawing of bedside curtains as a means for transition was overused as the play progressed but, otherwise, everything came together nicely to create a clear direction and mood for the play.
I would not describe Good People as a fun way to spend an evening, by any means, but it is, without a doubt, a beautifully crafted play which will engage you on multiple levels: cognitively, emotionally and possibly even spiritually.
A longtime follower of TNS, I was not able to keep pace with the company's more experimental efforts in the early 2000s. However, with TNS' shift towards more realist theatre, TNS has definitely reconnected with this audience member. Good People is easily one of the most well-crafted pieces of theatre I've seen this year: it is a painfully honest exploration of a variety of important themes - what it means to be truly good or truly alive, for example - grounded in a clear narrative and rich characters but still retains TNS' edge and flair for the dramatic and unpredictable. The three characters - a medical administrator, a hospice nurse and her patient - do occasionally engage in a little too much exposition but, for the most part, they are engaging and carefully nuanced: playwright Haresh Sharma and the cast capture the little inconsistencies and conflicts people have within themselves and in their interactions with others and this makes the characters feel more real. What is most impressive is the way everything - the actors, the sets, the soundscape - complements each other to form a fully realised piece of work that, although only 80 minutes long, is funny, sad, poignant, intelligent and deeply thought-provoking.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /