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National Language Class




Kenneth Kwok






Esplanade Theatre Studio



Talking 'bout A Revolution

Earlier spell#7 productions have sometimes been mood pieces so festooned with metaphors and symbols that engagement is obstructed. National Language Class, however, possesses greater clarity of purpose and meaning: from the way the play is so carefully mapped out and scaffolded, I feel, for the first time, that spell#7 actually wants me to understand what they are saying rather than just sense it. And what they have to say about the complexities and conflicts of language, especially in relation to politics and power, and in the specific context of multi-lingual Singapore, is, indeed, important and current. This is a landmark work that speaks honestly, incisively and powerfully about the Singapore experience - that the post-show discussion was facilitated by a Caucasian expatriate from Britain (playwright/director Paul Rae), a Chinese Malaysian (actress Yeo Yann Yann) and a Malay Singaporean (actor Noor Effendy Ibrahim) already says so much.

This is not to say that Class is theatrically simplistic or obvious by any means. Different artistic forms co-exist within the play; it is just that the different forms are always working together to illustrate and enlighten, deepening rather than confounding my understanding of the issues being explored. The first half of the play, for example, consists of the two actors enacting a Malay language lesson where the two actors take turns to be teachers and the audience are the students (although at different points they are joined in that role by one of the two actors). Yeo kicks Class off with improvised interaction as the audience streams in, describing herself as a student learning Malay. The context for this is an imagined scenario where Singapore has remained merged with Malaysia and so everyone in predominantly Chinese Singapore has to learn Malay. Effendy then enters as the play proper begins and, for the next 20 minutes or so, brings us through a Malay lesson where he speaks to us only in Malay and we learn basic words such as table and chair, how to introduce ourselves ("My name is ..."), etc over and over again. You giggle a little at first because you are taken so far out of your comfort zone as a theatre audience member that laughter is the only available response. Eventually, though, this is not a language I fully understand and while Effendy is truly a model teacher and instructs us perfectly through insistent gestures and references to objects around the stage, I feel a little frustrated because not only do I not know where this is going but really, I feel like I'm being thrown back to kindergarten.

However, what is interesting, I slowly realize, is that my experience of this first half of the play is very different from that of say, a Malay-speaking member of the audience who is, in fact, not learning the language and constructing meaning from Effendy's gestures in the same way I am but is only experiencing it as a theatrical exercise. Neither of us can do anything about this: I cannot close myself off from actually learning the language and only enjoy the moment as theatre any more than that Malay-speaking member of the audience can make herself hear Malay for the very first time again - such is the consuming and enduring power of language, both new and entrenched. When eventually Yeo takes over and repeats everything Effendy has taught but this time in Mandarin, it is my turn to feel on more stable ground and my Malay-speaking counterpart who may feel a little frustrated; but even then, her experience is not quite the same as mine because she has already seen the first scene and so will make sense of what Yeo is saying more quickly and more easily than when I was trying to do the same as Effendy spoke.

Then, of course, there is my Caucasian friend for whom both segments are perhaps equally confusing ...

Different members of the audience are experiencing the play in different ways and that richness - what it says about how language shapes the way we understand the world and feel about belonging to a particular community - is what provokes and excites. This scene makes me think, for example, about what it is like to truly be a minority not in terms of say, race but by language. Class reminds me that discrimination is not just about what you see but also about what you hear and say and we sometimes forget that. I think about how the Malay boy may feel when his Chinese teammates talk in Mandarin about basketball moves. I think about how the naturalized Caucasian lady is unable to understand a comedy in Singlish even as her fellow Singaporeans are laughing their heads off around her. There are whole ways that people are being cut off from one another that I, as an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese will never really quite understand emotionally even if I understand them rationally, having lived only in Singapore and countries like the United States. And that lack of communication, Rae seems to be saying, is so fundamental a problem that we may as well be going out be misunderstanding each other over basic things like furniture. How, then, does that make one feel about belonging to a nation or culture?

From there, we move into further misunderstandings as the two actors interact with each other more in the second half rather than with the audience. Effendy and Yeo take turns now to describe the imaginary classroom of students but each version is slightly different from the other. There are hints of conflict and tension but also of a budding romance between the two characters. Unification comes with the common (compromised and compromising?) language of English now being spoken by both the actors but this dynamic of tension and harmony, of separation and unity, builds and builds until finally, there is nowhere else it can go but the point of silence. In a grand theatrical moment, Effendy draws a curtain across the back of the stage to reveal a wall-sized drawing of a beach scene that both have described. Silence. We see that the painting has elements that both have talked about but also there is much that is not aligned with what either speaker has said. Language, it seems, cannot be trusted; language can be a tool to serve bigger goals - writer J.M. Coetzee says it well: we tend to trust pictures more than words "not because pictures cannot lie but because ... they are fixed, immutable. Whereas stories ... seem to change shape all the time." Neither actor speaks for about five minutes and we are left gazing in silence at the drawing. I think about how our culture and history is both represented and shaped by language (earlier in the play, Rae illustrates how when learning a new language, textbooks sometimes reference myths and traditions as if to tie you by language to a cultural heritage), how our sense not only of the world around us but also the one within us are both constructed from the words used to describe them, and how wonderful it is to sometimes be in a place of true quiet beyond words and people trying to tell you things, teach you things, persuade you of things. In particular, I think about what it says about us that we, as a nation, have four languages as National Languages: that we are embracing of diversity or that we are riddled with insecurity?

As I sit there, I am awed by questions that are not being spoken and stimulated by answers not given. The theme of language is infinitely complex (I am amused by the fact that my Inkpot colleague has recently left Break-ing Ji Po Ka Si Pe Cah by Pentas Theatre Collaboration Project, another play exploring the politics of language, with, like me, more questions than answers) and it is wise of Rae to have played lightly with only some of them rather than overload Class by trying to cover too much ground with too much stridency.

This is a wonderful place for the play to end but rather disappointingly, Rae brings Yeo back on the stage and for a curious five minutes, she systematically sweeps the bare stage clean. This unfortunately brings me back to the abstraction of earlier spell#7 works and I feel disconnected from the piece. During the talkback, someone points out that her sweeping action echoes the sound of the sea as depicted in the drawing. A friend suggests that the action symbolizes the clearing out of the classroom - there are no students. In fact, there were never any such students. This is a false memory or even a false hope (seeing as how the play was inspired by Chua Mia Tee's 1959 painting National Language Class in which the painter imagines just such a scenario: that Singapore would merge with Malaysia and endure as a single entity). It is all these things and more but the numbing repetition of the action and its sudden ponderability brings the play to a clumsy end. There is something purposefully vague about the scene, like it is hinting at something but is smugly holding back whereas what I like about the rest of Class is how, even without offering concrete answers, it says so much on so many different levels at the same time: a true teacher, I believe, invites the student to engage and share in learning and does not try to hide or obscure knowledge so that the student will remain at a distance from it.

In terms of the aesthetics of the play, there is much to praise, for example, in Rae's dynamic direction which keeps the play light on its feet. Despite it being a two-hander on what is essentially a bare stage, Rae uses the space well, allowing the way the actors interact with it and with one another to build tension and intimacy at different points in the play. Sometimes it seems they are stalking each other, the hulking Effendy and the wispy Yeo; at other times, it seems they are at play. I am also very impressed by Effendy's and Yeo's charismatic performances. Whether in the interactive moments with the audience or in the more scripted scenes, both are always confident and wholly in character. There is never a lost moment even in extended silence and both performances flow beautifully between light comedy and heavy drama and, though the play's origin is steeped so specifically in 1950s Singapore, across time and space as well to take on a universal quality: words are fluid so our identities, shaped by words, are similarly transient and always open to reinterpretation even within a set context.

Class is a vibrant, stimulating and invigorating work that is, for almost the entire length of its 75 minutes, deeply engaging. If it ever returns for yet another run - this is the play's third incarnation - you simply must not miss it.

(In fact, even if you have seen it this time around, watch the play again. The play has been very different in each run and, as Rae points out in the talkback, can also be different each night within the same run because of the interactive moments which can change the mood of the play and, therefore, the way the audience interprets and responds to the overall ideas generated by the play.)

"This is a landmark work that speaks honestly, incisively and powerfully about the Singapore experience - that the post-show discussion was facilitated by a Caucasian expatriate from Britain (playwright/director Paul Rae), a Chinese Malaysian (actress Yeo Yann Yann) and a Malay Singaporean (actor Noor Effendy Ibrahim) already says so much."


Playwright: Paul Rae with additional text by Kaylene Tan

Director: Paul Rae

Lights: Yeo Hon Beng

Costumes: Umi Kalthom

Production: Alvin Lim

Cast: Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Yeo Yann Yann

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Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.