Sex and the Invisible City
I Am Queen sold out all its seats a day before opening night. Not a huge surprise: sex sells, and The Theatre Practice had no qualms about marketing this show as a steamy exposé of Singapore as sin city in the '50s, tracing the tale of stripper Betty Yong (fictional, but obviously based on the legendary Rose Chan) as she writhes her way through the turbulent politics of the era.
But bad news, chums: this show just wasn't sexy. The strippers never flashed any real skin - instead, they sported dowdy flesh-coloured bodysuits under their bright skimpy outfits. They didn't pole-dance, either (as the poster image tantalisingly promised) - all we got to see were cutesy cha-cha steps interspersed with novelty acts, against an overused audio backdrop of the bouncy period song "Wo Yao Ni Di Ai" ("I Want Your Love").
What went wrong? We'd expected this to be a play centered on the cabaret culture of Beauty World, Gay World, Happy World and all those other disappeared dance hall-cum-amusement parks. Given that I Am Queen utterly failed to replicate the raucous atmosphere of this setting, shouldn't it get an automatic zero on our scale?
Nope. You see, as problematic as the presentation was, this show was about far more than the lives of dancing girls. Rather, it was about women: specifically, about women who lived in an age when they had nothing to trade for their livelihoods but their bodies.
Betty Yong was really less a character than a cultural survey; this idea was emphasised through the use of an interchangeable trio of actresses to play all female roles. Over a non-linear array of scenes, we traced the cabaret star's progress from orphan to child bride to beauty pageant contestant to dancer to kept woman to lover - and it didn't matter in the least that the story diverged suddenly into tales of forced prostitutes, artists' models and rape victims. Even when characters shifted bodies mid-scene and we couldn't be sure whose story belonged to whom, this simply reinforced the idea that we were observing womanhood oppressed; unable to truly express individuality.
Because of this dramatic strategy, the cast was able to portray the world of Chinese Singapore in the '50s with both breadth and intimacy: snooty art dealers and impotent towkays rubbed shoulders with gangsters and fugitive journalists; Greedy widows morphed into student anti-vice campaigners; policemen became toyboys in sequined pants. I really dug that sense of variety - rather than celebrating a heroine on a pedestal, playwrights Quah Sy Ren and Liu Xiaoyi had decided to create a history of the common man/woman, marking the intersections between the domestic and the political - which was, in the end, what the feminist movement was always about.
Certain episodes stood out. He Le Miao's consistently outstanding performance was epitomised in a a Cantonese monologue where she described Betty's youth and early marriage, shifting characters between her adult self and her hunchbacked old foster mother. I also adored a certain scene where a woman who has been kidnapped and thrust into prostitution encounters the man she once loved. Brutally emotional yet also restrained, this scene allowed both characters unexpected moments of dignity in the midst of shame.
Winning the audience vote, however, was the play within the play, a comic retelling of the fable of the yellow wolf and the clever farm girl, performed to hilarious effect by a troupe of innocently idealistic Chinese school students. Complete with drums, cymbals and absurd wolf-costumes, this was The Theatre Practice at its classic best.
I find I'm also a fan of one of the penultimate scenes of the play, where Koh Wan Ching played Betty at a moment where she had to choose between her career and her love: a moralistic schoolteacher who adored her but detested her profession. "I am what I am," she said to him, before deciding to leave in the middle of the night.
It's the very concept of this that I love. Earlier in the play, we'd seen the clash between the cabaret world and the rigid, moral, doctrinaire Singapore that would grow in influence over the next few decades. Here, however, the relationship was played out with affection: the teacher teasingly clasping Betty's legs as he helps her hang the laundry out to dry.
It's a portrait of a generation. As much as my Chinese-educated mother scorns sex workers and go-go girls, she's still nostalgic for the glitzy fun of the old amusement parks, where such bad women bred in abundance. It's impossible to be completely immune to the romance of those bygone times - and of the strong, independent women like Rose Chan who were actually able to survive and prosper in such a culture.
Mind you, the script of this play wasn't flawless. Betty Yong's character described herself as "queen of the dance world" so many times she sounded like a broken record. A few other critics found it unnecessarily wordy, burdened by the need to explain the historical context. (Personally, I thrive on that stuff, but I can see how it could slow things down for others.)
Director/set designer Wu Xi also gets a mixed grade for his set. Mostly, it was original and versatile: white panels, sliding lengthwise across the stage, behind which actresses may change costumes or characters, or personas may shift from one actress to another. Between scenes, these panels also doubled as projection screens, with old Chinese newspaper headlines flashed across them (an especially nice touch at the end, when we read of how when the PAP gained power in 1959 they cracked down on the various cultures of vice in which these women thrived). What was problematic was the appearance of a giant hollow paper penis, which the actors really couldn't find a good use for in the play. On the multiple occasions it made an appearance, one couldn't help but be distracted by such an extraneous prop.
In the end, after all, audiences in Singapore are already familiar with the raunchy and the explicit in drama - shows like 251, Cabaret, The Magic Fundoshi and the upcoming The Vagina Monologues celebrate unfettered sexuality with a degree of publicity and exposure that rivals the '50s. Once you've used sex as bait with your advertising, it's not only important to make good on the promise of sex - it's also vital to grab the opportunity to teach audiences something they don't know already, to enlighten, to redeem.
So yes, I Am Queen deserved a better staging, where audiences might once again experience the lively rush of a local cabaret performance. But more importantly, The Theatre Practice managed to communicate something of the conflict and crisis of the times - the battle of men and women over women's bodies, played out in a city that we've forgotten about too soon.
Disclosure: This play was featured in the Singapore Theatre Festival, in which the writer also had a play performed.
Quah Sy Ren and Liu Xiaoyi have put together a great script, not only
telling the story of '50s cabaret dancer Betty Yong (an obvious homage
to the real-life stripper Rose Chan), but also exploring the entire
sphere of Chinese womanhood in that era of Singapore. The women of the
play are interchangeably performed a trio of versatile actresses, metamorphosing
from rape victims to child brides to beauty pageant contestants, nude
photographers' models and forced prostitutes - a panoply of humanity,
bartered and sold based on the only thing the world wants from them:
their bodies. Notably, though, the playwrights tell their tales with
tenderness and respect, giving these women a sense of dignity and pride
that complicates the standard narrative of exploitation. I'm also impressed
by the set, allowing actors hide and vanish behind sliding panels that
double as projection screens. In fact, the only thing that seriousy
peeves me is the failure of the play to generate a sense of bawdy, noisy,
rambunctious bustle in its cabaret scenes - a big flaw, considering
that the show begins, ends and often revisits the cabaret.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /