Since the '70s, women have played a vital role in the writing of Singapore theatre. Just think how much poorer our brief dramatic history would've been without the words of Stella Kon, Li Lienfung, Eleanor Wong, Ovidia Yu, Leow Puay Tin, Li Xie, Alin Mosbit, Selena Tan and Natalie Hennedige. These women have probed, played with and pushed our conceptions of local theatre, creating compelling and challenging works that break new ground, showing us a way forward.
So it's puzzling to me, first of all, that this year's Singapore Theatre Festival lineup should include so few women playwrights, and, second of all, why those few women playwrights should have created works so distressingly safe.
Yup, that's what I said: safe. Of the four plays presented at Blood Binds, three were naturalistic domestic dramas dealing with issues of family ties, generation gaps and the lives of the elderly, while the last resorted to the slightly clichéd feminist tactic of exploring the voices of mythological women. Nothing terribly ambitious or new this time; nothing earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting or sensational.
Perhaps this is okay. Not all drama has to run on sensationalism and high concept, after all: there are playwrights like Jean Tay who write beautifully and consistently without being purposefully deviant or experimental.
Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish the authors of Blood Binds had been a wee bit more ambitious, trying to pull off crazy scripts that'd never have been given a staging without the endorsement of the festival.
Let's have a look in depth. The first night begins with Dora Tan's Just Late (***1/2), arguably the best script of the lot. It's textbook in its craft of storytelling, systematically balancing wants against obstacles, concealing and revealing details about its characters and thus shifting about our sympathies like counters on a checkerboard.
The plot's pretty simple: a blind old man unwittingly allows two burglars into his house, mistaking them for his grandchildren whom he's expecting to arrive for his birthday party. First the male robber, then his girlfriend, begin to empathise with the old man, growing closer to him by degrees as he complains about his unfilial children - who of course never turn up to his self-cooked birthday party.
It's only at the end of the play that we discover the reason for this callous abuse, but along the way we're treated to a long-distance phone call, a suicide attempt and a very campy policeman investigating a blackout. True, the humour's more slapstick than sparkling, and the level of language is a bit off - would an old man in Singapore really complain that someone's lacking a "sensitivity chip"? - but the show never gets dull or stupid or tireseome. The focus is on the storytelling, and quite simply, it works.
What's ever-so-slightly problematic for me is the fact that this piece is being featured in a festival of new theatre, when it'd been staged before, just last year, with a low-key performance by Faithworks. It just proves my point: there are other opportunities to stage works like this. (No real complaints, though - this is a script that deserves more exposure.)
With this run, I thought acting and direction standards were pretty good, though never quite breathtaking. Sure, I'll grant that the pacing of obstacles preventing the robbers' departure was very well done - I remember in particular a magic moment when the male robber puts his hand out of a window, feeling the imaginary rain. And while I hadn't thought Jerry Hoh was remarkable during the show, I was pretty impressed when I discovered that in real life he was not an old blind man - his act was convincing without being impresario.
Next up is Ng Swee San's Bond-Age (**1/2), coming right after the intermission. Thematically, the pairing's perfect: here we also encounter themes of ageing and family, as we're introduced to a pair of old frenemies: the shakily diffident Agnes and the spunky, spiteful May, who convinces Agnes to bust her out of hospital.
In terms of quality, however, Bond-Age just can't cut the mustard. This is partially the playwright's fault: Ng's script never really progresses, ending after two long scenes with the two old ladies more exhausted from their snipings and hobblings around the hospital rather than actually having found emotional resolution - more like the beginning of a play than a full, finished work. The grudges between the characters also remain puzzlingly unclear - whose son did what and who betrayed or slept with whom in the ancient past?
But alas, what really kills the play is the acting. Loke Loo Pin is horribly micast as Agnes: her attempts to cower and appear nervous and defensive are halting and clumsy, totally robbing her character of any believability. Though a veteran actress, she stumbles over her words, unable to convey any sense of emotional tension, breakdown or outburst - her very presence ends up slowing down the play to a snail's pace.
Taking the role of May, Bridget Therese Lachicha fights back against this stultification: she plays the acerbic, imperious invalid with grace, charm and energy, shooting insults at her old companion even when wobbling on crutches or stuck in bed. Still, she can't save the show: a two-hander like this depends on both actresses pulling their weight.
There are moments, however, when the piece succeeds, especially when Ng's script describes the process of growing old with unexpected frankness. Her heroines battle with memory loss, the hassles of illegal medication and incontinence - there's even a painfully comedic scene where Agnes wets her panties while trying to use the disabled toilet. I was also intrigued by hints of Agnes having a sexual affair - but, like most of the script, this just wasn't developed enough.
On to the second night. There's a looser theme here, concerning the role of woman as progenitor. Tan Suet Lee's Sperm (**1/2) deals with this on a reproductive level: it tells the story of Margaret, a 43 year-old woman attempting to have a child by advertising for a sperm donor through the classifieds.
Tan's written the piece as a sitcom-esque, screwball comedy: we've got antics galore as Margaret's mother Rose returns early from her holiday abroad and stumbles upon the porn collection she's prepared for the donor, then more chuckles when the donor turns out to be a gay hairdresser believing his customer's been actually seeking not sperm, but "a perm", then a whole bunch of confessions and heartfelt hugs before a happy ending.
I didn't like it. As before, this could be blamed on the acting: Karen Lim was a whiny, two-dimensional Margaret, while Beatrice Chien's hearty portrayal of the old but vigorous Rose was spoiled when she kept flubbing her lines. Though things warmed up a bit in the second half, the energy wasn't really there for a good, tight performance.
The playwright doesn't get off scot-free, though. Her script may win points among virgin theatregoers with its easy laughs and overwrought moments of drama, but a jaded critic like me found it simplistic and heavy-handed. Why should we even need a discussion over a modern woman's right to reproductive choices? Why all this effort to portray Fabian the hairdresser as a gay role model, so exemplarily monogamous that his story inspires Rose to propose that he and Margaret make a baby together after all? This is a play that would've mattered in the repressed '90s, but in the swinging '00s, it feels irrelevant. It's amusing, but I just can't buy it.
I'm quite a fan of the last play of the set, however. Verena Tay's The Lunar Interviews (***1/2) goes beyond its tired premise of presenting voices of various goddesses of the moon and instead becomes an extended poetic essay on the relationship between women and language.
My favourite of the play's seven segments has to be the first, where the three actresses describe the difficult process of textual creation using the dense, visceral imagery of childbirth. I'm also appreciative of the stories of everyday women who talk too much or too little, sandwiching the stories of the goddesses, cementing the lot into a modulated whole that transcended expectations.
The goddess monologues themselves vary in quality. I wasn't wild about the tale of Hina, the housewife who escapes her scolding husband to become a Polynesian moon goddess, nor of the tales of the Roman goddess Diana, who defies tradition by remaining a virgin. Young actresses Renee Chua and Elizabeth Gott perform these roles decently, but with a certain blandness - these speeches aren't really exciting in any way.
Undoubtedly, the star of the show is Fanny Kee, who makes the most of her monologue as the Chinese moon goddess Chang-Er, giggling, simpering and dancing her way into our hearts. Tay does a good job rewriting this familiar character as a court lady thriving on gossip, selfish and occasionally bawdy - quite unlike, and yet not alien to the ethereal archetype we've seen so often on mooncake boxes.
The play's epilogue is a disappointment - the actresses offer up multiple interpretations of the moon in relatively prosaic language, concluding with the rather bathetic aphorism that the moon (and hence womanhood) is anything we want it to be. Still, I'm definitely impressed with the work as a whole: it's the first time in years of reading and watching Verena Tay's works that I've seen her tapping into such a wellspring of poetry for a script.
The sad thing is, I couldn't become completely absorbed by the performance because of its little kinks - the younger actresses aren't as well physically trained and coordinated as Kee, and the director had made some pretty iffy choices about set and prop design. The performers struggled to maneuver and control their huge, clunky, circular props, pathetically flapping around white strips of printed paper supposedly evocative of the intimacy of language. It's the perpetual hazard of trying something new in theatre: every tentative step runs the risk of looking absurd.
With its low profile and relatively modest ambitions, I'd definitely say that Blood Binds was the most honest of the ticketed events in this year's Festival. Unashamedly, it presented itself as a lab for developing writers rather than a ra-ra celebration of the best the local theatre scene has to offer - so I'm inclined to be forgiving of the flaws in these works, and fully prepared to see what the playwrights offer next.
And to be frank, our focus should be on what happens next, because these four short plays aren't going to leave an impact on our theatre scene. This shouldn't worry the feminists among us: besides these four authors, there are other emerging women playwrights, such as Cheryl Lee, Fezhah Maznan, Christine Sim, and of course Zizi Azah bte Abdul Majid, who've impressed us already with their first works and are bound to continue writing.
There is, after all, a wealth of drama to be gleaned from the female experience that male writers just can't reach. Blood Binds may not have changed Singapore theatre, but rest assured: Singapore women will.
First Impression (Bond-Age and Just Late)
In this doublebill, playwrights Dora Tan and Ng Swee San turn their gaze on the place of senior citizens in our society - neglected by their children, betrayed by their ageing bodies, yet still full of dignity and anger. Tan's play Just Late (***1/2) does this most successfully: we're drawn into the life of a blind old man as we witness two robbers burgling his home on his 70th birthday, alternately tickled by situational comedy and touched as we delve deeper and deeper into his sad biography. In fact, my only grievance with the play is that it's not very ambitious - it accomplishes beautifully what it sets out to do within the tiny, domestic limits of its scope.
By contrast, Ng's piece is more daring - "Bond-Age" (**1/2) offers an uncompromising look at ageing in its tale of two old women as one attempts to escape from a hospital. It's a delightfully frank affair, complete with sex, drugs, mysterious grudges and adult diapers. Unfortunately, the performance is dragged down by inconsistent acting and a lack of clear directionality in its second half, coming to an end rather suddenly without a satisfying resolution.
First Impression (Sperm and The Lunar Interviews)
Tan Suet Lee's Sperm (**1/2) doesn't really work for me. True, the story's very charming - a mother and her single, middle-aged daughter clash when the latter decides to get pregnant via DIY insemination, engendering a drama of merry mix-ups and explorations of the changing definition of the family. Still, neither the sitcom-esque comedy nor the more pointedly meaningful monologues are handled very well - the acting is stilted, lacking the requisite energy for a good, tight play.
Verena Tay's The Lunar Interviews (***1/2), on the other hand, is modulated, delicious and intense: using the recurring motifs of the moon and the goddesses thereof, the playwright describes a complex of relationships between women, language and power, drawing on a wellspring of poetry I've never seen before in her writing. A few clumsy moments pop up, stemming from inexperience in physical theatre and some extremely cumbersome props. But at the end of the day, I'm satisfied: this is a good piece of theatre.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /