Oh! What a Lovely War
Even before the controversy over the national newspaper's publishing a review of Own Time Own Target by a theatre critic who left before the end of the show, there was every chance that Target was going to endure in the national consciousness. In fact, W!ld Rice has already announced that it has plans to restage the play. The likely longevity of Target has less to do with quality than it does with the fact that there are surprisingly few local plays about national service or even military life in general. 1987's Army Daze, regurgitated onstage every few years and even adapted into a film in the mid-90s, seems to have been such a mainstream success as to be considered the last word on the topic. This is odd when one considers that Michael Chiang's play deals with national service in a very superficial way, only using it as a context for laughs based on the use of Singlish and the broadest of class and racial stereotypes.
For whatever reason, however, most local theatre companies seem to be wary of wrestling with the topic of the army. It seems to be the sacred cow that almost no one wants to lay a finger on except in passing and certainly not in the form of a sustained polemic (though Elangovan and Inkpot's own Ng Yi-Sheng spring to mind as exceptions). The three plays by new playwrights Laremy Lee and Julian Wong that compose Target clearly nurture greater ambitions than Daze - notably, they tackle the ludicrousness of the military command system and of the Singapore army's policy on gays in the military - but ultimately these ambitions remain swaddled under thick layers of outrageous humour designed to draw laughs from mass audiences. Target, then, is basically a naughtier Daze for the noughties and will similarly be remembered for its punchlines rather than for daring to grapple with the issues surrounding the military machine. Which is a shame, because these are pertinent issues in a country where every man has to serve at least two years in the army and in a world where wars are still being waged but somehow no longer make the headlines.
Of course, a reviewer should judge a show on its own terms rather than be disappointed because it did not exceed its reach. However, one cannot help having high hopes not only because of the dearth of serious-minded fare on this theme, but also because of programme notes which reference Beckett and Mamet along with a discussion on how Botak Boys' simply being a musical achieves "defamiliarization" and makes it a "joyous cry of insubordination" within a "milieu which stresses silent and frustrated acquiescence". And yet one suspects that this emperor is quite happy prancing around in his birthday suit - and this proves an entertaining spectacle in Full Tank (***1/2) and, to a lesser extent, in Botak Boys (**1/2).
In fact, it is when Target aims for the high-minded that it falls apart. The Beckett reference is clearly targeted at Lee's Radio Silence (*1/2) which is about two soldiers (Nelson Chia and Nick Shen) wandering lost in the jungle, unable to locate a sense of place and, by extension, a sense of self, as roads, relationships and memories of days past fold upon themselves. The two servicemen's isolation gives the playwright and director Jonathan Lim the opportunity to illustrate the ennui faced by soldiers who perpetually "rush to wait and wait to rush" as well as the failure of a military system that prides itself on running like a well-oiled machine when its operations are too complex and its structures too bureaucratic to achieve efficiency. However, these ideas are strangled by a Möbius strip of a narrative that goes round and round and says nothing: the play is boring rather than depictive of boredom.
Not surprisingly, the only bright sparks come in the form of cartoon comedy with three flashbacks where Hansel Tan, Hang Qian Chou and Dwayne Lau shamelessly caricature army training officers. These are on target where the rest of the play misfires. The set design by Ric Liu and Lim is striking - a large camouflage net spanning nearly the entire stage is propped up by actors who use poles to configure the net into various shapes throughout the course of the play - but it tends to distract from rather than complement the action.
Botak Boys is similarly let down when it tries to get too serious. This musical about a group of boys who have just enlisted into the army and are beginning their Basic Military Training (no resemblance to Daze here!) boasts some pleasant enough songs but these veer into the gratingly melodramatic when sung with bleeding-heart sincerity by the protagonist, Recruit Justin (Terence Tay), who is mawkishly pining after his long-distance boyfriend. These scenes are like something from a Disney cartoon; I half-expected a singing lobster to suddenly appear onstage. Much more effective are the frothy ensemble numbers which are knowingly flashy and fun - and nowhere is this more evident than in the anthemic 302. (302, of course, is the infamous category assigned to gay servicemen.) In this dream sequence, the closeted Justin's fears of being outed are flamboyantly presented onstage by muscular, shirtless Jonathan Lum, Platoon Commander Tan, whose plunging khaki neckline is trimmed with a feather boa, and Justin's army buddies bursting out of closets (or, in this case, lockers) like gay cuckoos.
Some may argue that the fairytale-like consequences of Justin's coming out to his bunkmates are contrived and may have preferred Wong to engage in a deeper exploration of the personal conflict and abject terror that gay soldiers often have to experience because of the army's culture of homophobia. However, while I agree that Recruit Yusuf's (Ghazali Muzakir) acceptance came rather too soon after he had expressed his misgivings based on his religion, I thought that the decision to avoid didacticism was necessary in light of the general tone of the piece. Again, it is a case of accepting that the play was going in a very specific direction with a very specific goal, namely, good-natured entertainment rather than political rhetoric or detailed character study.
I did feel that having too many characters - did we really need Justin to have five bunkmates? - made the play rather scrappy and spread its laughs too thinly, but I must also say that, of the three plays, the actors were certainly most well-cast in Boys. Without exception, all of the actors seemed at their most comfortable in this third play of the night, and their natural delight in their roles was appealing, with Tay, in particular, turning in a most endearing performance despite the cheesiness.
Radio Silence was confused and Botak Boys was uneven, but the first play of the night, Lee's Full Tank, about four army boys who go AWOL with a tank, was worth the price of admission all on its own. (In fact, I left the theatre after a back-aching, butt-numbing three-and-a-half hours wondering why W!ld Rice had not simply excised Radio Silence and given us a lean double-bill without the gristle.) True, Full Tank wasn't perfect: there was some very shoddy acting from Shen, Chia, Tay and Hang trying to ham it up with comedy moustaches as senior members of the Home Affairs and military services - and, yes, Shen was not at all convincing in his other role as the Minister of Internal Affairs, achieving neither the smugness nor the lasciviousness the role required. However, the script was genuinely witty and well-conceived, allowing Lee to make some pointed comments about politics, the media and what it means to serve your country, all without straying too far from the vein of likeable comedy the play was mining. I could have done without the by-now-already-tired Mas Selamat references though.
I was particularly impressed by how the play was painted onto such a broad canvas. It wasn't just that the four servicemen were representing different racial groups (and playing up to ethnic stereotypes less than in Daze) but also that Lee wove, for example, a wandering ah pek, a mouthy cashier and a sage-like petrol kiosk attendant into his tapestry. It gave this simple, intimate play a surprising sense of scale and this, for me, is what took Full Tank beyond its military trappings to become a "Singapore" play and not just an "army" one, especially when Lee was able to parody these characters in a way that felt authentic even as it made me laugh.
Full Tank was also bolstered by hilarious performances from Ghazali, Lum and Lau as the three bumbling servicemen and, most importantly, by a heartfelt turn from Tan as the tank commander who, like the soldiers in Radio Silence, was literally and figuratively lost. It is unclear exactly why Tan's character decides to hijack the tank in the first place but it is this wistful indistinctness that forms a surprisingly effective core around which the world of Full Tank is built. The young Tan has certainly come into his own after more tentative earlier performances in Never The Sinner and Happy Endings where his potential was only hinted at. Here, he is wholly believable as an army commander - he says the F-word with particular relish and aplomb - and proves able to rise to the occasion whether the role requires comic timing or dramatic weight.
Praise also goes to Lim. His vibrant turns in the Chestnuts series and fare such as The Magic Fundoshi prove he knows his way around outlandish comedies and here, he also handles a split stage well, keeps the pace breezy, and, as in Radio Silence, works well with Liu to design a set that is really rather innovative: he uses army jerry cans to form pieces of the set (such as the stolen tank) but these are constantly being reconfigured.
He also plays around in different ways with gender and sexuality which are constant refrains in the army's hyper-macho vocabulary of chio bus and ku niangs. At first, the joke is on the overtly heterosexual army boys who visit a bar and are entertained by sexy ladies of the night because the audience knows that the hostesses are actually being played by members of the all-male ensemble cast. The team of Shen, Chia, Tay and Hang are much funnier here but I felt the scene was vaguely homophobic in how it was using gay panic to give the scene a sharper comic edge. I therefore thought it was clever of Lim to then subvert this by having subsequent female roles played straight by the actors and not as men in drag. One example is the key role of reporter Tricia Teo who has to decide whether to enhance her career by only airing news reports favourable to the government. There is a point there to be made about how in media and politics as in theatre, everything is an act, an illusion created for an ulterior motive. However, I was more interested in how this subtler use of cross-dressing (some audience members could not tell that the female roles were played by men if their whispers were anything to go by) challenged the sexist and heterosexist culture, particularly of the army but also society in general. It was also a nice set-up for Botak Boys' Recruit Justin who struggles to fit into the army's restrictive labels of shoulds and should nots.
I caught six shows at the Singapore Theatre Festival and Target
falls somewhere in the middle, between the sublime Tree / House
and the traumatizing Apocalypse Live!. The festival promised
a lot but failed to deliver consistently, and its hype proved disproportionate
to the readiness of the scripts in most cases. I certainly admire W!ld
Rice for devoting resources to develop the next generation of Singapore
playwrights, as most of the festival writers are relatively new. I also
accept that part of the idea of the festival is to lure mainstream audiences
to local theatre and that the accessibility of Target's subject
matter, along with the Singapore Tourism Board sheen of The Swordfish,
then The Concubine and The
Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles have indeed produced brisk
ticket sales. However, I also can't help but wonder why more was not
done by W!ld Rice's festival team to sharpen the scripts before the
final staging (especially when they had Alfian Sa'at as a festival dramaturg).
It would not have taken much to polish say, Botak Boys, Raffles
so that they could have realised their full potential and really given
newcomers to the theatre something that would have truly thrilled and
astonished them - and us seasoned theatre goers too.
It’s hard to believe the first two plays of this triple-bill were written by the same person. Laremy Lee’s Full Tank about four army boys who go AWOL in a tank is extremely funny and even finds the space to squeeze in some smartly written social commentary (it’s also very well-directed by Jonathan Lim). His Radio Silence, on the other hand, is as lost as its two lead characters: it moves about onstage with little meaning or purpose and worst of all, is deathly dull. I suggest watching the first hour of Own Time Own Target, then sneaking off during the interval for an hour-long coffee break - and then bribing the usher to sneak you back into the theatre for the third piece, the musical Botak Boys by Julian Wong which is essentially Army Daze for the noughties. Boysis wildly inconsistent both in terms of quality and tone but is entertaining for the most part and the ridiculously flamboyant 302 musical number is easily the highlight of the evening. Own Time Own Target certainly isn’t golden throughout its three-and-a-half-hour running time but there are definitely plenty of laughs to be had and I generally enjoyed the versatile and indefatigable ensemble cast, being especially impressed by Hansel Tan and Terence Tay.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /