By Alfian Sa’at
It would be parochial to insist that Singaporean theatre companies only produce plays by indigenous playwrights, but one cannot deny that there are stricter expectations exerted by a local audience sensitive to post-colonial nuances. Globalisation’s double-edged sword: offering greater access to material texts from other countries and yet at the same time, making it possible to evaluate the cultural authenticity of a play due to the audience’s exposure to the ‘foreign’.
When one talks about the foreign play, what is often referred to is its cultural distinctiveness, which can be a massive sum encompassing class, nationality, ethnicity, history, geography and language. Even if a theatre company produces a play that is written in Singapore’s very own lingua franca, English, there are still profound questions of inter-translatability that need to be unpacked. There are references to be footnoted, contexts to be explicated. Three strategies can be roughly outlined in the treatment of such ‘foreign’ texts.
The first is to assemble a cast that can stay faithful to the play’s requirements, summoning appropriate accents and attuned to its cultural backdrop. In many cases, where phenotypical equivalence is not possible (as in the case of Asian actors playing roles written for Caucasians), then suspension of disbelief is orchestrated through devices such as vocal technique and make-up and costume. The second is to substitute foreign references with local ones, often by locating analogous, if not homologous parameters, a process where particulars are modified to create familiarity with an audience, without undue violence to the play’s universal concerns. In certain extraordinary cases, serendipitous subtexts are unearthed. The difference between these two approaches lies in the privileging of one cultural premise over another; in the former, that of the text, and in the latter, that of its interpreters.
The third strategy involves de-emphasising the cultural context of the foreign play, ostensibly transcending the binary contestations between accuracy on one hand and accessibility on the other. The argument for this approach is that one is able to escape notions of cultural essentialisms. However, one is also equally vulnerable to various accusations: of being evasive, inattentive, naïve as well as non-committal.
Krishen Jit is no stranger to Singapore theatre. His recent resume includes directorial credits for Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill, Kuo Pao Kun’s No Parking On Odd Days/The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole (all by W!LD RICE theatre company) as well as Plunge! and Proof (both by Action Theatre). Proof swept the major categories in the DBS-Life! Theatre Awards in 2002 with nods for Best Play, Actress, Actor as well as Supporting Actress. Given such a clean sweep, the noticeable absences were Best Script (by American playwright David Auburn) and Krishen himself for best director. Both were disqualified from nominations by virtue of not being Singaporean. However, as much as it would be difficult to contest Auburn’s ‘foreign’-ness, one should also bear in mind that Krishen’s nationality is one that was borne out of a historical accident; ultimately both Singapore and Malaysia do share similar pre-colonial and colonial histories, as well as common cultural traits. One senses the tenuousness of such nationalist taxonomy when one considers how Krishen has been around much longer than independent, born-in-1965, post-colonial Singapore.
Krishen’s approach to the play Iron, also produced by Action Theatre, and written by Scottish playwright Rona Munro, appears to take the third tack. His choice of cast includes Karen Tan as Fay, Emma Yong as her daughter Josie, Remesh Panicker as the prison guard George and Serena Ho as another prison guard and single mother, Sheila. The play essentially revolves around a central mystery: why did Fay murder her husband 15 years ago, a crime made more opaque by the fact that she had declined to offer a proper testimony during the court proceedings? It begins with Josie trying to establish contact with her mother, and the audience is thrown into the world of the prison: bureaucratic protocol, guards delineating codes of behaviour, and body searches that terminate with an intrusive flashlight aimed into the mouth, as if the act might uncover not only contraband items but the state of one’s soul.
It is this women’s prison, its claustrophobia, its oppressive atmosphere of communal sweat and menses, that is successfully conjured by Cesey Lim’s set and Mac Chan’s lighting design. Consisting of a raked floor, a pair of chairs and a massive, slanting wall which also served as a screen for multimedia projections, the set was forbidding and clinical. It created an encased area where voices bounced off the walls, haunted by their own echoes, a chillingly bland backdrop against which each trace of emotion seemed oversaturated and overexposed by contrast.
Karen Tan, as Fay, delivered a wrenching performance as a woman so denuded by her life behind bars that she has become like the prison itself: walled-in, mistrustful, where each of her spasms and tics is an enactment of an anonymous wail in the middle of the night by a human being confronting her loss of freedom and dignity. With her cropped hair, darting eyes and bowed body, she first appeared like an animal, bewildered by any gesture of human affection. However, the realisation that she is a mother becomes a restorative act; through Fay, she reclaims her original identity before the court declared her a murderer.
Emma Yong was an ample match for Tan. Her fragile Josie first entered the space addled with doubt and self-consciousness. As the play progressed, she began to explore her own status not just as daughter but as someone privileged enough to exist beyond the prison walls. She became less sexually repressed, and followed her mother’s instructions to find a man for herself, in a sense acknowledging a prior emotional incarceration. Emma was particularly convincing in charting Josie’s transformation such that it did not come across as a clichéd, inevitable blossoming.
Remesh Panicker and Serena Ho, though, seemed less sure with their roles. Remesh’s George came across less like someone who offered earthy insights than a philosopher trapped in the body of a prison guard. Ho’s Sheila scowled and stared, delivering her lines with a standard sneer, ultimately undermining her role as a sympathetic counterpoint to Fay; namely as a woman from a similar class background, but on the other side of the law.
Krishen Jit’s direction was clean and effective, although there were some disconcerting moments when the play’s tense naturalism suddenly erupted into stylistic signatures, where for example, Fay would break out into a dance number. Much of these moments, it seemed, were attempts to overcome the limitations in the script.
It has to be said that although Munro’s script explored compelling territory, situating the tension between a daughter’s yearning for her past (Josie suffers from an inability to recollect childhood events) and a mother’s longing for a future (Fay starts to live vicariously through her daughter, encouraging her towards sexual adventures), it was essentially a talking heads play. Eschewing flashbacks, much of the action occurred in the prison’s visiting room, and the past was recounted through long monologues of reported speech. While economical in paring down the play’s characters to four, this was at the expense of establishing a more grounded milieu; the absence of other women prisoners threatened to reduce Fay’s character into a broad archetype. The end result was a structure as stifling as its setting, and even Krishen Jit’s directorial flourishes and Casey Lim’s multimedia projections (which included that of a drifting cloud as a motif) could not mitigate its asphyxiating form.
The ending, as anticlimactic as it might seem, was actually one of the higher points of the play. A Marxist feminist reading would explain Fay’s homicidal outburst as a direct response to years of patriarchal oppression, even if the latter did not manifest itself in physical violence. One can cite Fay’s frustration and disillusionment due to the premature termination of her potential by entering the marriage contract, gradually ossifying into the overdetermined roles of wife and mother. A psychoanalytic reading would identify her desperate act as a perverse gesture of resuscitating an irrecoverable passion. But Munro’s writing eludes these imposed readings: we are left with the image of a woman whose destiny is defined by a single action, and who was willing, and at the same time, resigned, to bear the consequences of that action.
And what are we to make of Action Theatre’s reading and production of the play? Krishen Jit’s work in recent Singapore theatre has showcased his ability to conduct theatrical experiments, such that they do not appear merely casual but necessary. He has a tremendous sensitivity to gender dynamics, as is evidenced by Ivan Heng’s Emily-in-drag and the inspired casting of Neo Swee Lin in Kuo Pao Kun’s monologues, in parts originally written for men. There is a deeply feminist sensibility in his treatment of the robust, complex female protagonists in Proof and Iron. For Iron though, by opting for a strategy that detaches the play from its cultural universe, the production gambled on the sheer ability of its actors. While Yong found no problem slipping under the skin of the largely middle-class Josie, and Tan found a way to push Fay’s working class background into a blind spot, one senses that mention of, for example, ‘fish and chips’, as well as certain code-switches (‘So I says’, Fay intones at one point) would have resonated differently with another audience. The ‘iron’ in the play’s title could refer both to the element present in the composition of prison bars as well as that of haemoglobin. Action Theatre’s Iron, though not exactly rusty, would strike the demanding audience member as being curiously bloodless.
First Published: 24.12.2003 on Kakiseni