Unequal Partnership

Are double bills the fashion nowadays? Directed by up-and-coming 20-year old director Goh Fung Shuan, Noise Performance House’s double bill Brothers. Beloved kicked off to a colourful and flamboyant start with Brothers. A coming-of-age tale of two orphan boys, not actually brothers, who leave their welfare home on a journey into the world, Brothers explores the complexities of friendship. Yan (Tan Kah Leong) and Qin (Goh Chuan Xuan) at first head off to nowhere in particular, guided only by the North Star and the abstract hope that they will at the end of the journey “see the light”. Whatever that is. It’s fifteen-year-old Yan’s bright idea really. As far as 12 year-old Qin is concerned, he is merely tagging along. Yet as they journey through dreamlike worlds where reality is obscured by a fine mist of fantasy, the boys undergo a complete reversal of roles: Yan wants to go home while Qin develops a psychotic obsession with the North Star. Dark undercurrents are hinted at beneath the veil of childish innocence the two orphans wear. Layers are built, walls of cynicism; but when peeled, vulnerability is exposed. The surface of their friendship are repeatedly cracked and cemented, cracked and cemented. Yet with all the emotional acrobatics going on, Brothers keeps its Dahl-ish veneer of childishness firmly on, grasping tightly at its core — the complex, beautiful comradeship between two individuals. Different, yet similar. Beautiful, yet sinister.

“What Brothers? More like Brokeback,” said someone in the Ladies’ during interval. Granted, the boys are prone to professing undying devotion to each other (a la “We’ll always be together, I will always be here for you”) and the conflicts they face stir up memories of my own which I would have preferred remain buried, yet I wouldn’t call the Yan/Qin connection Brokeback. In fact, I don’t think Brothers describes them suitably either. They are friends, students, teachers, brothers, guides. To give such a relationship a label would be an injustice. Why define it, give it a fixed identity, lock it in stone like a dead object when it is alive, it grows, it just is?

After sweeping the audiences off their feet in a tsunami of pathos, NPH decided to give our tear ducts and brains a break with Taiwanese teen soap opera Beloved. This is soooo bubblegum theatre and seriously, I would much rather go on an My MVP Valentine rerun marathon — I like this soppy serial, by the way — than sit through 90 minutes of just-another-teenage-love-story. At least My MVP Valentine has some pretty good basketball going on. Not to say that the audiences didn’t enjoy the juvenile jokes and bits of slapstick schoolyard humour. But with a hackneyed storyline (best friends go after same girl) and its school play presentation, I doubt Beloved could inspire the audience to contemplate the mysteries of friendship, which is what, according to Fung Shian, this double bill is supposed to be about anyway.

Overall, I would say that Beloved tried too hard NOT to be your average soppy teenage love story, but fails. Do watch out for the hilarious twist at the end though.

Having witnessed an amazing and thought-provoking portrayal of human emotions in all its shades in Brothers, I was hoping to see what the protagonists of Beloved, Jian Lun (the younger self played Ooi Shiong Yirk, the older by Sim Jian Lun) and Jia Yi (the younger by Ong Yoong Siong, the older Fong Weng Hong) had to offer. Torn between friendship and romance, the boys struggle with their mutual desire (Yue Qi, played by Venice Ang), the heartache of knowing your dream girl prefers your best friend, the guilt of having to stab your friend in the back… Jealousy, betrayal, awakening, reconciliation … The prospects were juicy indeed, and as predicted, these were all written into the play. Sadly, the prospects remained just that. One could see them struggling to break through, but weak script / direction / performance combo was too strong.

Beloved left too many questions unanswered. I couldn’t figure out Jian Lun’s motives for most things, including how he spurred on Jia Yi to go after the girl while taking a chance on her too, then later blames him for breaking up their friendship. His roguish oddball character was seriously underdeveloped. The only personal detail of Jian Lun’s I remember which was not connected to anything was that he learnt Taekwondo (and training for national-level tournaments isn’t as torturous as they make out in the play!). Stereotypically goody-goody Jia Yi seemed to be unnecessarily thrust into the spotlight (maybe that explains the apparently uncomfortable expression etched onto his face for the entire duration of the play) with a good part of the story taking place in HIS bedroom, with HIS mother doling out all the nice-grown-up-role-model advice thing, etc. I didn’t want to know the story behind the two-dimensional goody-two-shoes. I wanted to know what made bad-boy Jian Lun bad!

All in, it was a commendable effort for this group of young people (many of the cast were post-SPM ex-Drama Club students from SMJK Chung Ling Butterworth — my school for the past 6 years or so, so I was actually watching people I knew cavorting onstage again. Penang theatre scene so small. *sigh*). I do feel however that the teenaged characters in both plays are too idealised — they are rose-tinted versions of what adults would like teenagers to be than real teenagers themselves. Yan and Qin in Brothers are supposed to be 15 and 12 but acted like they are both in primary school. It would have been better were their ages not mentioned. Even the love triangle in Beloved seemed like one of those misunderstandings that rises from pre-pubescent puppy crush rather than an all out heart­-wrenching affair involving Upper Secondary students. Whatever happened to teen angst, eh?

Brothers. Beloved was first staged at Auditorium A, Komtar, Penang, Fri 9 – Sun 11 Jun 2006. It is staging again at Auditorium Taman Budaya, Alor Star, Kedah, on Fri 23 Jun 2006 (3pm & 8pm), as well as The Actors Studio Bangsar, on Sat 1 July (8pm) and Sun 2 July (3pm & 8pm).


J-Teoh is a teenaged dramatist living in Penang.

First Published: 17.06.2006 on Kakiseni

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