But Is It Really A Play?
TNS leaves it to the audience
By Cyril Wong
At the beginning of the play, done as if in the form of an informal preamble, Haresh Sharma talks about how he wrote letters to the Inter-Religious Organisation, and commands Mok, Salim, Lyon, and Loy to read the replies to these letters from four different religious leaders. Each letter conveys the same message about peace and tolerance refracted through the ideological prism of each respective religion; a message that Sharma stresses again and again, here and also at the end of the play.
But is it really a play? This is one of many such questions that godeatgod teases the audience with. Notions of what a play consists of are taken apart, and put together again, but spliced with unexpected elements. For example, there are musical segments (Babes Conde the renowned Filipino songwriter wrote the music for three of the songs, with lyrics by Haresh Sharma), newscaster-parodies, dance-movements, stand-up comedy, MTV moments replete with videos of Hennedige staring into space on a wide screen above the actors, and also interjections by the playwright himself “before” and “after” the performance.
TNS has also always demonstrated a propensity not only for forcing fractured strains of narratives and thematic ideas to interconnect with each other on the same theatrical space, encouraging audiences to “draw their own lines by linking the dots” – an analogy used by Sharma himself during a radio interview – or to form their own narratives from the sub-narrative strains provided by the playwright. This does not work well all the time, but when it does, it is due to the kinetic rhythm and emotional pacing of the performances that move audiences enough to find their own meaning in the “play.” The element of surprise is usually what keeps the dramatic logic of godeatgod from becoming a soporific mess. The strong acting, particularly from Hennedige, and the comic relief from the two famed comediennes, also save the show.
One main gripe that can easily be made about the show is that it touches upon and moves away from topics quickly. This allows for criticisms of Singaporean concerns about censorship, Singlish, and homosexuality, which surface during the bitchy repartee between Mok and Salim, but they are not explored deeply enough. I would argue that the touch-and-go element of the play is like the impressionistic touches in a Monet painting; a vague dab of yellow on the canvas can evoke an almost tactile sense of sunlight bouncing off the surface of the painting. When Mok sings a limerick which rhymes Taliban and Tau Sa bun (red bean paste bun) in the same sentence, the same thing actually happens. Everyone in this post September 11th present will know what “Taliban” is and its related issues about religious intolerance and terrorism. But in godeatgod, such issues are touched upon lightly, and the audience is made to imagine the symbolic baggage which this word now carries, only to move on mentally to something as silly and inconsequential as a Tau Sa bun. In a similar way, the three stories are conveyed through a series of disconnected, but impressionistic moments.
The first story, for example, about a boy – played by a lovably gamine Loy – who is more than a little emotionally dependent on his older brother – Lyon in a rather colourless and unmemorable performance – is told in bits and pieces during the performance, interrupted frequently by moments of comedy provided by the banter between Mok and Salim, and also by another story about a woman – played by Hennedige in a controlled and moving performance – who has to come to grips with her husband’s death. A lot is left to the audience’s imagination to change the actors from one character to the next, as the costume changes are so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Also, emotions are conveyed not just through dialogue but also through body movement as expressed in dance, as when Loy and Hennedige walk in a low crouch, in straight lines across the stage. There is a particular funny, yet chilling moment, when Hennedige, who plays the character of the wife throughout the performance, breaks into such a dance-like movement after Lyon appears with a loudhailer to ask such questions as “Don’t you think that marriage as an institution is dead?” One could interpret this as how a common unquestioning complacency towards concepts of marriage or love as having fixed and stable meanings may collapse easily into madness if it is properly shaken by the realisation that such concepts are in fact unstable and have no absolute signification.
An intellectually complacent member of the audience more used to linear-narratives with straightforward plot turns and realistic dialogue in theatre may either react negatively to many of TNS’s plays, or simply be inspired to think of theatre in new and groundbreaking ways. A simple loudhailer can represent the voice of the unconscious or the subconscious, a voice from the past or the future. A miniature version of the stage is set up to the right of the stage, suggesting an infinite proliferation of meanings, or, in deconstructionist terms, a sempiternal iterability of the signifier. This idea is echoed further when Hennedige steps onto a table, which itself becomes a symbolic stage for her tragic confrontation with loss, a projected image of her profile multiplied to infinity in a spectrum of colours on the screen behind her head. A ticker-tape light-box to the left of the stage throws up philosophically-loaded questions that range from “If human beings are works-in-progress, than why do we feel betrayed when our loved ones change?” to “Why am I nothing?” In the story about the boy and his brother, the subconscious sexual underpinnings of the boy are played up symbolically when Lyon and Loy suddenly exchange a kiss on the lips, suggesting too that male homosexuality is driven by a longing for the masculine figure, whether in the form of a father, or an older brother. As I have tried to show, so much is left to the audience to decipher, even create, find meaningful, and, as a result, be moved and overwhelmed by.
What I particularly enjoy about TNS productions is the level of self-reflexivity – in terms of the awareness of the actors that they are actors watched by an impressionable audience – that the actors are allowed to convey, which provides for much of the double-edged humour in the performances. When Lyon is narrating a gruesome account about a man who has AIDS and wants to kill himself, Salim mocks him by making faces at Mok, and at the audience, whilst making fun of the seriousness of his speech. There is an awareness that when something grim and sober is said during the performance, audiences are thus expected to acknowledge it as such, but Salim implicitly makes fun of this expected response from anyone who happens to be listening to Lyon. The audience not only laughs at Salim’s antics, but we are also left ambivalent about how to react to the seriousness of Lyon’s account. It is this ambivalence which is the point. The presence of the miniature stage is itself an example of self-reflexivity: of a performance aware of its own performativeness. Nothing is absolute, or, in the terms of this “play,” absolutely sacred. If there are no absolutes, then it is only our reactions to this inconclusiveness which count and give meaning to our lives. This point is brought out in such moments as when Salim and Mok repeat word-for-word their conversation about changing the rules of censorship; a haunting echo which gives added significance to their talk about being pro-active and changing the rules, when this conversation was earlier received at the level of frivolous and funny dialogue, or mere bitchiness.
My only complaint about godeatgod was that there were moments within the performance which felt forced, or brought a sag to the otherwise engaging flow of its dramatic logic. The use of a single red light as a signifier for heart is a tad cheesy. But what was even cheesier was the point when Hennedige was shown on the wide screen reaching out to touch the air, causing it to ripple. This instantly brought to my mind those awful trailers for those tritely sentimental and melodramatic soap operas on TCS 8. There was probably a hint of mockery and satire at work at such moments, but the fact that this reviewer could hear audience members sniffling at this point meant only that the irony did not quite get across. A video-segment from a previous TNS production featuring Rodney Oliveiro and Nora Samosir felt pasted on and detracted from our ongoing sense of familiarity and attachment with the actors already present before us. Also, Hennedige’s exposition about her confrontation with grief is needlessly long. At best, her narration was touching for its little details, such as when she talked about her favourite shampoo and how much she liked its smell. Such details made her character seem more tangible and heartbreakingly familiar. At worst, the poignancy gradually lost its impact while she was going on and on about the nature of her grief.
In a nation built on enforced certainties through ideological apparatuses put in place by governmental agencies, it is through art that a healthy and constant questioning of any form of certainty may effectively take place. Rather than focusing on the immediate politics and social issues of a time-specific present, the questions raised in such TNS productions as untitled women number one and BOTE transcend what is merely contemporary; the largest questions they pose are broad and sweeping, whether they are about sexuality, power, religion, death, love etc. In godeatgod, the questions are about power and our dangerous capacity to use it against others for our own sake. In the end, all we have are questions: it is how we choose to face the unknowable which redeems us.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002