Broken Dreams, from Top to Bottom
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream
By Richard Lord
As Shakespeare’s Prospero keenly noted, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” Dreams are indeed an integral part of the human being, the force that drives us beyond the quotidian into the sublime - or into destruction. Without dreams, we die - in spirit, if not always in body. But dreams can also kill us, both physically and spiritually. Two of the more absorbing productions of the last quarter deftly explored different facets of this sad truth.
Back in July, Wild Rice Productions mounted a strong revival of Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin’s Ang Tau Mui, a day in the life of a woman whose job involves cleaning public toilets. What makes this day so special for our heroine Ang Tau Mui (Cantonese for “red bean girl”) is that it also happens to be the last day of her life.
One of ten children born into a poor working-class Malacca family, Ang Tau Mui (we never even get to know what her real name is) has been guided through what might have been a stultifyingly mundane life by a whirl of dreams nurtured since childhood. At that time, Mui’s dreams were harnessed to a superstar of Hong Kong films, Lin Dai. The young fan writes numerous letters to this celluloid idol, confiding her innermost thoughts, and looking to Lin for inspiration in her own humble life.
Yet, all the while, Ang Tau Mui herself has a lyrical spark revealed not only in the childish bursts filling these letters to Lin Dai, but in sensitive perceptions of her own immediate world. For instance, early on, she draws up a poetic memory of her blacksmith father working at the anvil, framed in flying sparks. Later, caught in the swell of various rest room odors, from urine to air fresheners, our heroine recalls the “The sweetest smell on earth was the smell of my mother as I lay on her lap.”
These childhood memories provide Ang Tau Mui’s most vibrant joys. Tellingly, her ID card still contains the photo from when she was 12, which is also where the play opens. In contrast, her adulthood has become a chronicle of dreams that never came true, interspersed with bouts of manic shopping. But there is nothing at all redemptive in these dreams she’s bought into as she enters middle age - only a deepened craving to purchase yet more.
What results from all this activity and flights of reverie is the tragedy of one small but special person. This tragedy is composed equally of the world’s recalcitrance at satisfying her dreams and her own chase after material things that she either can’t afford and/or can’t begin to buy her happiness.
Dramatist Leow Puay Tin presents this poignant tale in an inventive way, which finally seems to be the only way possible to tell it. The play’s structure suggests a mind-mapping of a soul forced to the extreme, steadily emptied of everything it holds dear. At one point, early in the piece, Ang Tau Mui feels herself “growing older by the second, decaying.” As the play progresses we begin to realise how this apparently trite statement can be true, and eventually we even begin to feel its truth.
Though Ang Tau Mui is a simple woman, there is a great deal of complexity to the role - all well explored in the Wild Rice production. Although it can clearly be played in a number of ways, local celeb Selena Tan handled the part in a way suggesting she had acquired some kind of franchise on the role. Using her moon-shaped face and dexterous full figure to full advantage, Tan commanded the stage in a triumphant solo turn, whether swabbing the stage floor vigorously as Ang Tau Mui performs her toilet lady duties or staring fixated into space as a dream hauls her out of the wet, stinking cell of her job.
At times, Tan’s face folded inwards to a smile that seemed to dredge up the pure joy of her best childhood moments. At other times, the face froze, suggesting an animal caught in a car’s headlights - though here it was more being caught in the confusing kaleidoscopic glitter of contemporary KL. Charged by such skills, when Tan delivered the line “I’m a modern woman, then why aren’t I happy,” the question became heart-rending, reflecting the betrayal of the manufactured dreams our society foists on so many of us.
In short, Selena Tan paired her rich theatricality with that of director Ivan Heng to bring needed texture to a script which, being a monologue from a simple life, does threaten to become somewhat static from time to time.
Heng, of course, worked in a number of his own theatrical flourishes to make sure this rendition would not succumb to stasis. For instance, to demarcate Ang Tau Mui’s current stunted existence, Heng had Tan run around the stage in circles: twice counter-clockwise, once clockwise. This pattern attests to the rather obvious fact that the woman’s unanchored life now consists of running around in circles. But more tellingly, it also suggests that she is running against time - although time finally catches up to her, forcing her into its own exacting rhythms. Thus the woman-child who feels herself “growing older by the second, decaying” falls into step with the inextricable demands of time and age.
Heng also employed some interesting video projections (created by Casey Lim) and, even more profitably, live musical accompaniment on the urhu, the traditional Chinese string instrument. Many of the bits musician Jason Ang played in this production were themselves original compositions, and they served the action well. Honoured as “the most human of instruments”, here the urhu also produced unmelodic plangent tones and sounds of dogs barking. However, Ang also used this quintessential Asian instrument to turn out haunting renditions of Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring” and the Edith Piaf standard “La Vie en Rose”. (The latter played as Ang Tau Mui told an amusement park story, which itself ends on a sad note.) The effect brought in by the Bach and Piaf pieces was an irony of peculiar depth: there is much joy and rosiness in the life of this person, even if it has become corroded and corrupted over the years.
There was one other very important musical element employed in this show, a Chinese song entitled “Dream”, closely associated with the Hong Kong screen star Lin Dai. Ang Tau Mui early on recites a line from this song by her childhood idol: “When you wake from dreaming, your moment of life is over.” The line is recited again at the end of the play. Lin Dai, we learn in the narrative, committed suicide as middle age began to envelop her, when she apparently felt her moment of life was, indeed, over. Years later, we see her young fan pushed into middle age herself, roughly woken from her bundle of precious, protective dreams. For Ang Tau Mui, too, contemplating the full depth of this line, the moment of life is now over.
The other major production, which dealt cogently with this theme of broken dreams, was Comrade Mayor, Russell Heng’s third produced play. For Heng, also author of the previously banned works Lest The Demons Get To Me and Half-Century, the third time has the charm: Comrade Mayor is not only the most theatrical piece he’s ever had mounted, it’s also the most entertaining. In this work, Heng, ably assisted by director Tan Boon Hui, shows a gift for humor, stagecraft and sheer entertainment that he had never before demonstrated to such a degree.
Set in a fictional Asian country which still pays lip service to being a socialist state, Comrade Mayor is a political satire that sketches the face of a newly vibrant Asia in the emerging 21st century. The titular character happens to be the mayor of a major city in this workers’ paradise lost. Leading a life of sybaritic luxury and sleeping with a roster of women while he stifles all dissent, abuses his power and - to make it all worse - tells rancid jokes, Mr Mayor is a one-man exemplar of political corruption. As he arrogantly strides through the ruins of this shattered socialist dream, the man gleefully poisons almost everything and everyone he brushes against.
Now the notion that nominally socialist societies are rife with corruption and fueled by hypocrisy is hardly late-breaking news. Unfortunately, Russell Heng offers few new insights into this matter. Thus, Comrade Mayor comes up a little limp as political satire. Nonetheless, the stagecraft Heng and director Tan employed kept us engaged all the way through in the Mayor’s march to perfidy.
In forging this saga, Heng and Tan utilized a number of mildly clever devices, which step up its piquancy. Most strikingly, men perform all the roles, including the central female roles. The piece also devises a series of grouped figures (usually sextets) gathered far upstage, who function as a comic Greek chorus, both wryly commenting on the action and moving it along with an impetus of their own. Here, these choruses proved especially good at delivering commentary via body language.
Again, there’s nothing very original about either of these devises, but as they are used so efficiently and intelligently in Comrade Mayor, they enhance the overall appeal of the piece. Sadly, some of the other devices Heng and Tan Boon Hui bring in are nowhere near as effective, such as presenting the state’s high court judges as congenital idiots. And the set-up for a double-bind legal decision against a Singapore journalist - which plays a major role in plot development - could certainly have been a little less convenient.
But these are small failings; more essential weaknesses exist. Engaging all the way through, Comrade Mayor still remains a minor work for two main reasons. First, there’s that already mentioned dearth of new insights which renders it rather stale as political satire. Second, there are no absolutely compelling characters, other than the mayor himself, and a number even come close to caricature. Of course, borderline caricatures are the building blocks of satires. But still, a certain greater degree of depth or breadth would have made the sting of the play’s acid more effective.
More importantly, the mayor has been given no adequate foil to give us a clear dramatic conflict. Sadly, the Singaporean ambassador is just too tentative, too pinched and reflective to provide this scoundrel the moral adversary he deserves.
This is not to blame the cast in any way for the lack of character depth. On the contrary, this TheatreWorks production benefited richly from its strong ensemble acting. At the center were Harris Zaidi as Hizzoner the Mayor himself and Brendan Fernandez as the female Singapore ambassador, a long-time amorous prey for the mayor. Zaidi played the mayor as the consummate conman, walking on poisoned air and searing with smiles and laughs dangerously fueled with undeniable surface charm.
Fernandez played Ms Ambassador with a wounded restraint, pulled back into an antechamber of ethical conflict. Fernandez did call on certain mannerisms, such as stoic lip-clenching, a little too often, but ultimately presented a sympathetic character who amply demonstrated the limits of basic decency when paired up against unapologetic corruption.
Other strong performances were turned in by Rodney Oliveiro as the Singapore ambassador’s brother, a journalist who inconveniently gets himself indicted for libel of the mayor, a major offense in this land; Garret Hoo, especially in his repeated turns as spiritual advisor to the mayor; David Leong in a string of roles; and Gani Abdul Karim, who played, amongst other parts, a female Australian journalist almost as conniving as the Mayor himself. At points, Karim flubbed lines and occasionally went further over the top than served this play well. But when he was on, Karim’s journalist contributed richly to the delicious dark humour that infused this work throughout.
The play ends with what would seem to be a contrived happy ending, but this close was just another of Russell Heng’s clever moves in Comrade Mayor. The sweetness here is cloying, redolent of the corruption seen throughout this play. This is a chilling revelation. Comrade Mayor shows us both how dreams can ruin us when they are betrayed - and sometimes even more so when they are realised.
N.B: I feel it my duty to mention here the professional association I’ve had with one of the actors covered in this critique. Just after I reviewed Comrade Mayor, but before I buffed up the final version, Rodney Oliveiro appeared in a one-act play I wrote and directed. It is my honest feeling that my association with Mr Oliveiro had no bearing on what I wrote above about his performance, but believe it my duty to mention this association so as to dispel any charges that I was biased or wished to cover up the connection.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003