Of Good Citizens and Nasty Masters
Politics and corruption then and now
By Richard Lord
Dick Lee, one of the judges of Singapore’s edition of the TV Idol franchise, is himself something of a Singapore icon. Known primarily for his musical skills (obviously one reason for his inclusion on the judges’ panel for the Idol show), Lee has written musicals as well as a hefty pile of successful songs. And now, Mr Lee has branched off into non-musical drama.
QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005
Lee’s first straight drama effort is also the initial effort by Singapore Rep’s new Stage Two division, whose self-ordained mandate is to develop and stage original Singaporean plays. But Lee, who is nothing if not an inveterate crowd-pleaser, has here cooked up a nice bit of popular fare, impressive enough as a first effort, with sprinkles of bitters strewn about.
The play opens with a slick audience-catching device: Nominated MP Cynthia Han enters from the back of the theatre to respectful applause (from us, though prompted by her staff). Mounting the stage, taking her place before the curtain, Cynthia delivers a feel-good speech praising Singapore for its impressive achievements. (Including a quote from our very recent PM Goh Chok Tong about culture and commerce here in the Lion City being “seamlessly melded”.) But midway through the speech, the NMP is interrupted with some disturbing news, forcing her to cut the homily short.
Lights down, curtain up, quick cut to the living room of Cynthia’s home. We discover straightaway (though in an eminently credible, not expository way) that the news whispered to Cynthia involved the unforeseen demise of her industrialist husband. Now, post-funeral services, we are back at her home as Cynthia begins to put the pieces of her life back together with the same gruff determinism that it would seem she has lived most of her life.
At first, this hardly seems a very daunting task. After all, Cynthia’s spouse was the owner of a fairly large and successful construction company. (Cynthia herself is a trained architect, so the firm’s business is pretty much within this resourceful lady’s field.) But Madam Han soon discovers that there are quite a few sharp pieces in her slightly shattered life, some of them pointed right at the jugular of her hitherto spotless reputation.
When the impending scandal - of which she herself is largely innocent - breaks, Cynthia instinctively proclaims, “I’ve let my government down.” Ahh, but she will soon discover who is letting whom down. In the meantime, we have already guessed, and we just want to see how the chips will fly from there.
The structure and the dramatis personae of Good Citizen are very reminiscent of middle-period Ibsen (i.e., works such as A Doll’s House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People). The piece is well-constructed, though occasionally to the point of formulaic. It deals with serious dirt which has been covered up, but then gets swept back into the lives of the central characters. The information is brought in primarily via ‘messengers’ who are credible bearers of bad news in that they themselves are involved in the action, often the progenitors of that bad news. (In this case, close family friend and business partner Tony Pang is the main source of the calamitous news.)
Much to Dick Lee’s credit, he handles this form well, keeping almost everything fully credible. (Though a few bits, such as a gung-ho journalist’s turning the tables to accidentally catch Cynthia and Tony in a more-than-friendly embrace is too convenient. This particular one was all too convenient, as our young gotcha! journalist just happened to have a camera handy to snap the happy couple in their lip-lock.)
Lee (assisted by his able director, Christian Huber) also knows how to create moments which sharply define his characters. For instance, just as prodigal kid sister Jesse, on her return to Singapore, is about to give Cynthia a big hug, the latter moves off and coolly asks her sibling about her living arrangements. In this awkward situation, we learn about the shaky relationship between the two, Cynthia’s rigidity, and the way Cynthia turns to her organizational strengths to sidestep her emotional weaknesses.
With good bits like that, we did not need to hear Jesse say of her older sister that she “turned into an old lady the minute (she) had her first period”. A glancing blow that really is neither very clever nor witty. A better, more pointed barb comes when, on seeing her niece’s photo, Jesse asks, “Is that Cat? She looks just like me when I was a kid” and Cynthia comes back with her catty retort, a deadpan “Catherine’s slim.” Bop! That’s the way to show nasty in the theatre.
Another good moment in defining Cynthia occurs just after Cyn walks in on Jess and her new beau locked in an amorous clinch, and the lady NMP offers the young man “a nice Tiger beer… to cool you down.” The deadpan delivery was also spot on with this one.
Cynthia’s daughter Catherine also gets to contribute to our understanding of the eponymous Good Citizen when she admits that she prefers her aunt to her mother, who has the bad habit of being “perfect”. A short time later, Cynthia proves that she is, indeed, almost perfect for self-parody: Sister Jesse extols oral sex as fun, causing an outraged Cynthia to bark back, “Don’t you know that oral sex is a crime!” (For the record, oral sex in Singapore is only a crime when it is not employed as a preliminary to heterosexual genital intercourse. Though right now, the Parliament is weighing the possibility of decriminalising fellatio - presumably as long as participants take out their chewing gun before engaging in it.)
Meanwhile, Jesse’s character is nicely defined when one character refers to the younger sister by saying “The same old Jess” and Jesse quickly replies, “Not old!”
While there are a number of things to strongly admire in Good Citizen, the reason we cannot yet hail Dick Lee as a major new dramatist is that his characters do not quite have the depth or the human quirks of great characters. They are more than just types, certainly, but they lack the complexity that fully blown characters need. Each of these figures fits neatly into a category: rigid, uptight politician; aging hippie refusing to accept the fact of her age; manipulative, unscrupulous journalist; charming businessman who bends and breaks the rules whenever it suits him; rebellious teenager drawn to anything that bears the whiff of forbidden fruit; wise older woman willing to dispense wisdom whenever needed, though her advice is usually discarded. None of the above folks ever surprises us; even when we discover that Tony and Cynthia’s late husband were involved in illegal dealings, it’s a turn we were actually waiting for. More significantly, the emotional turns that Cynthia and her daughter take at the very end, when Cynthia’s whole world seems to have collapsed around her, are also predictable and fail to move us that much because of their sheer predictability.
The text is also from time to time weak on the details. For instance, Max’s paper is simply called ‘The Evening Paper”. If author Lee was reluctant to finger any particular local publication, he could at least have been more inventive in choosing a title. Further, wanton sister Jesse’s various escapades could have been gleaned by skimming through recent issues of local women’s magazines. There is nothing there that makes us sit up and connect with her more - or be thoroughly repulsed by her, if that were the intention.
I can imagine a troop of Singapore Idol contestants getting excited over the last two paragraphs, believing that now is when I deliver the coup de grace to one of their ex-tormentors. Sorry to disappoint these people. On balance, Good Citizen has to be judged a moderate success, one that should encourage Dick Lee to pursue his writing of straight drama further. But he has to learn from the shortcomings here and work even harder next time out.
And if he continues in a similar vein, Lee should hope that he always gets a director like Christian Huber to work with him. Huber is a director who respects a text, knows how to go into that text and draw out the strongest elements of character and line delivery. His work in Singapore has hitherto been clean, persuasive and honest.
However, Huber’s direction of Good Citizen, like Dick Lee’s script, could have been stronger. While he kept the traffic on stage clean and the pace as brisk as possible, there was nothing elevating in the direction and at times the action seemed a bit boxed in by the box set. There were also a number of small oversights such as the key moment towards the end, when Tony goes out of Cynthia’s and leaves his jacket behind. (Would such a dapper and tightly wrapped executive as Tony does this, even after taking that metaphorical punch in the stomach? I think not. That jacket was almost his second shadow.)
The acting in this production was mixed, though the mix was, thankfully, on the positive side. In her central role as Cynthia, Koh Chieng Mun was stiff and not always that comfortable with the mere act of placing herself on the stage; simple things like turning sometimes seemed a strain. Her physical awkwardness came out most clearly when Cynthia slapped her daughter in anger in a climactic scene towards the end: here, the slap looked weak, if not fake. However, Koh did show emotion well, as at the very end when she was throwing family photos into box for moving. Even the clenched emotions that sometimes threatened to choke Cynthia came off rather nicely.
The best acting came in the supporting roles, all of which were vital to the story. The very best was Zahim Albakri as the devious Tony Pang. Albakri inhabited the character beautifully, so that we in the audience were also taken in by this high-rent hypocite in the early going.
Albakri is also a splendid listener. Even when others were holding forth, if Tony was in the scene, he was a vital presence in that scene. You could almost feel, hear his brain scheming away as he looked at and listened to the other characters. More importantly, I still think this Tony was sincere at many moments, and that he believed he was basically a good man who just happened to take advantage of some fat opportunities to break the law and make some more money.
Another strong presence in all of her appearances was Amy Cheng as Jesse. She certainly had the perfect look for the role: quite attractive though obviously caught in the wrong age group sartorially, and just starting to show the force of gravity in reshaping our bodies as middle-age encroaches.
However, as solid as Amy Cheng was, she sometimes rushed over sure laugh lines. Telling her niece that “My heart was beating like I was on ecstasy. I mean - I was excited” came and went without a mere titter. In short, there are some more aspects to the role that Cheng did not quite exploit.
Good support was also lent by Loke Loo Pin as Aunt Bee, who was at least as dour-faced as Cynthia, though possessed of a much more generous spirit. Loke displayed splendid comic timing as Bee and a beautiful deadpan delivery. She was capable of following up Cynthia’s claim that she and Cat ’do fun things” by asking “Like what?” and getting a well-deserved laugh out of it. Moreover, she provided a firm emotional anchor to the extremes presented by Cynthia and Jesse.
Like mother, like daughter: Elizabeth Tan as Catherine also sometimes held her body awkwardly. She also relied too much on what she must see as the power of the pout. Okay, I know petulant teenagers often act just like that but there were missed opportunities to fill in some depth in this performance.
Brendon Fernandez carried off Max (the obtrusive journalist and Jesse’s young lover) about as well as he might have, considering that the role is the weakest in the play. Max was there mainly to advance the plot in certain directions, and Fernandez, while competent in all ways, never let us believe his character was any more than a plot device made flesh.
The set for this production was a real curiosity, particularly as the Singapore Rep is known for the high quality of its sets. This one, by Paul Tan, will not take its place among the Rep’s more memorable designs. The décor of the Han home was depressingly lower middle-brow, complete with appallingly amateurish paintings of Autumn trees. The set also contained two large plants at the back, a frame structure with vases, family photos, Chinese drapes and horse and a sprawl of books. (The books seem to have been chosen at random, as one very prominent volume is Tom, a biography of Tennessee Williams, who would certainly not have been a favourite of either NMP Han or her late husband. Of course, that text was a holdover from the SRT set for The Odd Couple, where it was an anachronism, having been published in the mid-90s. )
Elangovan does not have anywhere near the name recognition here that Dick Lee enjoys. But for those familiar with the man and his work, this jack of many theatrical trades is regarded as one of the more interesting, and controversial personalities in the local theatre scene. Many people have a good deal to say about him, but I doubt anyone has ever accused Elangovan of being boring.
Hs latest venture into the choppy waters of controversy was a play staged at the Substation in early August about the Sepoy mutiny that rocked Singapore almost 90 years ago. This show was produced under the aegis of Agni Kootthu (Theatre of Fire) and it certainly produced its own brand of fireworks.
The mutiny in question erupted in February 1915, just as the Great War back in Europe was getting rather ugly. With the greatest European conflagration up till that time to worry about back home, the last thing the British government wanted was an open rebellion in some far-flung reach of the Empire. (Particularly since a faction within the rebels’ camp sought assistance from Germany, Britain’s leading adversary in that “war to end all wars”.) Not surprisingly, this local uprising was put down brutally by Singapore’s British masters. (Just to show they were not out-and-out white racists, a little over a year later the British put down the Irish Easter uprising even more brutally.)
Twenty-two of the mutineers were executed at Outram Gaol, many others received life sentences at a prison colony, while the remaining rebels were sent off to face the hoped-for German allies in Africa. Not that the British emerged without their own roster of casualties: 33 British military personnel and 14 civilians died during the failed uprising.
Wild rumours flew about like pollen in hay fever season, and Elangovan provides us with some of the more outrageous. One even claimed that the German Kaiser (official sponsor of the Lutheran Church in imperial Germany) had converted to Islam and was supporting armed uprisings by his co-religionists everywhere in the British Empire. Some of the reports of British atrocities were also exaggerated to inflame emotions even more.
Elangovan tries to make all of this concrete in his play. In his author’s note, he asserts that “History is always written by the oppressor, and the natives’ viewpoint doesn’t exist.” The playwright-director is trying to right this injustice he sees, and he sets out with a very determined viewpoint that he defends with the vigorous means of his theatre. To this end, he mixes official reports, word-of-mouth testimony and “creative fiction” (his phrase) to make his case.
To get his tale told, the playwright-director cobbled together a wide range of principle players and witnesses. Some of them were pretty obvious choices: British military personnel, mutineers, collaborators, a Malay police constable, British colonials enjoying the fruits of others’ labours and their servants (including “back-door ladies” whose service was mainly at a horizontal plane). Other characters were more imaginative selections: a Japanese prostitute, a Chinese cook, a rickshaw coolie, and female lepers from the Bukit Timah lepers colony. Putting all these personages together, Elangovan came up with an interesting quilt-work of Singapore society at the time of the uprising.
Even though he has a given agenda to follow, Elangovan is fairly honest in his account, showing us that the mutiny was not quite a battle between angels and demons. Blood-thirsty extremists also existed on the side of the insurgents. At one point ion the play, an imam passes along a flyer which exhorts the recipients to kill Britons wherever they find them. In other words, those 14 British dead civilians were probably not a result of unintended collateral damage. (French and Russian civilians, being white, were also numbered amongst the wounded.)
Although political and social agendas are signature elements of Elangovan’s theatre, this committed writer-director is also deeply committed to theatre as a persuasive art form. Thus, 1915 never slumped into stodgy polemic or plodding academic analysis. Elangovan and his energetic cast worked hard to make the issues of 1915 Singapore come alive again on stage, albeit it on a frayed shoestring budget. As Elangovan has also worked as a cameraman, he brings a strong visual sense to his theatre projects, which, on the evidence presented here, serves them well.
The show actually engaged many of our senses, opening with evocative music and smoke that may have been incense. (My olfactory powers were not strong enough to pick up any clearly discernible scent.) The evocative music quickly segued into movie-action music, from there fading into the opening scene. As the action got underway, the cast was gathered into a huddle, breaking out into a line to start dishing out a tasty rojak of theatrical tricks and treats.
Elangovan clearly has a good feel for low-budget tricks, and his directorial bits helped keep many scenes theatrical that might otherwise have dragged. He incorporated masks, dance, incantations, and Theatre of Cruelty elements to keep the show’s energy pulsing throughout.
The show employed its masks effectively. Some of the masks used here sported the Union Jack, while the faces of several actors had Union Jack make-up, when called upon to play the British imperialists. Even though the masks were successful on their own, Elangovan the director showed further inventiveness in the use of these masks, playing them for added value. For instance, at one point a rich man of Pasir Panjang addressed a small group as the line walked away from him - but their masks were on backwards, suggesting a number of reactions to his address.
On the other hand, while the masks enhanced the show visually, they sometimes muffled the speech of the actors. A number of seemingly important lines or parts of lines got lost in transmission.
But Elangovan’s array of theatrical tricks extended far beyond the masks. Rickshaws were re-created by having one actor hold another actor’s legs. And some of the show’s strongest moments simply used the basics of dramatic presentation: One especially potent scene came in the Outram Gaol setting where dogs attacked the prisoners and the guards then added insult to injury by pissing on the poor wretches. Also, a good lighting effect - a man - presumably a client - walking in light-slatted patterns behind a concubine as she delivered a speech about her profession - enhanced the impact of her speech.
From time to time, theatricality did yield to the author’s making sure his message came through. Occasionally, a speech went on too long and slowed things down, or characters gave speeches that they probably would not have delivered in real life. But these moments were few and far between in a show that always kept in mind that this was a theatrical presentation and not a mere history lesson.
On the other side of that coin, some of the details were more theatrically effective than historically exact. For instance, at one point, during a hotel dance hall scene, the music played was “Cheek To Cheek” - an anachronism as Irving Berlin wrote that song twenty years after the action depicted here.
The 1915 cast was fairly good, and they certainly poured a good deal of energy into the project. However, the talents were not always broadly based: for instance, many of the cast members did not move deftly in the dance bits. For another, the German accents affected by two of the actors bore no resemblance whatsoever to what one could ever consider Germanised English. Indeed, the German lieutenant spoke Hindi. Not surprisingly, the short scene with these POW’s proved one of the weakest in the show.
But even with these occasional lapses and limitations, the ten-member cast turned a quite admirable job of bringing this tale to life. I would even venture to say they deserve a Life! Theatre Award nomination for ensemble playing, though unfortunately, they may not even come onto the radar screen of the selection committee.
That is a shame, and it was also a shame that more Singaporeans - and more expats - did not turn out to see this stimulating recreation of a dark chapter in the history of Singapore’s race and social relations.