Amour or Less
Brave attempts at challenging plays have varying degrees of success
By Richard Lord
One of the most famous exchanges in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes in the scene where Nick Carraway and Gatsby are discussing Gatsby’s plan to relive his youthful affair with Daisy Buchanan: “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick cautions his friend. “Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby counters. “Of course you can.”
Of course, you can’t - and Gatsby’s obstinate attempts to do so eventually lead to his death. But that powerful theme of trying to repeat the past, and failing, continues to be a favourite amongst serious writers across many cultures. In fact, two of the most challenging works to run in Singapore theatres so far this year took up that theme recently, with varying levels of success.
One of these presentations came from World-in-Theatre, one of Singapore’s perennially braver theatre companies, which served up a French duet for its second show of the season. What was courageous about this choice is that the two works and their playwrights remain largely unknown in this corner of the world, though both of the authors are fairly well-known, even celebrated, in their native land. Further, neither of the plays was anywhere near a sure thing, an audience-pleasing piece that was sure to fill seats once word-of-mouth spread the news around. If anything, word-of-mouth on these plays was probably going to insure a lot of empty spaces in the Substation bleachers.
The first of these plays, by René de Obaldia, is a fluffy meringue with occasional dashes of Gallic bitters. The second, La Musica by Marguerite Duras, is more like classical French cuisine: quite heavy, filled with starches and fats.
The Obaldia piece, Two Woman for One Ghost, opened the evening. (Necessarily so; it would have been crushed by the weight of Duras’ La Musica had it come second.) This is a so-so effort that plays with the tangy possibilities inherent in a typical French scenario: what happens when a successful man with both a wife and a mistress dies and then the two women in his life meet up right after his death? And what if his spirit, newly departed, is still hovering about to witness this embarrassing meeting of the two women?
Sound familiar? Something along the lines of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit with the genders reversed? Yes, but the Coward comedy was so much better than this one: better plotted, with a few piquant subplots, packed with much more wit and light, deft touches - and yet it looked more deeply into relationships between men and women as well as between the women who share certain men.
Obaldia’s play is a pale exercise by comparison. The one interesting fillip Obaldia throws in is having the husband’s death occur while the ladies confront each other, totally unaware of his departure until later in the piece. The husband, a government official killed while driving to some important meeting, somehow manages to stumble back over to our half of the Great Divide only to find his mistress and his missus meeting and discussing him.
The poor guy cannot quite grasp what’s happening here. Meanwhile, the women carry on discussing their experiences with this fellow, who at times sounds like two different men. For instance, this pillar of the Establishment was a political reactionary with his wife, a leftist with his mistress. They even called him different names: the wife using the French ‘Pierre’, while the mistress knew him as ‘Petrov’. (Supposedly the Russian form of his baptised name, though the Russian version of ‘Pierre’ would actually be ‘Pyotr’.)
Is there anything new here? Unfortunately not. Okay, so men often act different with their lovers than with their wives. (Perhaps that is why they take on lovers after all: so they can act differently). Viviane even recalls that her deceased lover often had “to play a part”. This is revealing? The guy was a government official, often asked to kiss up to people he neither liked nor respected. If the author had pursued this notion any, it might have been a far more interesting play. Actually, this is a textbook example of fluff: short on insight, short on humour, weak on characterisation and unsure of where it actually wants to take us.
Although a drama taxonomist would most likely classify Women/Ghost as comedy, it comes up rather short on good laughs. An example of the play’s limp humour is this put-down of one of the ladies by the other: “Go on, go on, say whatever comes into your mind, no matter how silly it is. It makes me feel better.” To be fair, this play follows in the tradition of farce, relying more on comic situations than clever dialogue for its laughs. Sadly, Obaldia’s handling of the material does not set up too many good comic situations.
Nor did the production by World-in-Theatre bring out much comic potential hidden in the script. Or much tragedy. (The piece could have been played to emphasise this side of the situation as well.) In fact, the pacing was generally too slow for this type of play. While it did not call for the breakneck tempo of a standard French farce, it could have used a more energetic pace to avoid the longeurs this production often fell into.
There were also a number of questionable blocking decisions. For instance, Viviane, the mistress, makes her entrance from the side of the stands, even reciting her opening lines from there. This left Viviane totally invisible to much of the audience at this important point.
There was also some poor attention to detail. For instance, Brigitte commends the mistress on her fine ankles - yet the actress is wearing long pants and clunky shoes so those allegedly fine ankles are invisible to the naked eye.
Speaking of clunky, the translation used is frequently clunky in its own right. Obaldia apparently wrote in a sharp, witty French vernacular, but this gets quite lost in translation. This may be one explanation for the already mentioned dearth of laughs. French wit can be very dry and wry, and this is what may not have come through the translation grind.
In fact, the script WiT used was too British, diluting much of the play’s Gallic flavour. Why, for instance, should characters refer to the Underground rather than the Metro? (I think most sophisticated audiences would know the Metro is not simply a low-priced emporium but also the name of the Paris rail transport system.) There’s also a reference to Russian champagne, whereas any self-respecting pompous Frenchwoman would bite off her tongue before referring to any bubbly not from the Champagne region as such.
There was even one bit of Singlish spliced in, when the wife offered to “send you to the station”. In most of the English-speaking world, this would not be an act of courtesy, but curt dismissal. (“Take you’ to the station is the widely accepted form and would have fitted more comfortably in this European context.)
But it was the not only the cultural disconnections in this translation that grated. When he first appears on the scene in his ghostly form, Pierre appraises the situation with an awkwardly turned phrase: “And here are my two women at one fell swoop.” Also, speaking of a film director, one character points out, “Don’t forget, he used to come from Central Europe.” So where does he come from now?
This play definitely needed a very strong production to make it work, but that was not what we got here. And the main problem lay in the performances.
As Brigitte, the semi-grieving widow, Priya Arun rushed her lines in the early going. Then, upon her arrival, Celine Tan as the mistress worked to keep up with the tempo of the first actress. Later, Celine Tan was called upon to portray Viviane in a state of inebriation. Like so many actors in Singapore, Tan was not at all convincing as a drunk. She was the better of the ladies though, in that her character was more vivid, focused and credible. But the performance was not strong enough to add a solid centre to the piece.
The strongest of the three actors was probably Sonny Lim, who also directed. But even here, the performance fell short of what we’ve come to expect from Lim. At times, he seemed not quite convinced of what direction to take his character in. It is a hard role in that Pierre must be a strong presence even though he never really interacts with the other two characters. This time, Lim was just not strong enough a presence.
The cast also needed a little polishing on their French pronunciation. The Rue Camembert got pronounced in a way that is, well, not quite cheesy enough. ‘Fresenet’ came out as Fress-eh-net rather than Frez-eh-nay. The name ‘Alexandre’, as in Viviane’s son, was also off the Gallic mark. (However, the French pronunciation was nowhere as bad as what one hears almost daily on MediaCorp broadcasts.)
It might have been a better strategy if Sonny Lim had not doubled up as actor and director on this one. A French quasi-farce is not a good place to do such double-duty, and the staging of Two Women was also thus not up to WiT’s standards. The challenges in the piece needed both a strong ghost and an objective observer sitting back, making sure that everything was working visually and emotionally. Sadly, that objective eye was missing here.
For instance, when Viviane recalls her first time with Pierre at his own domicile, we hear Sonny Lim reciting Pierre’s side of the conversation from the side of the stands. A recorded voice would have been better here, perhaps with the actor coming on just at the end. But the precision of such an entrance required a keen eye watching the scene from a distance. An actor-director would be hard put to see such things.
The second half of this French double-bill was very different in tone, style, temper and staging requirements. La Musica (which was originally produced on British TV, though at roughly half its current length) examines the relationship between a couple once passionately in love, now turning the last pages on their divorce. The ex-couple, Michel and Anne-Marie, meet for the first time in two years in an empty dining room in the hotel where they once lived together. (People in France and some other European countries actually reside in hotels. Apparently, it frees them from the mental anguish of selecting wallpaper and carpeting.)
At this point, the two are both in new relationships, but as the play thrashes on, we learn that many of the old feelings between the two, good and bad, are still roiling within. This basic situation could have been the door into something interesting and thoroughly engaging. But author Duras was having none of that. Rather, the situation was just the handle for a lot of further churning with little coming out of it.
You have to remember that Duras belonged to the second wave of French literary existentialists; she was, in fact, something of an intellectual godchild of Jean-Paul Sartre, eventually moving into the slipstream of le Nouvel Roman (the New Novel). And one can see clear influences of Sartre’s most famous play, Huis Clos (translated as both No Exit and In Camera in standard English versions) in La Musica.
The set theme of Duras’ play could just as well be that famous line from Sartre’s mouldy workhorse: Hell is other people. In No Exit, the scene is, literally, the Christian Hell wherein the three damned inhabitants of a dowdily furnished room are condemned to spend all eternity together in that room. (Being disembodied spirits, they don’t even need toilet breaks.)
In La Musica, it only requires one couple to make a hell for each other and, theoretically, either or both could walk out at any time. But the hellish aspect is that they stay there together, repeatedly picking over the past with all its painful remnants. Of course, they can only be each other’s hell because of their deep feelings for each other, but this does not offer much balm to their sufferings.
But the hell Duras constructs in this work also bears similarities to Dante’s hell, in its circular structure. Like the damned in the Inferno, this couple shorn of almost all hope keeps going around in circles - circles of discussion. As in Dante’s work, it is not always the very same circle, and there is a certain type of progression - but every turn always leads back to the same act of suffering and much of the terrain looks frustratingly like previous circles.
The couple’s conversation starts out in awkward spurts and stumbles, with a few attempts at humour. They discuss such inconsequential matters as the furniture of their former home. As is typical of most of Duras’ writing, the dialogue is often elliptical and focuses on the internal worlds her characters inhabit. Before long, Anne-Marie and Michel pick their way to the marrow of the failed relationship. One of them was unfaithful? Which one? How did it feel, for both the cheater and the cheatee? Is there any way to ever undo the hurt they caused each other? Is the fact that the hurt is still there simply proof that they still love each other, in more or less the way they did back then? And then they go over the matter again and again.
The main problem with La Musica is that the play is almost defiantly undramatic. Alright already: people in tortured relationships will often talk like this, going over and over and over the causes of their problems. But when you choose to put this material on stage, you have got to distil it significantly and get the potent fluid of the relationship. This potent fluid then fuels some dramatic scenario. Duras, it seems, decided she did not care to make such an effort, but wanted to spill as much of the raw material onto the stage as she could.
Thus Michel and Anne-Marie say things like “What’s the point of going into that now?” with the reply, “Why deny ourselves the truth?” Or: “We must do nothing; find a way to do nothing.” “And in the short time we have to live, we must out-face death.” Oh come on, Marguerite: these are two middle-aged people still obviously attached emotionally, smoothing out the last wrinkles in their divorce, and you have them sounding like two undergraduates who have just made their way through a seminar on Sartre or Heidegger.
Recalling a one-off shag with some foreign woman, Michel notes, “It was marvellous, but unnecessary.” Ah, oui. Could anyone but a self-conscious French intellectual precariously straddling the Cartesian split utter such an evaluation of great sex? I hope not.
Well, for drama, Duras has the couple try on this bit of dialogue in the final stretch: “Maybe we’ll kill each other now.” “What difference would it make?” “None. None at all.” So if their mutual murders make no difference at all to this couple, how can we ever care enough about them to connect with the play? The result is that we share some of that couple’s pain - not via empathy, but via irritation and embarrassment.
This production could have been absolutely deadly with actors who gave anything less than the fully committed performances served up here by Debra Teng and Ferlin Jayatissa. In fact, it is fair to say that these two performances pretty much redeemed the evening. The two, under the guidance of director Chris Cheers, brought out a fine melange of scarred emotions that kept us at all interested in the tortured journey these characters were taking.
Jayatissa and Teng both proved themselves to be actors willing to take big emotional risks on stage and dig into reserves of what these roles demand. Nothing less would do in a play such as this.
The contrasting look of the pair was quite good. Ferlin, wearing a cheap black leather jacket over a Mafioso-style striped shirt, brought a touch of the French rogue to his facial and body gestures. Debra Teng was in a casually understated costume, all light colours: a low-cut white shirt and pale skirt with a light blue sweater. Even more telling was another variance in their appearance: she still wears a wedding ring, he doesn’t.
Not only did their fashions clash, but the emotional tenor of the two did as well, producing a rather interesting failed chemistry between the two. Right from the opening moments, you could tell this couple was a mismatch, but you could also well believe that they had once been deeply in love (with strong residues of that love still in evidence).
Despite the non-dramatic nature of the script, the two actors did everything they could to try to make it work as theatre. Poignant moments abounded, such as Teng closing her eyes in pain when Michel walked back into the room, or Jayatissa clenching his jaw in pained shame as Anne-Marie intoned the anguish she had sometimes experienced during the marriage.
The staging was static, but this was no miscalculation on the part of director Cheers: the script practically insists on stasis and any forced movement or gesture would have worked against the material. The sparse set (which borrowed the couch from the first part of the evening) was also appropriate to the piece and its overriding theme of exhausted emotions. Exhaustion, however, was also the dominant feeling created in the audience: empathy exhaustion. After awhile, we were just being asked to do too much of the work in caring for these characters. We wanted to writer to have done more.
It is also fair to ask why the WiT team chose these plays. While it is indeed commendable to try to bring little known French plays to Singapore audiences, why these two works, both, for different reasons, major challenges to an audience? One member of the company has argued that no other theatre group in Singapore would have touched a play like La Musica. This is probably true. But there has to be more reasons to bring a work onto the stage than the fact that it is a great challenge. I would argue that the first reason for mounting any play is that it is suited for the stage. La Musica is not. And Two Women For One Ghost is just weak, certainly weaker than some of Obaldia’s other works. World-in-Theatre was again courageous but not particularly wise in its selections this time around. Quel dommage.
Shortly after WiT’s French pairing ran at The Substation, Escape Theatre, one of the other local companies that assay interesting, often minimally commercial theatre here, gave us a welcome production of David Hare’s Skylight. Skylight is related thematically to Duras’ piece in that it zeroes in on a serious relationship that came to an end sometime before, and watches as the two people involved in that relationship try to see if all the severed pieces really fit together.
Part of the reason that Skylight is a more appealing work than La Musica is that British writers seem to be better at post-morts of relationships than are French scribes. A bigger part of the reason is simply that David Hare is, unlike Duras, mainly a playwright, and a damned good one at that, with a long roster of successful plays.
The play opens with Kyra in her dreary studio flat in North London. She receives a surprise visit from Edward, the teenage son of Tom, her former employer and lover. (We will later discover that Kyra, now a secondary school teacher, was a waitress in one of Tom’s restaurants for about 45 minutes, before moving up to manager.)
Edward is in his gap year of tertiary studies and out finding his footing in world he is not quite comfortable in, for all his comforts. (He calls the capacious suburban house he shares with his father “Citizen Kane, except for the Yellow Pages”. I don’t get the Yellow Pages reference myself, but the image of the lonely rich man is evocative.)
Young Edward is casual incarnate: he arrives in a jeans jacket thrown over a hooded red sweatshirt and grungy jeans, bearing a six-pack of beer as a present. But he’s also filled with unaffected charm and sincerity. (Particularly as played here by Daniel Hutchinson.) After a brief rundown of his life since his mother’s recent death, he leaves, but not before blurting out “Kyra, I wish you would bloody well help.” What he wants her to help with is his father who, Edward admits, is not “emotionally available”.
In the second scene, Tom himself arrives, totally unaware that his son had preceded him. (He comes armed with a bottle of Irish whiskey.) Not surprisingly, Tom is much more judgmental than his son. He quickly criticises Kyra’s flat and neighbourhood: “…but since you made this style choice to live in Outer Siberia” and later compares it to Beirut. But Kyra responds effectively:” This place isn’t especially horrible. It’s how people choose to live.” The surface retort is a class thing; the subtext is that Tom has never really chosen to live; he has just chosen to inhabit spaces, principally fancy properties in fashionable addresses. Kyra, herself a child of affluence, has now embraced the underprivileged, including their living standards.
Over the next two scenes, we discover the nature of the affair Tom and Kyra pursued right under his wife’s nose. (Kyra even lived in their house during the course of the affair.) As soon as his wife - and her friend - Alice found out about the affair, Kyra moved out. Now she is hunkered down in this humble North London flat from which Tom imagines he can rescue her. But all the contradictions between the two make any full reconciliation impossible - including the fact that Kyra has no wish to be rescued from her present life.
The play is, like Duras’ piece, one where the dialogue is dominant. Almost all the drama will proceed from the ebb and flow of the discussions and debates the couple engage in. But Hare knows how to write strong dialogue and to keep that flow of dialogue interesting in a stage context. Further, unlike Duras’ work, you get the sense of people here with full, busy lives trying to make space in those lives for personal relationships.
Even so, there is a clear agenda to the parry and thrust Tom and Kyra engage in. “First you fuck me, then you criticise my life,” complains Tom, but he is the one more devoted to such post-coital criticism. He is also more caught up in the past, refusing to move into a radically different future. And Skylight moves in one compelling direction all the way to its inevitable conclusion, as opposed to the circularity of La Musica.
What also makes Skylight such a strong piece of writing is the way Hare looks at those contradictions between and within the two main figures. The easy way of looking at the couple is as a right-wing vs. left-wing pairing. But Hare refuses to take such an easy path: he has created two characters much too complex, too engaging to fit into neatly arranged political pigeon-holes. The deeper problems in their relationship supersede all the differences in the social and political perspectives they wield. These are two flesh-and-blood characters trying to thrash out what still remains of their passion. Watching their failure to revive the relationship is what makes this play engrossing.
But Hare will not deny us all the fun of pigeon-holing: he lets us see the dank corners of Tom’s personality where he veers close to caricature. Speaking of his chauffeur waiting out in the cold night for him, he says, “Frank isn’t people; he’s a man doing his job.”
At other points, he comes off as a polished phoney trying to display understanding and sympathy. The actor playing Tom, Lim Kay Tong, was quite good when showing the successful businessman’s polite boredom at Kyra’s accounts of her teaching: “Sure; I see that,” he said in his subtly insincere way. Kay Tong also had a good way of saying, “Well, I mean, yes,” to cover his surprise, something Tom does a lot. And after one of Kyra long screeds on the world, he claims, “Alright; I see what you’re saying” and we know he cannot see it at all.
But Kyra is not portrayed as a total secular saint either. After she has praised the delights of riding the bus to and from work everyday and seeing all the people, Tom points out that the reason she so enjoys this experience is that she can climb off the bus in three minutes. He also claims that “loving the poor is easy” for her as she does not have to make a commitment when loving such a mass or an abstraction. She can’t love just one person, he implies - or can she?
But Tom’s attacks are effectively parried by Kyra herself. She will concede some of his points, but also shows a sincerity that he is largely incapable of. In a alter scene with young Edward, she admits to modest goals in disclosing what she sees as the secret of being a successful teacher: “One private target, and that’s enough.” Of course, Tom himself now has only one private target - Kyra, whom he wants to move back in with him. But he will not succeed, despite the fact that towards the end, Kyra admits that she “loved him more than anyone on the earth.” However, she also claims that Tom does not really want happiness. (At this point, Skylight came as close as it ever got to La Musica’s musings.)
Structural symmetry comes in the last scene when Edward returns in the morning to Kyra’s unheated flat, this time with a huge breakfast spread from a fancy hotel restaurant. In the first scene, Kyra had mentioned that such a bountiful breakfast was one of the few things she missed from her earlier life. Edward, closer in age and emotions to the underprivileged students she now devotes her life to, has listened to her. (Tom cannot really listen to her.) Hope comes back to the lives of the play’s two positive characters, leaving the third character in his sad Citizen Kane existence. A most satisfying close indeed.
Skylight is, finally, a very strong play but not a great one. I think part of the reason it fails to achieve greatness is that the characters, like so many others in Hare’s domestic dramas, are not themselves capable of greatness. They keep us engaged in their needs and their problems, but they do not lift us up to the level we reach when watching great plays or films. Plus, the discussion in the pivotal opening scene of Act Two is simply too much like a discussion between two people. For one stretch, Hare focuses too intently on the sheer debate element; during this stretch, the piece does suffer a slight bout of talkiness. If the author had worked harder to turn this debate into drama, to find some action, some need in which to embody the debate, this could have been a terrific scene. Instead, the play has to recover from its own brief descent into talkiness and get back to the drama inherent in the central conflict of two people equally drawn and repelled from each other.
The Escape Theatre version of this piece was certainly impressive. Director Mark Waite and set designer Samantha Scott-Blackhall made the best use possible of the difficult Arts House Play Den space. Originally performed at the Royal National Theatre’s Cottlesloe Theatre, this play would seem to call for a traditional proscenium stage with a cluttered Realist set, not the long, narrow space of the Play Den. Under the circumstances, Waite and Scott-Blackhall wisely chose to go minimalist and focus attention on the interplay of personalities in the piece and draw us away from space and set.
The three performances were all strong in their own way, bringing out so many key aspects of the play with their performances. I have already mentioned Daniel Hutchinson and Lim Kay Tong, and both are due more praise. Hutchinson played Edward as a kind of affectionate puppy: sincere, affectionate, in search of affection in return. He was totally convincing in the role and made Edward altogether loveable.
Lim Kay Tong was even more impressive in a much more demanding role. When Kay Tong, as Tom, first entered Kyra’s flat, he probed the place with an inspector’s eyes and perked-up cheeks. This is a Tom fully equipped for making judgements and issuing criticisms. Throughout the play, Kay Tong worked his jaw often, as if this world he had just dropped in on has a strange taste and he was trying to discover the nature of that taste. As the action proceeded, he added so many fine bits of texture to this character. Tom’s praise for his wife’s courage during her fatal illness was dry and rasped. Later, he had trouble getting out that he misses Kyra “personally” and that he never got over it.
However, Kay Tong did display a few weaknesses. Some of Tom’s mannerisms, such as the jaw thing, were done a little too much. More significantly, Lim’s body language was too stiff when he finally exploded and threw her students’ papers on the floor.
The best performance of the evening belonged, fittingly enough, to Janice Koh as Kyra. This Kyra was a wonderfully sympathetic character, one who is comfortable with her own weakness, and turns this into one of her many strengths. That combination of weakness and strength became one of the most winning things in this performance. The actress also touches great depths of the character Talking about the triangle they were in, Kyra mentions her love for Alice. At this point, you could sense that Koh really felt those memories, created though they may have been. She also expressed emotions well with body language. One fine example: At the end of Act I, she cut the bread as if excising parts of her past. But throughout, you could sense the conflicts in the character through various gestures and small movements, much as you could with Lim Kay Tong.
One moment stands out for me as an example of the two actors playing beautifully against each other. Kyra says, “I know this doesn’t make sense to you, but I’m planning to go on as I am.” - and upon saying it, Koh leaned forward to get Tom’s response. That response was itself just a look, one that said “I don‘t know how to respond.” In this one moment, the two actors convincingly delineated that unbridgeable gap between the two characters.
Not that any of the acting here was perfect, however: for instance, none of the actors really showed the cold they kept talking about. There were also a few moments of lapsed attention, strange in a production so focused. For instance, if it were so cold, Kyra and Edward would have certainly closed the front door at the end, to keep the cold slightly at bay. Further, the closing music was the one really sour note here: with a female singer doing Mancini’s famous “Moon River”.
But these were minor flaws in an otherwise extremely solid production of a quite strong play. I just hope that companies like Escape and World-in-Theatre continue to attract patronage and sponsorship and do the sort of plays that are not broadly popular but which a discerning theatre-going public certainly deserves to see.