Diversity Risks Dilution
Mobile seeks to move but plunges into melodrama
By Cyril Wong
A collaboration between theatre practitioners from Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and Singapore, Mobile – in the words of the co-director of the production, Alvin Tan – "celebrates the continuation of Asian practitioners in dialogue…on how our contemporary realities are interconnected." It comes as a relief then that the Necessary Stage's world premiere at the Singapore Arts Festival 2006 is a convincing and cogent engagement with the diversity of "multiple 'Asias' on the world stage" than, say, Toy Factory's Prism not so many years ago, or other such similar productions in Singapore that were more concerned with exploiting cultural stereotypes to create a theatrical spectacle or a postmodern collage that would usually be offensive or banal.
Dealing with the lives and problems of migrant workers, Mobile sheds more than some light on a wide range of social and emotional complexities. The play itself is made up of scenes weaving in and out of each other, often connected by actors moving and shifting objects on stage to prepare for the next scene. Surreal but reminiscent of emotions that were explored in an earlier section, these actors would pose in stillness, holding up symbolic objects such as a red umbrella or a red sash during transitory moments, or take down and put back the doors of two huge containers that made up much of the set for the whole production. In fact, the sheer mobility and adaptability of the set reflected the ways in which foreign workers accustom themselves to survive the host country's environment.
Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit (Singapore) and Narumol Thammapruksa (Thailand) start off with the first skit about a Singaporean Malay woman in a senior governmental position and a Thai NGO representative respectively, both of whom have come to an international summit to discuss the problems of migration. Mosbit's clear Singlish and comic timing resonated easily with the Singaporeans in the audience, relating quickly with them through her unpretentious and humourous banter with Thammapruksa's character, Chula. This was particularly after Mosbit had so formally addressed an imagined audience of corporate and political bigwigs about the issues migration has raised in many countries.
Even though Mosbit's character, Rafidah, is able to joke with Chula about how nobody in the Summit really cares about anything other than the possibility of economic returns, the skit progresses later on in the second act to show the quieter and less forceful Chula to be the more honourable and likeable character. This is reflected when Rafidah points out that it is far easier to change oneself when one is unable to change the world, referring to the moral compromises that she had made as a Malay woman desperate to attain a position of power in the realm of Singapore politics. Chula on the other hand held that the individual should be the one to change the perceived wrong about the world.
At the Summit, a Filipino hotel magnate, Anthony Perez, elegantly and stoically portrayed by Rody Vera (The Philippines), wins a prize for outstanding corporate citizenship. He is interviewed on television (two projection screens play out their interview at the back of the stage) by Chua Enlai (Singapore), who plays the gay bimbo newscaster with the overbearingly American accent (think Timothy Goh on Channel NewsAsia). Lung Bao, a poor fisherman whom Perez had promised a job and a cement house, haunts Perez's conscience, reinforcing his underlying guilt about having eradicated homes and forests in order to build his hotel resorts in Phuket, particularly after he finds out that Lung Bao has died during a tsunami crisis. Enlai, as the plastic newscaster, badgers Perez by asking such pertinent questions as what does "corporate citizenship" really mean. Perez's wife, played by Mailes Kanapi (The Philippines), comforts him by reminding him about the jobs that he has provided and the tribes they are helping by buying their jewellery in bulk. Kanapi slips into unnecessary melodrama at her final moment when she complains about how rich people are always portrayed as villains and throws the jewellery onto the stage, noisily dispersing beads everywhere.
In fact, melodrama often plagued this production, as if it were the only means by which the Singapore Arts Festival audience could be moved by the themes and concerns of the play, the way fans of Chinese or Korean soap operas are moved when characters indulge in histrionic displays of emotions. The first half of the production ended with the skit about a Thai migrant worker who sleeps with a Japanese man and is accused of getting herself pregnant in order to stay in Japan. The exchanges between the Thai character, played by Jarunun Phantachat (Thailand) and the Japanese spouse of the man she slept with, played by Reina Kakudate (Japan), were overwrought with the angry and distraught slamming of hands on the container doors during their heated dialogue and a wrestling scene in which one tries to push the other to the floor. An earlier scene between Phantachat and a monk, poignantly and sympathetically played by Pradit Prasartthong (Thailand), who attempts to comfort her, had greater gravitas and portrayed a keener sense of grief and lifelong frustration. The whole first act would have ended better and more effectively if Phantachat had narrowed the wild spray of her emotions to a deadening calm during her final speech of defiance in the container, in which she tells everyone around her that she will be back to win her case to live in Japan with her child, just as the other actors close the doors of the container deafeningly and symbolically around her.
In the second act, the energy shoots up a notch when most of the actors come together as an ensemble for a Community Theatre production about a female migrant worker who is found out to be pregnant and asked to either abort or return to her country. The skit might be tacky and hilarious – the abortion is enacted by the actors drawing out a red sash from the woman's belly, accompanied by her sustained, melodramatic cry of pain – but the tragedy of her decision to abort manages to touch a nerve amidst all that comedy, particularly when the comedy becomes overtly self-conscious and forced just as the character continues to sob uncontrollably.
The whole production goes terribly awry by ending with a long skit about a Japanese man in Manila who falls for a Filipino girl that speaks lovelier Japanese than his wife. A previous tragedy in which the Japanese couple's child was kidnapped is the main reason for him being in Manila, where he romanticises the state of poverty of the girl he is obsessed with, calling the prosperity of his homeland an "aquarium" in which the Japanese are trapped like fishes. The whole scene culminates to the moment that the Japanese businessman, played by Tetsuya Kataoka (Japan), symbolically strips down to his underwear and pours liquor on himself to demonstrate that he is submitting himself to the throes of poverty. It was a tragically silly moment that undermined everything that the play had been about till this moment. If the point of the skit was to illustrate the misconceptions that first world countries might have of a less-developed country, the point that ended up being made seemed a superficial one, as the charaterisations were less than three-dimensional and emotions were too heavy-handed and self-indulgent. (Kataoka even seemed on the verge of losing his voice at one of his more hysterical moments.)
In all, Mobile managed to provide a whole buffet of political, social and personal perspectives on migration and the plight of foreign workers, along with a huge side order of emotional conflicts, in an inconsistent attempt to humanise the concerns. The play also overemphasised the fact that with regards to such problems, there is no "black-and-white" (Rafidah overstates this more than a few times in her arguments with Chula in the first act), whether in the potential resolution of these issues, in assigning blame or uncovering the roots of such problems.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006