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Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

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From Icon to Iron
Page 2

Scottish playwright Rona Munro was still probably a toddler when Pinter had already ascended to the status of cultural icon. (Here that much abused word really fits.) Like many British playwrights over the last 35 years, Munro writes in the long, imposing shadow of Pinter. However, like many of her wisest contemporaries, Munro strategically skirts that shadow to pursue her own brand of theatre.

The first work from Munro that has made its way to these tropical shores is Iron, an engaging prison play which recently snared the John Whiting Award as best play.

You would think that with all the free time, freedom from entertaining distractions and - in many cases - good library facilities provided that prison would prove a better incubator for writers than it has been. But there have been few really great books to come out of prison. Works like Hitler’s Mein Kampf or John Henry Abbot’s In The Heart of The Beast are more interesting as sociological or psychological oddities than as literary works or significant intellectual inquiries.

Actually the drama would seem to be the literary form best suited to writing about prisons, and the available evidence would support this thesis. Probably the best examples are Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, John Herbert’s mid-60s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes or Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes.

Ardent ‘School of Hard Knocks’ alumni may grouse that Rona Munro has not actually paid the dues, which would grant her play full authenticity. After all, Behan, Herbert and Piñero all served time in some kind of penal institution before penning their works. Munro ‘merely’ went about conducting a long series of interviews with women prisoners in order to write the script.

But this criticism wilts in the face of Iron’s solid achievement. With this play, Munro has served up a fine wedge of the prison experience and how it affects those incarcerated, those whose job it is to keep guard over them, and those connected to them by blood and strong emotions.

The main focus of Iron is on Fay, a middle-aged woman serving a life term for the brutal slaying of her husband, and Fay’s daughter Josie. After many years apart, Josie comes for the first time to visit her mother as the play opens. The drama proceeds through Josie’s subsequent visits and the repercussions they elicit. (That drama is largely emotional, as the action remains confined between the four walls of Fay’s cell and the visiting chambers.) We very quickly learn that for Josie, these visits are partially a search for self-discovery, to find something in her mother and her accounts of the killing that will help Josie understand herself. For her part, Fay tries to live vicariously in Josie the life that was lopped off for her by the incarceration. Sadly for the two and their spoiled relationship, Fay is reluctant to share what Josie yearns to discover and Josie has no interest in the social life Fay misses so much.

The characters of Fay and Josie are further delineated through their crisscrossing relationships with Iron’s two subordinate characters - the female and male guard entrusted with watching over Fay and others in this woman’s prison. The play’s strength lies in its integrity: it looks at the full range of its four characters, showing up negative and positive aspects of all four, never trivialising or demonising one in order to put any of the others in a more becoming or damning light.

I was especially taken with the play’s clear-eyed honesty as it wound to a close and Fay finally revealed to Josie the circumstances of her father’s death. After dropping hints all along that the reason may have been utterly noble, perhaps even inevitable - either self-defence or that the husband was abusing or about to abuse their daughter - we discover that it was nothing of that. The couple had been drinking a lot that evening (as they often did, from their first meeting on), and he then callously laughed at something Fay had said or done, which “hurt me”. This revelation then closes off the balanced integrity of the play: while the victim was also not entirely innocent, only a sociopath would argue that this basically decent guy deserved to die for his fall into drunken callousness.

At a press conference here prior to the opening of Iron, playwright Munro was asked if she felt her play would have transport problems moving from her native Scotland to tropical Singapore. She admitted that she had no idea, but was curious to see how it would play here. My verdict is that while it does lose a lot of surface and subtext in its Singapore showcase, the heart and soul of the play still came through intact.

Let us look at that loss side of the ledger first. While Munro’s original text apparently underwent very few alterations, the Scottish idiom obviously did not work as well as it would have on its home soil. As the quintet of local actors eschewed any attempt to affect Scottish brogues (a thoroughly commendable decision), the play shifted out of its native milieu. But by avoiding culture clash, they forfeit some of the cultural associations that enrich Iron. (For the record, the award-winning London Royal Court Theatre production also jettisoned the Scottish brogues, but for working-class English accents.)

One good example is the role of George, the male prison guard. Remesh Panicker gives a wonderfully winning performance here, producing a sympathetic well-rounded character who irritates, soothes and surprises by turns. But Panicker’s delivery is even more polished and refined than that of the two actors in luna-id’s Dumb Waiter. The result is that we lose some of the man’s background, which a production using the original speech patterns would certainly provide. For instance, George lets us know that he is taking an Open University course in Moral Philosophy and Theology, and he demonstrates it with a number of pithy philosophical pronouncements. But these pronouncements lost the ironic edge they may have had if delivered in a solid working-class Scottish accent rather than Panicker’s refined baritone.

But despite this cultural deficit, the Action Theatre production has to be accounted a success. Director Krishin Jit kept the whole masterfully paced and on a nice even psychological keel. Casey Lim’s set, especially as illuminated and changed by Mac Chan’s lighting plot, was wonderfully effective, a model of accomplished design minimalism. (Though some of Lim’s video projections on that set seemed extraneous.)

Three of the four performances were of a Life! Award nomination standard. As mentioned, Remesh Panicker’s guard was splendid, as was Emma Yong’s Josie. This Josie shows the fragility and self-doubt below that confident career woman veneer right from the start. From there, Yong’s keenly drawn performance reveals a young woman whose complexities, resentments and frustrations are as responsible for the failure of the mother-daughter relationship as is Fay herself.

In the central role of Fay, Karen Tan offers another excellent performance. Tan explores every available nook and cranny of this deceptively complex character and grips us with the results of these explorations. She is touching and tough, manic and manipulative, pathetic and uplifting. With this work, Tan capped a year of extremely strong performances in a variety of roles.

The one weak performance in this quartet came from Serena Ho. Ho, who has proven herself increasingly adept at portraying young women in distress or self-destruction, appeared out of her depth with the role of a youngish single mother who first seeks bonds with Fay, then reacts bitterly to Fay’s manipulation and abuse of the guard’s vulnerabilities. Ho’s performance hewed closer to cliché than to insight and she hammered out her lines as if this were the best way to express toughness. It very rarely is.

But let us end this piece with another appreciative nod to Action Theatre for bringing in award-winning plays from the Anglo-American axis while they are still very fresh and pertinent. Plays like Proof, Wit and Iron deserve to be seen by local audiences and to stretch the talents of local actors. Even when something gets lost in transport, what we receive is often a valuable gift of theatre.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004


About Richard Lord
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  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Durang-Utans and Other Species of the Male
Richard Lord reviews recent male-oriented theatre in Singapore.

Shades of Sound
Stella Kon reviews Shadows and Voices.

Related Links

luna-id productions
External link.

The official Harold Pinter website
External link.

Harold Pinter profile
External link.

Film version of The Dumb Waiter
External link to Rotten Tomatoes.

Action Theatre
External link.

Rona Munro interview
External link.

Review of Iron at the Royal Court
External link to the Royal Court Theatre.

Another review of the Royal Court Iron
External link to the Guardian.


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