Action’s predilection for plays with food motifs was expressed in another interesting piece of theatre back in June - Fruit Plays. Originally planned as a programme of six or seven plays, all of them 20-30 minute monologues by women, all of them with a fruit theme, the show wound up being a rather short evening of two plays, Human Heart Fruit by Stella Kon and The Swallowed Seed by Jean Tay. Kon’s piece looked at the squeezed life of a woman in HDB Heartland trapped in an abusive marriage. Tay’s work presented a thirty-something career woman still bearing the deep internal scars of childhood abuse.
The narrator of Swallowed Seed, Sheryl, is actually the victim of two forms of childhood abuse: the sexual abuse by an uncle and the psychological abuse by her mother who kept nagging her not to talk so much. The second abuse, we quickly come to see, extended the duration of the first and compounded its humiliation and sense of helplessness.
Sheryl now spends much of her time in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, the seat of wisdom from which she delivers this narrative. Said narrative twists and turns around the bitter roots of her familial abuse, resulting in a poetry of the grotesque from this woman who has learned to talk out, but still fells the choke of silence within.
The abuse by Sheryl’s uncle started shortly after she had eaten a rambutan and accidentally swallowed the seed. Today, perched on her toilet podium, she sees her unsatisfying life in metaphors around this swallowed seed and the shame it brought her. An unwanted pregnancy calls forth visions of a crushed uterus and womb, and she suffers dreams of a tree growing out of her head. And never can she abandon the cramped sanctuary of the bathroom.
This is pretty rough stuff actually, and it could well have become deadly theatre without a very able actress handling the material. Thankfully for the play, veteran actress Nora Samosir gave us a very solid performance, holding us all the way through this painful account. Samosir pitched her Sheryl at just the right level: we, of course, sympathise with the character, but not so much that we lose the dynamic of three close relatives injuring each other in their own ways. Tay and Samosir make Sheryl something more interesting than just a hapless victim: that swallowed seed has grown into a most bitter fruit. With Samosir showing its effects in a sad, chilling manner, this dark side of the victim spins out well.
Samosir also played Jenny, the narrator of the evening’s opening piece by Stella Kon. Jenny is caught in a long-time unhappy marriage with Joe. Now that unhappy union has taken a decided turn for the worse as Joe finds himself temporarily confined to a wheelchair, the result of an accident. His new invalid status seems to have rolled Joe along the dark corridors of paranoid fantasy, and he starts accusing Jenny of infidelity, of stealing from him, even of intentionally trying to serve him up bad meals. As Joe’s paranoia festers, his abuse grows until it provokes the inevitable. Here, too, the victim finds a way to swing around victimhood.
Kon’s text is actually a more strongly crafted piece than Tay’s, the story more gripping, the fruit metaphor - in this case the chiku, known in Chinese as the ‘human heart fruit’ - more suggestive. But, sadly, it was not possible to tell this during the Action Theatre production. This was not the fault of Nora Samosir, but the perverse staging by director Low Kee Hong.
Low somehow came up with the idea of moving the play out of the kitchen, where it is set in Kon’s script, and taking away Jenny’s key props. Instead, he has Samosir deliver her monologue on the evening’s joint set composed of five toilets set around the stage. (With two other toilets hanging upside down from the ceiling for good measure; these contain stage lights, one of them serving as the place where Samosir starts the evening.)
Husband Joe, silenced, also sits on the stage with Jenny in Kon’s original conception, but in this rendition Jenny was all alone, moving from toilet to toilet, addressing the air, pulling chiku out of toilets and eating it as she moves through her monologue.
This fanciful staging threw the focus on Nora Samosir’s talents, allowing her to show these talents off well, but it was grossly unfair to Stella Kon. A play is, after all, more than just words, and when a playwright composes a play, the space, the necessary props, the psychological environment all play a key part. Changes can and should be made when necessary, but when changes are arbitrary swings that flaunt the imagination of director or actor to the great detriment of the original text, they unduly deprive the playwright of a key part of her expression.
Neither was the direction here entirely fair to Jean Tay’s play, as the two works, staged without a pause, flowed right into each other. For some minutes after The Swallowed Seed started, I and at least three other audience members (many more, I suspect) thought we were still in Human Heart Fruit, with a sudden spin back into childhood memories. And it took a while longer before we made the full psychological adjustment to Tay’s world.
Supposedly, the strategy was to effect an abrupt lighting change which would signal the end of one play, the beginning of the next. If there was any such change of lights, it was not visible to the naked eye.
A director has a responsibility to the play as written, and Low clearly abrogated his responsibility in this case. I feel sorry for both playwrights involved, especially Stella Kon, and cannot allow such an abuse of directorial powers to go unanswered. It is just a shame that the two authors of Fruit Plays did not have as sensitive and supportive a director as Desmond Sim did in Ekachai Uekrongtham. The show would almost certainly have been much, much better as well as truer to the vision of its ultimate authors.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002