In her novel Mammon Inc., Singapore’s own Hwee Hwee Tan targeted another form of totalitarianism: the totalitarianism of multinational corporations which try to corner world markets by coyly ironing out the uniqueness of people in different parts of the world. If George Orwell’s bleak vision of the future - expressed in his most famous work, 1984 - was of “a boot stamping on the human face – forever,” Hwee Hwee Tan might invite us to envision the future this way: Think of a pair of perfect retro-70’s white knee-length boots swirling over a crushed pashmina carpet - until they get so-o-o-o bored and yearn to move on to something new.
The eponymous Mammon Inc. of book and play is a MNC with headquarters in New York and tentacles all around the world. They own just about everything worth owning - in the material sense. What they really aspire to own, however, is everyone’s soul, all the better to control tastes and purchasing decisions and so guarantee in perpetuum their astronomical profits.
Enter Chiah Deng, a poster girl for the successful, cosmopolitan Singaporean. Chiah leaves home and heads off to Oxford to drink deeply from the wells of great British literature. While there, she discovers that many parts of her remain indelibly Singaporean, while other parts yearn to absorb Western culture even to efface that which is low-brow Singaporean.
With her freshly minted Oxford diploma, Chiah is recruited for a velvet-collared post with Mammon, Inc. They plan to slot her in as a cultural adaptor, someone who can train the ‘global nomads” who staff their branches to arrive somewhere, plug themselves into the local culture, and start operating almost immediately.
But to see if she is fit for this task, Mammon’s CEO, Dr. Draco Sidious presents Deng with three adaptability tests. First off, she herself has to fit into a fancy-ass New York party. Then she has to make her ah lian Singaporean sister believable as an Oxford academic. Finally, she is tasked with turning her English roommate back in Oxford into a typical successful Singaporean, one who can hit the 5 C’s with tonal perfection.
What Mammon is really testing, of course, is the pliability of Chiah’s spirit. Will she have the gumption to carry out this assignment? Be able to remake the personalities of people close to her?
It all sounds like pretty fertile ground for both a novel and a play. Unfortunately, what the Action Theatre reaps out of this is only second-rate satire, a facile and superficial look at the globalized, corporate culture and the East-West split right down the middle of many cosmopolitan Singaporeans.
The vision of the ravenous mega-corporation has been done, what, umpteen thousand times by now. Mammon Inc., the play, sheds no new light on the topic, offering us mainly recycled insights and stale warnings. Yes, Tan issues persuasive caveats against commercial intrusions into the soul, but this has been a staple of socially critical writers going back at least to Charles Dickens. Take away all the glitzy 21st Century window-dressing that decks this update of the critique, and you will find it is still the same old shop offering the same sturdy wares.
This play goes down very easily, and is entertaining at its own comfortable level. Sure there are a lot of laughs, but afterwards, you cannot quite remember any specific line or incident that caused you to laugh. And on the serious side of the ledger, there are too, too few moments like when Chiah Deng gets angry at her sister’s failure to pass as a pompous Oxfordian. Chiah castigates her sister for her very Singaporean-ness, then stops abruptly in the middle of the tirade. We see the deep hurt on the sister’s face alongside Chiah’s own pain, the latter made more searing because she knows that her hurtful remarks flowed from the cultural split within herself. The show would have profited greatly from more such well-placed emotional strikes.
Probably the main problem with this show is that in does not get us interested enough in its characters. This is an important failing, considering that its Manichean conflict pits the human spirit against the corporation. But the sad fact is, most of the characters who people this fable are bare clichés, or so close to clichés that it is hard to tell the difference.
Right at the top of Mammon, Dr. Draco Sidious is a disappointingly one-dimensional demon whose lines could have been lifted from a dictionary of corporate clichés. ‘Been-there, spun-that’ is the enduring response when we encounter the denizens of that oppressively chic New York party or the conclave of snooty Oxford academics. The same can be said for the three “true” Singaporeans who gather for the Lunar New Year celebration to be charmed by a very Caucasian-looking half-Chinese.
Admittedly, most of these characters, in particular the New York and Oxford egomaniacs, are intentionally superficial types trying their hardest to be clichés. But in real life, even such types occasionally allow a glimmer of insight into something more interesting, more insightful. Here I found none of that.
More importantly, at the centre of things, Chiah Deng herself just needs to be more engaging a character. We need her to win our hearts early on and see every small self-betrayal as a significant loss, every assertion of her inner values as a minor triumph.
Which brings us to the particular shortcomings of this production. The key role of Chiah Deng was played by Emma Yong. Although Chiah Deng is supposed to be the arrow on the play’s emotional barometre. Yong’s performance came out curiously bloodless: She recited her narrative lines as if a guiding us on a tour of the play’s radically different social landscapes - a tour she had only occasional and then limited interest in. Even at the account of her father’s funeral, Yong never let the scaffolding of cool detachment fall.
It could be that this was the intended strategy, to portray Chiah as an intellectual not only deracinated but also drained of prime emotions. Or at least emotionally debilitated. But when we lose our pointer on that emotional barometre and find ourselves in a squall of vapid attitudes and poses, the great moral force that this satire should have also gets lost.
This was the first sub-par performance I’ve ever seen Emma Yong turn in, and it was deeply disappointing. My disappointment is anchored in the sense that the role held so much potential and Yong could have used it to do a real star turn.
The best performances of the evening were brought in by Tan Kheng Hua as Chiah’s sister and James Burton as the Oxford flat mate. Kheng Hua is a versatile performer who was here in Phua Chu Kang mode, which fit the ingenuous but naïve sister quite well. Burton was believable throughout as the affable, wise-cracking British cynic who too easily accepts his transformation into “a greedy, uncultured git” - which happens to be Chia’s take on the typical Singaporean professional.
As Dr. Draco, Nick Warnford frequently punched out his lines as if speaking to a large outdoor gathering. Moreover, his force of evil was of a very minor variety.
In the other supporting roles, the Singaporean characters were best handled. Loke Loo Pin caught the mother at just the right pitch, even if she proved a little stiff at points and frequently hard to understand due to lack of projection. Chermaine Ang, Jacqueline Low and Godfrey Yeo each did a couple of nice turns in the smaller roles.
The Caucasian supporting actors, with the exception of Gareth Holcombe, stayed tightly within the clichéd confines of their characters in the New York social swirl or the High Tea Oxfordians. That, too, may have been intentional but it was not commendable.
Ekachai Uekrongtham’s direction was commendably functional, managing the traffic of a quite challenging piece in a brisk, clean manner. We never felt that this show was dragging or that it was unfocused. The problem was that the focus was on a picture we are pretty sure we have seen before. And while Ekachai’s staging and pacing was indeed functional, it was just not inspired. And inspiration is the main missing ingredient here, the one that might have made this production commensurable to its pre-run publicity.
Mammon, Inc will have a second run at Jubilee Hall, Raffles, from 25 July - 4 August.
[Page 1 | Page 2]
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002