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Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

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If It Ain't Spoilt...
PIE to SPOILT is promising, but little more

By Jeremy Samuel

Chong Tze Chien
The Necessary Stage Ltd (2002) / 253 pages / SGD 18.50

Singaporean theatrical texts tend to be ephemeral things, thrown together and endlessly revised during production, then forgotten afterwards. Few plays actually make it into print – Michael Chiang has a collection, and Stella Kon several, and now and then NAC will trot out an anthology. Still, there is a serious dearth of published local texts, which are necessary if we are ever to develop a canon. The Necessary Stage is to be lauded for partly bridging this gap by bringing into print the collected plays of their company playwright, Chong Tze Chien, and for having the generosity to include ‘PIE’ in this collection, even though that play was originated by Theatreworks.

The plays themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. There are four of them, only two of which (‘PIE’ and ‘Spoilt’) are full-length works. The others, ‘Is This Our Stop?’ and ‘Lift My Mind’, are ‘site-specific plays’, shorter pieces written to be performed on a moving bus and in a cargo lift respectively. One gets the feeling that there wasn’t quite enough material to fill an entire book, so the plays are padded out with photographs and glowing testimonies from the likes of K.K. Seet and Alvin Tan.

The plays themselves are well-structured and very clever, but one also gets the sense of a very young mind at work. They are shot through with monologues of the sort you find in secondary school plays – angst-ridden pieces usually said straight out to the audience while the lighting dims around the actor. For instance:

People would rather be lonely when they travel. On a bus, or on a plane, on the train. They sit and stand so close to one another. They breathe the same air, share the same space. … Yet it doesn’t matter that they don’t know each other’s name.

(‘Is This Our Stop?’)

The banality of these sentiments undermines the intellectual pretensions of the plays, and causes one to lose faith in the writer. When a character starts delivering yet another speech that begins ‘Pa, do you remember how as a child...’ or ‘I remember there was this one time in school’, you wonder why the playwright needs to tell this information to the audience rather than showing it. A well-developed character wouldn’t need all this exposition and pseudo-philosophical reflection to be believable. Chong’s ear for dialogue is also not as sharp as it could be, and his Singlish lines are particularly unconvincing.

Although the writing itself can border on triteness, the structure of the plays shows a great deal of sophistication. Chong enjoys playing with the device of multiple perspectives, often repeating a scene from the points of view of different characters – and subtly changing it each time. As he says,

What kind of narrative is constructed? You can choose to pull/ select/ extract things from the memory bank or interpret the same materials differently.

(‘Pan-Island Expressway’)

This jumping back and forth in time is interesting, and Chong is skilled enough never to let this get in the way of the story. In ‘Spoilt’, the main character disappears a third of the way into the play, and the rest of her story is told by the other people in her life. ‘Pan-Island Expressway’ is about a playwright who has written a play, also called ‘Pan-Island Expressway’, which is set on the P.I.E. – the many levels of reality here threaten to swamp the audience, but like an expert conjurer Chong pulls a single strand clear of the confusion to end on a triumphant note.

Chong is also skilled at creating sympathetic characters. His universe is populated by some of the saddest, loneliest people since Pinter – one wants to sit them down and give them a hug after witnessing their messed-up love lives. Whether employing the worst pick-up lines in the history of romance:

DAWN: Yew, you are a pain in the ass.
YEW BENG: Ass? Oh, are you trying to seduce me?

(‘Pan-Island Expressway’)

or breaking up in the middle of a crowded restaurant (‘It’s not the oysters. It’s you. You are the one who has been making me sick.’), they are painfully dysfunctional and doomed to emotional isolation. Whenever any two people in these plays achieve anything approaching intimacy, you know it’s all going to end in tears.

Which makes the plays sound a lot more depressing than they actually are. There are enough sparks of humour to balance the leaden social observations that the writer is fond of. One groans at the naked social commentary in such lines as

What is race other than the colour society sees you in anyway? The notion of race is nothing more than a social construct which society banks on to better execute its master plan of domination.

(‘Pan-Island Expressway’)

but a little later, this is forgiven as a self-important government type snaps the magnificent line, ‘The word “government” appears twice in the play. Down here, that’s all it takes to consider the script political.’

All of this only applies to the first two plays in the collection, the site-specific works being much weaker. ‘Lift My Mind’, in particular, has almost no plot, just a situation – an illegal immigrant at a nightclub fantasises about a transvestite, while his boss tries desperately to migrate from the country. None of the characters are remotely believable, and the whole strikes one as more of a curio, an interesting idea – staging a play inside a cargo lift moving between floors – that never really took off. ‘Is This Our Stop?’ tries to be a coming-of-age drama, but ends up as an extended whine on the part of a girl whose most pressing dilemma is ‘Should I go to a Poly or JC?’

Each play is followed by an ‘interview’ between Chong and Alvin Tan, the artistic director of The Necessary Stage. These come across as extremely self-indulgent, with Chong saying things like ‘converting society is not... on my creative agenda’ or (of ‘Is This Our Stop?’) ‘the graphic cannibalistic images singe into your mind and accounts (sic) for some visceral moments.’ Chong’s command of the language, or possibly that of his editor, appears at its weakest here, with the playwright saying ‘novelette’ when he means ‘novella’, or ‘henceforth’ when he means ‘hence’. These segments are clearly meant to provide an insight into the creative process, but one is left wondering why the plays couldn’t simply be left to speak for themselves.

On the whole, PIE to SPOILT is promising, but little more. Two of the plays are good, two less so. There is too much self-aggrandizing bumf in between the actual work, and K.K. Seet really doesn’t deserve a two-page biography just for having written a 16-page introduction to the book. One applauds the intentions of The Necessary Stage in bringing the work of a fine young playwright into print, but wishes they had waited till he had a collection truly worth preserving for posterity.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Monsoon Reading
Cyril Wong reviews City of Rain.

In the Observation Ward
Toh Hsien Min reviews No Visitors Allowed.

Don’t Judge An Anthology By Its Introduction aka Things That You Cannot Help But Notice
Anne Seah reviews Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Ponderous Puns and Meandering Metaphors
Ng Wei Chian reviews The Manic Memoirs of Terry Ho.

Related Links

External link to the Necessary Stage.

The Necessary Stage
External link.

Chong Tze Chien profile
External link to Singapore Theatre.

Review of WWW

Review of WWW
External link to Singapore Theatre Reviews.

Review of 'Is This Our Stop?'
External link to Asiaweek.


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