Date: 20 December 2008
Time: 3 pm and 8 pm
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
by Richard Chua
21 December 2008
In the talk-back session held at the end of the opening run of the second group of short plays – Brunch and Teacher’s Day – director Tan Kheng Hua outlined her motivation and vision in directing the four plays. The other two were Duet and Real Actors. She wanted the plays to show the subtleties in human emotions, to be performed in a less naturalistic fashion and to show less of theatrics on stage. No doubt, her heart is in the right place – embracing humanity. But technically these statements only constitute one part in the directing process: directing an actor. There are so much more in directing than just directing the actors. I am not suggesting that Tan Kheng Hua is ignorant of the other processes in directing. For, having watched the performances, it seems she has taken care of the actors well, more than audience perceptions of the stories and wanting to bring the stories to a greater life.
Lots of character work have been done with the actors. This could be clearly seen in the actors’ performances; some to aplomb, others needed improvement. Portraying subtleties in emotions is difficult. An actor needs to take precise decisions, coupled with the choice of the right timing on stage, in order for the strength of performance to have an impact on the audience, in the moment.
It is the “unusual lives” of people Tan Kheng Hua wanted to portray on stage with the four plays. From the life of two second rate singers/actors wanting a sense of purpose in life (Duets) to two film actors showing human frailties during a dry rehearsal of their upcoming movie project (Real Actors) to a woman and man’s desperate attempts trying to come to terms with their spouses infidelity towards them (Brunch) to a male teacher’s moral struggle in his lust – or love – towards his male student (Teacher’s Day).
Duets was performed by Serene Chen and Karen Lim. Their performances were technically adept, but they did not move the audience. That was partly due to their attempts in covering up for the deficiencies in their characters. The story did not provide anything more than just showing two women’s attempt to try patch up their friendship. Serene Chen and Karen Lim saw too much of their characters, and while trying to portray them, they did not pay attention to each other. Hence, responses given to each other were sluggish. It hampered audience’s investment in the emotional journey of the characters. However, having attended the first reading of the play a couple of months ago, I realised that the play has definitely taken on a different direction: putting more emphasis on character work while trying to experiment with language play. I thank playwright Eleanor Wong for doing so, for, to me, character is the thing I would love to watch in this play.
Real Actors, on the other hand, has caught my attention, simply because the actors have paid attention to each other in the whole performance. Timonthy Nga played a Singaporean actor who over-compensates his deficiency in acting with hard work, while Joanna Dong played a new actor excited with her first foray into film acting. Special mention has to be given to Joanna Dong for her good character work, albeit one she is familiar with. Timothy Nga, on the other hand, was merely competently performing himself on stage, not really a character. But it is pointless to discuss this here, for the play required them to play their true selves anyway. Truth is the key word here, and it was also the strength of their performances. Were they really playing the true Timothy Nga and Joanna Dong? Nobody knows. The exciting part of the play lies in both actors/characters/players constantly swinging between the ends like a pendulum, making the audience think if acting could be a mask for reality. That’s precisely the strength of Ken Kwek’s premise for the play: Are actors hypocrites? The premise gave the actors an extremely broad space for exploration, where both Timothy Nga and Joanna Dong did to considerable flair. Again, the key element in their performance which made them probably the best set of actors in the whole production run is simply the full attention they have given to their co-players in reacting to each other on stage.
Brunch, according to Kelvin Tong, is a sequel to one of the episodes in the television series. It does not make a difference whether it is sequel or prequel. What matters most is the story content. On the outset, stakes are not high enough for the characters. That is highly problematic. The story simply revolves around Melissa (played by Janice Koh) and Patrick (played by Daniel Jenkins) getting themselves in different states of being trying to reconcile their emotions in the face of infidelities. As much as Janice Koh tried her best to portray the character – to whom she played with aplomb – Melissa doesn’t seem to find a resolution. Even a no-resolution is a resolution. Patrick, on the other hand, has been given a rather convenient resolution: best to keep the status quo by not talking about it. To me, it is irresponsibility, both on the part of the writer and the character, for keeping the status quo by not talking about it is foreclosure of any discussion towards knowledge contribution and resolution for the characters.
Teacher’s Day is most probably the most controversial play in the whole series. It could also be the most beautiful and poetic piece of theatre. Unfortunately, most of Kaylene Tan’s subtextual layers in her play were lost in Tan Kheng Hua’s single-traffic direction of the play. The images in Kaylene’s text are poetic metaphors to the characters. Both elements can’t be separated from each other. For one informs the other in understanding the journeys characters Mr Pereira (played by K Rajagopal) and the student (Muhammad Nur Hadri Bin Sopri) go through in the hotel room.
The strength of the play lies in the politics between the student and the teacher. References could be made to an independent film Hard Candy, directed by David Slade in 2006. In fact, lots could be told from the very first scene when the student was waiting for his teacher in the hotel room. Was this a set-up? What was his motivation in booking the room? Was it out of love or lust? Was it motivated by an act of revenge? There are many possibilities for speculation. Unfortunately, the character was insufficiently played out by the relatively new actor in the scene. He seemed uncomfortable in his skin, not knowing what to do on stage. This could be seen from the way he moved his co-player on stage and the lack of chemistry when both of them were engaged in intimacy.
This is a case of a fearful actor on stage. As much as he “tried to do” a piece of business on stage, it played against him exposing his inadequacies. For the idea of “I know what I am supposed to do on stage” becomes self-centredness; the “I” filling up an actor’s mind than “listening to his/her co-actor” reacting to the co-actor’s lines and actions.
K Rajagopal, on the other hand, suffered from another variant of the same problem. In playing the teacher, he has failed to give sufficient liminal spaces between the lines and the moments allowing the character of the teacher to emerge. Is the teacher bound by morality; social or governmental – the Ministry of Education does subscribe a code of conduct for teachers? What choices does he have to make when the student becomes a “gift” to him, in the hotel room? What is he going make out of the love/infatuation his student gives so willingly? These are pertinent questions for the actors. These answers are key to a good performance.
The lighting and sound designs did not help the play in fleshing out the poetry within. What they did was moving audience’s attention away from the play, each trying to fight for audience attention using flashing lights and annoying beep tones. Music used wasn’t exactly apt, for it made the inadequacies even more prominent on stage.
On the whole, Do Not Disturb, Late Checkout, Please is a good attempt at character work. It was also refreshing to see new faces on stage. However, a personal wish of mine, I hope to see actor Janice Koh performing other character types on stage in the near future, rather than those “estranged women falling out of love and descending into deep misery” type of characters, which she has done in sufficient quantity in recent times.
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