By Nabilah Said
(1,500 words, 7-minute read)
Spoiler Alert: The following contains major spoilers for the shows A Fiend’s Diary and Heather.
I watched the stories of two monsters in the theatre recently. In A Fiend’s Diary, Oliver Chong plays an unnamed man who kills a young victim in a fit of what can be best described as cold rage, then attempts to intellectualise why crime, punishment (and various other concepts along the way) lack meaning. In Heather, a celebrated children’s book author is revealed to be a sexual predator and a murderer, who has no real explanation for the violence he inflicts on others. Two monsters, both men, whose victims were female and/or children.
One cannot deny that there is a frisson of danger involved in watching monsters in media. Television and film (or more realistically, Netflix) often gives us a safety barrier – we watch villains cavort, execute dastardly plans, say the unsayable, from a distance that allows us to separate ourselves from them. Whether fictional, larger than life or too-reality-TV-to-be-real, these villains exist on a different plane. We don’t want to be them, but we secretly delight in watching them let the world burn. This obsession with darkness, with the macabre, with individuals who violate the social contract so indiscriminately, is the very lynchpin keeping the entire true crime industry together. Even when the line between us and them is thin, it is mediated just enough to insulate ourselves from any associative guilt.
But monsters on stage hold a different sway. One thing theatre does well is its ability to help us tap into our sense of empathy to make us feel something for the characters we are watching on stage. In the course of a play, monsters unpeel layers of themselves, whether through dialogue or action or both, till we access their human centres. We are conditioned to expect some element of vulnerability. It is a move towards complexity, and the goal often is for the audience, if not to condone, then to understand what aspect of human desire has created or contributed to the making of a monster.
At the heart of it, both these plays are the stories of perpetrators. And by coincidence, both of them involve an act of writing – as a record, to activate memory, to entertain, to redeem, to validate, perhaps even to lionise.
A striking feature of A Fiend’s Diary is its grey-washed set, every inch of it, from table to window, floor and bed, completely covered by chalk scrawls of words in Mandarin. I am told that each time Chong switches character, he writes the name of the character over its existing mark, as if to confirm facts or retrieve a memory. In the play, Chong’s unnamed protagonist details an account of his life that leads him to kill a child, including a protracted court trial after. He is incredibly calm, his tone often monotonous and matter-of-fact. His actions are described as if they are natural consequences of each previous action. I am largely unmoved by his arguments, his unwavering tone, his steady conviction, his black-and-white logic holding no sway with me.
The character almost feels like a computer programme (if-x-then-y) brought to life, and I feel, deliberately so. The play’s set and quiet internal rhythm reminds me of a durational installation work Chong was part of for 2016’s SIFA called Time Between Us, where he stayed in a wooden house outside Marina Bay Sands for five straight days. Small groups of audience members were allowed in at set times to witness a character, played by Chong, go about doing different activities. It was conceived by Argentinean director Fernando Rubio, and similar to A Fiend’s Diary, words were written in chalk around the house. I had found the piece moving in a very disquieting way, but what was more disturbing was this uncertainty I had about who we were really seeing in this house. In a pre-event interview with Ng Yi-Sheng, Chong describes what he had to do in Time Between Us as “I forget my life I forget me to be this stranger who lives in this house for five days”.
NYS: What worries you the most?
Oliver: If I’m able to come back as Oliver Chong. That’s something that I find scary about it. If I’m able to really come back in one piece.
In another interview done post-show, Chong states: “If I got anything from this production, it was the meaninglessness of existence.” He may be playing a different man, but it is this sentiment that also thrums underneath the bare bones of A Fiend’s Diary. It is not so much the oppressive wall of words that swallows this set whole, or the convoluted accounts of the man’s crime and its aftermath, or even this unmovable man at the heart of it. Chong is masterful in his character work – like in his other stunning monodrama, the brilliant, personal Roots – with striking personalities such as loyal girlfriend Lina and the down and out Marcel, but what really comes through in A Fiend’s Diary is this aching emptiness you feel radiating from Chong through his solid portrayal of this man who barely emotes, not even in the face of death.
Playing a monster, especially one who feels as viscerally isolated as this, requires a tremendous amount of actor safety and self-care. Chong has said in interviews for A Fiend’s Diary that it has origins in his fascination with concepts of absurdity and existentialism, as well as the death of his father in 2018. He has also spoken candidly about his depression and mental health struggles in past interviews. With a one man show in which he not only performs, but has also directed and designed the set, Chong is very visibly and willingly putting himself through A LOT. For a play about the meaningless of life, it seems evident that it is through his craft that Chong derives meaning, but I do wonder about the price of all of it.
Because whether A Fiend’s Diary succeeds depends on whether the audience is able to echolocate Chong’s humanity within this story of a monster – and sound designer Darren Ng’s restrained use of a ghostly piano note seems deliberately designed to help us with this mapping. The anonymity of the man and the lack of specificity of the details (the dates in the “diary” fluctuate wildly from 1/1/1111 to X/X/XXXX and other absurd permutations) also make it easier for one to disappear in the cracks of this piece and this character. I suppose what I really want to ask is: Oliver Chong, are you alright…?
In contrast, the Edinburgh Fringe hit Heather never gives us something as real to hold on to. Written by British playwright Thomas Eccleshare, the two-hander deftly navigates between dual identities and concepts, between truth and lie. Is the writer behind books with Rowling-like titles like Greta and the Pen of the Necromancer a mousy mother with terminal cancer named Heather (Karen Tan) or Tariq, a convicted killer guilty of sexual assault (Andy Tear)? Does a criminal deserve success/fandom/an artistic legacy? And one especially novel question at the heart of Heather is whether the escapist freedoms that can be found in the fantasy genre should be similarly afforded to a killer who is behind bars.
Heather is clever, and occasionally surprisingly delightful. Its final set piece, a dramatised scene from Tariq’s final book that is brilliantly acted, directed (Adeeb Fazah) and lit (Petrina Dawn Tan) best encapsulates the play’s hero/villain dichotomy, and makes effective use of the magic of theatre to elevate its simple staging to life. Yet despite the team’s best efforts, the play remains in the realm of fantasy. You never quite feel for or understand Tariq, largely because Eccleshare never addresses the politics at play with having a criminal with an Arabic name masquerade and achieve massive success as a white suburban British woman. The play is dark, but its thinly drawn central protagonist stops it from revealing a darker and more explosive side of society.
With both plays, I found myself questioning if I should care about the stories of monsters. In writing and presenting stories, whose narratives, whose voices should we be privileging? I am increasingly wondering if theatre is still a safe space, but the true question should be, who is it safe for? Do we preserve it as one of the last bastions from which monsters can speak?
Of course, I could be oversimplifying what is a complicated issue, or overcomplicating what is a simple one. In a world which is debating over falsehoods, maybe we should not vilify attempts at truth-telling, no matter who is trying to do it. With theatre in particular we should encourage the examination of truth with more nuance than it is usually at the receiving end of in most other places.
Heather can be seen as an arc towards an individual’s redemption, complicated by our presumptions of what a children’s book author should look like, the ethics of the publishing industry, and the question of whether the prison system is an effective method of rehabilitation. A Fiend’s Diary is an uncompromising piece of work that is almost a philosophical treatise, and thus its impenetrability might be its very point. It is not my intention for these works to be re-done, once more with feeling. To demand that would be too easy, too ignorant of our current circumstances. Instead, my lack of empathy for these characters tracks more as a commentary on the shifting realities/moralities of the world we live in and our constant toggling to find meaning within it.
In staring into the abyss, I found nothing else staring back at me. Perhaps that is what is most troubling of all.
A Fiend’s Diary, presented by The Finger Players, ran from 24 to 27 October at Drama Centre, Black Box. More info here. Heather, presented by Adeeb & Shai, ran from 24 to 27 October 2019 at Gateway Theatre Blackbox. More info here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.