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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

Who’s Normal Anyway?

By Akanksha Raja

(920 words, 9-minute read)

Normal opens with a dreary, dull morning assembly at Trinity Girls’ School, immersing the audience in a mise-en-scène that is all too familiar to anyone who has been through any part of public education in Singapore. This bleary-eyed 7AM routine, of forced uniformity and subservience, is broken by our bright but tragic leads, Ashley (Claire Chung) and Daphne (Audrey Teong). They sprint in, dishevelled and late – setting the tone for a thoughtful and moving exploration of the stress and stigma faced by students in the Normal stream studying for their GCE ‘O’ levels.

For the uninitiated, Singapore’s exam-based education system channels children at the age of 12 into different streams, with the Normal stream being one of several that are stigmatised as under-achieving. The social and emotional pressure on young people under the system forms the emotional heart of Normal.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan
Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

Having worked on this play with playwright Faith Ng and director Claire Wong since its first devising in 2013, Chung and Teong have chiselled their characters to precision. They inhabit Ashley and Daphne as if they were second personalities. Chung’s Ashley flickers luminously from devil-may-care defiance, to fragility in grief, and then to fierce loyalty to those she cares for – even a former friend who scorns Ashley’s academic inferiority.  This is a classically romantic role – alluring and insufferable, aggressive and vulnerable all at once. By the end of the play, Chung’s performance elevates the character from below-average student to something mythical, a Byronic heroine.

Her searing angst is relieved by best friend Daphne’s gentleness and humour. Daphne’s lines are always deeply meaningful, whether through deadpan irony or dark philosophy (“Did you know that Mount Everest is littered with dead bodies? … They all died trying to reach the top. I wonder if that was really their dream. Sometimes I look around and think, we all look like dead bodies.”) Teong serves both with steady wryness, which punctuates the high-strung tension of the other characters – occasionally baffling them. Speaking with her teacher about the legend of a former Normal student who aced her ‘O’ levels, Daphne points out that nobody knows her name, before quietly asking, “But how did she do it? Nobody knows how she did it.” It’s a simple question, but powerfully human in reminding us that students tend to be defined by their results so much it strips them of their individualities.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan
Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

One character whom I’d like to have seen more of was Marianne, the overachieving prefect who was primary school pals with Ashley before ambition got the better of her. During a drama club exercise, the rule-abiding Marianne plays a fetus where everyone is meant to play animals. It’s a light moment, but it also hints to an imaginative mind beneath the uptight, conformist exterior. The instability she admits to in her final monologue (poignantly delivered by Lim Shi-An) highlights that ostensibly straight-laced students don’t necessarily live charmed lives. However, because Marianne’s role is small, the weight of her final monologue appeared to be more a device, as a foil to Ashley, than the pain of a fully realised character.

As with most narratives revolving around problem classrooms and school politics (Dead Poets Society; Freedom Writers, I Not Stupid, Those Who Can’t, Teach) Normal too has its own “Young Idealistic Teacher” in the form of Ms Sarah Hew (Julie Wee). Her over-enthusiastic attempt to relate Shakespeare to the students’ lives, and saviour-complex lines like “I really believe that everyone can change the world” run close to archetype. However, what saves her character from staying a cliché is (spoiler alert!) her eventual failure to fulfil her ideals. This realism emphasises the legitimacy of the problems at hand: overly restrictive rules within inflexible, top-down systems. The play also hints at other kinds of marginalisation and exclusion, as when the drama teacher reads out one of the ‘secrets’ she asked students to write, which says “I know what everyone says about me because my dad made me learn Chinese”.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan
Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

What keeps this story fresh is Faith’s writing. One needn’t have gone to a convent school or been in the normal stream to feel the emotional truth of the dialogue because it stems from the lived experience of feeling invisible; Faith’s writing speaks compassionately of this human need to feel seen, recognised, accepted as a unique individual, and the frustration against societal systems which undermine this right. The script unravels a quiet depth in each character. That’s the goal of most writing, but few writers really spark that connection as hers does.

The play is strengthened by Claire Wong’s direction, which envelopes the audience in the bustle of a simulated school environment: characters or members of the ensemble often speak, sing, make noise or amble to and fro various parts of the house beyond the stage, lending a quasi-360º spatial engagement – and verisimilitude – to an ordinary black box configuration. Effectively, I felt like I was back in school again.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan
Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Crispian Chan

Towards the end of the play, the gravitas with which Ashley sighs, “Sadness is ours,” marks the difference between self-pity and the deeper melancholy of alienation. The experience of being overlooked and undervalued takes different forms and none is more or less valid than another. More than a critique of the education system, this is a tender story about loneliness and dehumanisation, and at its heart is an appeal for empathy. The play’s overwhelming success (its 3-week run until 16 April is sold out) is a testament to what unites us beyond labels, numbers, grades: heart, humour and humanity.

 

Selected Reviews

Normal: The Story Of The Neglected And Stereotyped” by Dawn Teo (Popspoken)

“In Julie Wee’s Hew, a classic hero rises and falls” by Helmi Yusof (The Business Times)

“Pain in raw world of a girls’ school” by Olivia Ho (The Straits Times)

“Review: Normal by Checkpoint Theatre” (bakchormeeboy)

“Normal Modes of Expression Can Be Special (Normal by Checkpoint Theatre)” by Eugene Koh (Write Wing Theatre)

Normal” by Naeem Kapadia (Crystal Words)


Normal, written by Faith Ng and produced by Checkpoint Theatre, was first staged in 2015 to full houses. Its 2017 restaging at the Drama Centre Black Box runs until 16 April.

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