By Marcus Yee
(904 words, 9-minute read)
The Necessary Stage’s most recent production, Those Who Can’t, Teach makes a strange journey to its eventual arrival as a “play that salutes teachers”. For one, Haresh Sharma’s script distances itself from the conventional narratives of a teacher’s struggle over a difficult student, with the student’s future success as testament to the fruits of teaching labour. Far from salvific beacons of wisdom, we have instead “problem teachers” in the fictional Marine Parade Secondary School (MPSS): they are risk-averse, disillusioned and overwhelmed bureaucrats whose life-draining job often exceeds their capacities. While the rewriting of the condescending George Bernard Shaw quote to “those who can, teach” is rightfully appreciative, the play’s morsel of truth really lies on the surface of its title, for in the first place, the crushing constellation of inflated ideals and systemic realities of the teaching profession has it such that teachers can’t, let alone teach.
Many of the potentially heavy-handed issues are addressed through a biting humour, where the characters’ alienation from the shiny ideals of Teacher and Student keeps the general atmosphere of the play buoyant. The new Physical Education teacher, Lim (Lian Sutton), a recent graduate from the National Institute of Education (NIE) has his high-minded teaching philosophy quickly smashed in his first weeks of school, as he comes to the conclusion that “NIE fucked me up”. The self-worship and middle-management ways of Zachariah Lee (Joshua Lim), a petty bureaucrat of a Head-of-Department and a PSC scholar on the career-advancement fast-track, reveals the inane cushioning of risk disguised as bureaucratic accountability. Designed by Wong Chee Wai, the multi-tiered set transforms the staffroom into a stage for chronic blame-shifting and work-avoidance, where characters scurry from one micro-conflict to another, without any respite.
At the play’s most cogent, Those Who Can’t, Teach examines the imaginary of public education as a site of meritocracy. The second act revels in the friction of class contact, creating comic opportunities for irreverent scenes like a botched student reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, interspersed with the courtship rituals of a secondary school romance. Here, the actors, Joshua Lim, Ghafir Akbar, Lian Sutton and Siti Khalijah, effortlessly inhabit the tumult of adolescence in all its naivety and intensity.
Class differences are most pronounced between Teck Liang (Joshua Lim), the sensitive “Ah Beng” type character and Raymond Tan (Lian Sutton), a precocious student from a privileged background. Their class-based identity markers are not only mapped out through language, where Raymond’s generic cosmopolitan English contrasts with Teck Liang’s heavy use of Singlish peppered with expletives; they are most powerfully registered on the somatic level of smell, where Raymond smells of expensive shampoo while Teck Liang has a “fish smell”, attributed to his fish seller parents. The lingering, repulsive smell of fish becomes a working-class insult that measures the visceral extent of Teck Liang’s self-hatred, in which his own shame turns into open contempt against his parents. On the other hand, Raymond’s father decides to send him to America for further studies, whereas Teck Liang and his friends continue to trudge their way through the education system after their ‘O’ Level examinations. It should be noted that Raymond’s unlikely encounter with mainstream school education is only a whim on the part of his father for him to “experience real life”, a rich person’s teaching opportunity.
In the play, the high promises of public education are refused as none of the students’ future pathways deviate from conventional expectation. The school is unable to sanitise their students—regardless of their social backgrounds—into shiny, successful futures. While the underappreciated and sacrificial passions of the teacher Mrs. Phua Su Lin, movingly played by Karen Tan, easily resonate with audiences, her most vulnerable moments appear not in the high-stakes conflicts, but in the moments where the grey picture of reality appears immovable, weighing heavy on her faith in education. In one discomfiting scene, the long-ago graduated Jali (Ghafir Akbar) returns to visit Mrs. Phua on her retirement day. Without any spite, Jali reminds Mrs. Phua that he is still a dispatch rider without many other job prospects, despite Mrs. Phua’s encouragement for him to retake his ‘O’ Level examinations. At this point, Mrs. Phua’s reaction is that of unspeakable loss. She has no more rosy promises for Jali because this future, already arrived, has never been entirely determined by academic results and certificates. Apart from revealing the flawed design of the education system, the darker implication is that Mrs. Phua’s relentless passion for teaching shades into a cruel optimism of the public education’s promises, an affect theorised by Lauren Berlant to indicate the injurious attachments individuals have towards the fantasies of a “good life”.
While the plot of the original 1990 version of Those Who Can’t, Teach hinges on the central conflict of the school’s move to another neighbourhood, the revamped play decentres the conflict into a whirl of complications that accurately highlights the many heartaches of teachers in today’s rapidly-changing education landscape. What is the value of a teacher’s passion in an education system that adopts the modalities of business, where school is a corporation and teachers are service-providers? When does passion turn into an empty public relations rhetoric, or a blind faith into the invisible hand of the education system? Perhaps what makes the teaching profession still precious, despite the play’s all-too-human teachers and less-than-perfect education system, is found in the portrayal of an unrelenting belief in students and the refusal of cynicism.
“Review: Those Who Can’t, Teach by The Necessary Stage” by bakchormeeboy
“[REVIEW] Those Who Can’t, Teach; by The Necessary Stage” by Violet Koh (Campus Magazine)
“Teacher-student comedy scores an “A”” by Helmi Yusof (The Business Times)
“Theatre Review: ‘Those Who Can’t, Teach’” by Shona Benson (Sassy Mama)
“An Unnecessary Staging (Those Who Can’t, Teach by The Necessary Stage)” by Eugene Koh (Write Wing Theatre)
Those Who Can’t, Teach by The Necessary Stage ran from 9 – 19 March 2017 at the Drama Centre Theatre.
Guest Writer Marcus Yee is an artist and art writer. He has exhibited in group shows in Singapore, Shanghai and Zürich. His blog can be found on www.rightafters.tumblr.com.