By Wong Wen Pu
(600 words, 4-minute read)
Forked by Jo Tan follows the experiences of one Jeanette Peh (played by Ethel Yap), a Singaporean student, as she heads to London to study acting, against the vehement objections of her father and the reluctant acquiescence of her mother. Already a minor celebrity in Singapore through her Youtube channel ‘Stage Whispers’, Jeanette hopes to achieve fame, if not fortune, as an actress in the UK. She is to discover, however, that the UK is not the rosy place in her imaginings, but a country rife with racism, poverty, and unhappiness.
The themes and motifs in the play are somewhat laboured. The joke about gum being banned in Singapore, supposedly a knowing wink for local audiences who’d have all heard this before, is a little tired. The caricature of the Singaporean dreamer naively over-romanticising the West is pedestrian. And the outsider arriving in the country of her dreams, where she expects to fit into her new society like a glove, only to find herself stranger in a strange land? Hardly remarkable in local literary or dramatic tradition. Yap’s Jeanette, tripping over herself in theatrics, is more often caterwauler than whisperer. Even the performance is a little too performative: while there are occasionally poignant and evocative moments, the show frequently relies on style to mask what it lacks in subversive substance.
But the show is not without its saving graces. Forked has a one-track mind; it aims to deliver commentary on Singaporeans’ racial identity—particularly Singaporeans’ misplaced pride as previous colonial subjects and our consequent Anglophonic tradition, as well as the racial prejudices and insecurities into which we Singaporeans are bred. To that end, the starkness of NAFA’s black box, and the sparseness of the set, is appropriately functional. No elaborate set-up is required to amplify what is fundamentally an individual’s struggle with her culture and ethnicity, and, comparably, this country’s struggle with its own historical legacy.
The polyglotism of the performance – delivered in a seamless stream of Hokkien, Mandarin, English and Singlish – is a rather ingenuous device. I particularly enjoyed the creative decision to have Jeanette, while conversing with her mother on the telephone, deliberately mistranslate the tender words offered in Mandarin into functional snippets of English for the non-Mandarin speaking audience. These were the most emotive, the least contrived, scenes in the play. Serendipitously aided by the lack of surtitles (a low-cost production, we were told), the words that would fall through the gaps in human language – between mother and daughter, actors and audience – reveal a fault in our communications that is all too human.
Forked is Tan’s debut play, and in many ways, is recognisably a work in the early stages of development. It is a little rough around the edges. Its points are kitsch. There are moments where it drags and almost stumbles (but never fully trips). In its present form, Forked, requires more polish and nuance to make it the play it wants to be.
This review is based on the performance on 26 January 2018. Forked by Jo Tan runs from 25 – 27 January 2018 at NAFA Studio Theatre.
Wong Wen Pu is a freelance writer. His fiction and criticism has been published journals such as in Peacock Journal, Pif Magazine, Gadfly Online, QLRS and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. He co-edited this is how you walk on the moon, an anthology of anti-realist fiction published by Ethos Books in 2016. A collection of short stories, Aqua Regia, is forthcoming.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.