By Nabilah Said
(820 words, 5-minute read)
In the pre-show for Forked, playwright and performer Jo Tan is warming up, prepping her body. We see her assume the plank position, a fractured toe from rehearsals armoured in a padded thermoplastic boot. Just like Tan, this play has been reinforced. When it was performed in January last year at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, reviewers picked up on the underwritten protagonist, its repetitive themes, and a Brexit complication it didn’t need. But this Forked is no limp, reheated leftover – like a potent thick broth, it’s been stripped down to its emotional centre, whilst its characters soak in added nuance. It seems that turning Forked into a monodrama – the astute suggestion of Tan’s mentor and director for the piece, The Finger Players’ Chong Tze Chien – was the pièce de résistance.
Forked plays on Tan’s strengths like no other. First there is her accent work: the so-caricaturish-he-can-only-be-real French acting coach Baptiste Laroche, the clipped British accent put on by lead character Jeanette Peh, and the Mancunian slang of Peh’s painfully class conscious frenemy Sophie, amongst others. The writing is pacey, self-referential and quirky, its stream of consciousness style effective in giving us insight both into Peh’s perceptiveness of herself and others, whilst being powered by Tan’s sense of humour and natural energy.
Even with a whole slate of characters, including Yum Yum (née Yun Yun) whose cynical manipulation of how others perceive her becomes key to her freedom, and the deflated American douchebag Scott, Tan’s grip on the protagonist never wavers, nor does her stamina. The truth is, the play’s message about grappling with a slippery (Chinese) Singaporean identity in a global mess of a world is not actually groundbreaking – but that doesn’t make Tan’s writing and performance any less admirable.
Tan, who like Peh made a hard left in life, forgoing a possible law career to become an actor, has channeled what the British call hard graft into this powerhouse performance. I could not help but notice shades of her previous reincarnations in her performance in Forked, especially in the semi-autobiographical Peh. In the Rocky Balboa-esque warm-ups, I saw the indefatigable female warrant officer in Frago; the heritage club president desperate for validation of Trees, A Crowd… echoed in Peh’s shapeshifting accent; and Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner’s battle-worn administrator Angela in Peh’s final moment of resignation when she decides to call time on her UK sojourn.
Chong and set designer Chan Silei work hand in hand to effectively carve out emotional spaces in an otherwise spare stage. A cool, knowing Peh occupies the upstage area, while centrestage is when the multinational characters often meet. But stage left is where many of the more emotionally intimate scenes in Forked play out. Here, a small desk light illuminates hastily ended phone calls with her mother and troubling memories of school, to heartbreaking detail. In contrast, sound designer Darren Ng’s playful music often goes big, offering cheeky nods to musical theatre or rendering the almost cliché soundscape of the London Tube.
Like Forked, a number of theatre productions this year have turned their attentions onto the industry itself, such as Ellison Tan’s bitter paean to unsung heroes in We Were So Hopeful Then, and Acting Mad, which featured verbatim accounts from Singapore theatremakers who have mental health issues. In Forked, actor training becomes a conduit for exploring Peh’s multi-everything/nothing identity as a Singaporean – at once too ethnic in a foreign land and too foreign at home, and yet too blended to be able to pinpoint for herself what and who she is. Notably, Lim Woan Wen’s dazzling array of lighting, from decorative to functional, glaring PAR Cans to mere figurations of street lamps, brings the metatheatricality of the play to glorious light. Actors are often conditioned to find the light on stage, and in doing so, Peh ultimately finds herself.
In the fast clip of Singapore’s theatre scene, restaging one’s work is a luxury. I am delighted that Tan gets a chance to revise her work, and within such a short time period too. I was privileged enough to have been part of the initial series of playwriting classes under Checkpoint Theatre’s Huzir Sulaiman in 2016, where Tan first wrote her script, then titled China Wine. Since then, with the help of many others, it’s been reworked, and had its fat trimmed. This is what we mean when we say that theatre is a craft.
This is the role Tan has been waiting for; that it is one of her own making, makes it all the more sweeter. With each identity she takes on, Tan reveals more of herself. One can only hope for much, much more in the future. Each stretch of a muscle makes it leaner, stronger. Even an injury is a chance for the body to regenerate itself, be built anew. Tan steps up to the plate. And picks up the fork.
Forked was presented by The Finger Players. It ran from 15-18 August 2019 at the Drama Centre Black Box.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.