By Naeem Kapadia
(1020 words, 10-minute read)
Singapore marks fifty years of national service (NS) this year and it’s only apt that we commemorate this integral aspect of our local culture in the arts. Much focus has been placed on the two years of full-time service and particularly basic military training, a powerful experience that binds young men from all walks of life and turns them into real soldiers. Michael Chiang’s play Army Daze, Jack Neo’s film series Ah Boys to Men and television sitcom Yes, Madam all explore this coming-of-age angle through a mix of comedy and caricature.
But what about NS commitments beyond full-time service? Enter Frago, Lucas Ho’s debut full-length play, which delves into the rarely explored reservist experience. The title refers to a ‘fragmentary order’, a modified command where soldiers have to abandon their existing battle plan and react quickly to a changed set of circumstances. Much like the thousands of Singaporean men who get called up for periodic in-camp training (ICT) and step away from their regular lives to return to this intense, masculine world.
The characters here are not eighteen-year-old misfits but a group of Chinese men in an armoured infantry battalion approaching thirty. They have seen each other grow and mature over the past ten years, coming back to this one constant space for their yearly ICT. Over the course of a war game exercise at Lim Chu Kang, we see these men evaluate their lives, loves and priorities.
As a Singaporean male undergoing reservist commitments myself, I found Frago both rich and immersive. Its authentic, lived-in dialogue – from earthy banter to existential musings – vividly conjures up the world of ICT. One does not need to be from the army, let alone from an armour unit, to recognise characters such as Bobby (a hilariously deadpan Timothy Nga), the senior officer who bandies around stock phrases or Sam (a garrulous Chong Woon Yong), the enterprising real estate agent who takes every opportunity to weed out potential clients. Those familiar with the military will be rewarded with little titbits: the SAF tendency of making one “wait to rush” and “rush to wait”, the tedium of being forced to find a missing item for another platoon or simply enjoying that coveted packet of curry Maggi Mee outfield. For others, it’s a fascinating glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.
While the action is structured round the war exercise, the focus is on the individual characters. Some men grapple with relationships, others deal with the pressures of parenthood or simply wonder if they have made the right choices in life. Being in a male environment throws the challenges of the adult world into sharper relief.
Director Huzir Sulaiman approaches Ho’s text with the precision of a sculptor and the sensitivity of a poet. True to the clean Checkpoint aesthetic seen in previous productions like The Good, the Bad and the Sholay and The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco, there are no props and a bare canvas of a set. The ensemble cast – who remain on stage throughout – conjure up the scenes through a series of stylised movements, augmented by evocative shifts in light and sound and haunting renditions of army songs. While the play contains swathes of Mandarin dialogue and is liberally peppered with jargon (the programme helpfully offers a two-page glossary of army terms), it never alienates its audience and Huzir weaves the action into a rich tapestry of age, memory and friendship.
Frago is at its most searing in excavating the unique nature of male friendship. These are men who share intimate details when they come together even though they barely interact with one another on a daily basis. Section commander David (Alfred Loh) is aloof with his girlfriend Wan Qing (Cerys Ong) but opens up with army mates whom he has not seen in a year. Serial playboy Tian De (a slick, engaging Derrick Tay) chastises his engaged friend for getting involved with another girl, reminding him that there is a time to have fun but one should be serious about settling down with the right one. In a tender exchange about parenthood, new father Wei Jun (Zaaki Nasir) advises his friend Jia Hao (Tan Sieow Ping) to use the SAF green towel on his child when it arrives – it’s both soft and dries easily. Much has been said about the emotionally vacant Singaporean man but moments like this reveal a raw humanity that unites them as members of a tribe.
There is however some fat that can be trimmed from the narrative. Characters like Albert (Stanley Seah), the sergeant in charge of arms who gets into a disciplinary scrape, seem entirely peripheral to the action. Wan Qing incongruously wanders on stage and delivers an emotional monologue about her parents. Do we need to dwell on her story? Likewise, a dream sequence featuring the parents of another soldier doesn’t contribute much to the plot.
Ho reminds us that while the army is a male world, one should not forget the contributions of its women. The character of female warrant officer Winnie (a rich, nuanced turn by Jo Tan) is endowed with a real sense of pathos. She works twice as hard to gain the respect of the men she supervises but remains caged in a bureaucratic system that may one day cast her aside. All she can do is to play by the rules. In the bittersweet closing coda, we see the soldiers calling out their goodbyes and leaving one by one, till we are left with the image of Winnie doing a punishing set of physical exercises, utterly alone.
Contrary to popular depictions of the army, Frago offers a wistful and candid snapshot of reservist life that will strike a chord with anyone who has been through this process or ever experienced a sense of dislocation upon returning to a place that has remained the same while they have evolved as a person.
What happens to these men after they leave each ICT and return to their lives? We are never sure. All that sustains them are fleeting moments of humanity, emotional ammunition from their brothers in arms.
“Review: FRAGO by Checkpoint Theatre” (bakchormeeboy)
“Cynical but honest look at reservist life” by Akshita Nanda (The Straits Times)
Frago was written by Lucas Ho, directed by Huzir Sulaiman and presented by Checkpoint Theatre as part of the company’s 15th anniversary season. It runs from 13 to 23 July 2017 at the Drama Centre Black Box.
Naeem Kapadia is a finance lawyer and passionate advocate of the arts. He has acted in and directed student drama productions in both London and Singapore. He has been writing about theatre for over a decade on his personal blog Crystalwords and publications such as London student newspaper The Beaver, Singapore arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore daily newspaper TODAY. Naeem enjoys cooking, travel and running.