Podcast 81: King and The Book of Mothers

In this month’s theatre podcast, Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss two plays from the Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020: King, written and performed by Jo Tan and directed by Jasmine Ng; and The Book of Mothers, written by Eleanor Tan and directed by Edith Podesta. N.O.W. is presented by T:>Works.

King ran from 23 July to 2 August on YouTube and TWorks’ Facebook Page. The Book of Mothers, an audio play, ran from 30 July on 2 August on SoundCloud. Both The Book of Mothers and King can rented online.

Warning: This review may contain spoilers for the shows. 

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Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone. And welcome back to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. We’re very happy to be back so soon. And today we’re here as usual with me, Naeem Kapadia, and I’m joined by Matt Lyon…

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.

NK: And Nabilah Said.

Nabilah Said (NS): Hi.

NK: Today we are going to be discussing two plays from the recently concluded N.O.W. Festival, the Festival of Women, which are King by Jo Tan, and The Book of Mothers by Eleanor Tan.

Both these plays were available online, one of which was through a video, and the other one was through a sound recording, and yeah, dealing with various issues relating to gender and the female experience. And on that note, I think we should move it over to Nabilah, who maybe can kick us off with King by Jo Tan.

So, tell us a little bit about this play, Nabilah.

NS: Okay. So King by Jo Tan is a monodrama I would say, where Jo plays all the characters in a play that’s predominantly about the exploration of gender. And that gender is really looked at in terms of the spectrum of gender. In the play, her main character is called Geok Yen, like a mousy Chinese office lady (OL).

And she is in a relationship that’s very vanilla with her boyfriend called Matt, I believe.

ML: A lot of Matts this time round. I apologise for my name; there’s going to be hundreds of us.

NS: Yeah. And the persona that we see that allows her to break through this stereotype is a drag-king persona called Sterling DaSilva… pun fully intended, I’m sure. And I think this persona, she discovers it during an office party, where, I think, does she come in drag?

NK: She wears her boyfriend’s clothes to the party.

NS: Yeah. So the moment she comes in drag to this party, all her colleagues react to her in a very different way, in surprise and shock with her sudden, newfound confidence.

And because of this, she essentially gets a pass or invitation to be part of the drag world, right? Because of her colleague, Ethan, who is really her boss, like one of her bosses, right?

ML: Superior, certainly. Maybe he was in a different department…

NS: Yeah. PR, or something.

ML: Yeah, above her in the hierarchy.

NS: Yeah. So every Sunday, he performs in a cabaret as a drag queen. And he invites her to come, and then she becomes a drag king, basically in this world.

The play, I think, really looks at the idea of performativity of gender, because of the whole idea of drag. So I don’t know whether you’ve heard this Lady Gaga line, ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.’ Okay, either Lady Gaga, or RuPaul.

ML: I thought it was RuPaul…

NS: Okay, yes, it’s RuPaul. But I think that this play embodies this idea, right?

ML: Very much.

NK: No, definitely. I think that whole idea of self-identity so much… And as you said, like the main character Geok Yen is this very colourless woman who feels almost diminished in some way. And this is beautifully captured by Jo in the way she plays the character. She almost seems unsure of herself: she keeps going ‘Hm, hm’, and swallowing repeatedly as if she’s unsure of everything she says; and that changes with a snap the moment she takes on this persona of Sterling, where she’s able to suddenly say things which she would never in a million years have said before. So I think it’s just a way of her trying to find that sense of confidence—and also through the performance which she does at the drag cabaret later on, she just realises that actually, ‘I do have a personality and I should just embrace it.’ And what I thought was interesting about this place, that obviously there is the literal sense of drag, of taking on another gender, but it’s also the idea of how everyone, in some way is performing, and this is evident throughout all the characters she embodies.

So there’s the husband who has this very traditional idea of, ‘I take care of you. I’m the man,’ and—

NS: Boyfriend–

NK: Boyfriend, sorry, the boyfriend, Matt. And then there’s the boyfriend’s best friend who’s the toxic masculine character who tells her she’s not pretty enough, and she should make sure—

NS: Lose weight…

NK: Yeah, lose weight so that he sticks with her.

And then there’s the female boss who, obviously wants to a dress to impress just so that people take notice of her at work, to the gay Australian colleague called Ethan, who’s a feminine gay man. So everyone has this role, which they play. And I thought that’s quite interesting, this idea of drag, not in the literal sense, but in a figurative sense of us performing every single day of our lives.

ML: And indeed the opposite, how gender can perform you, which is what we see at the start with Geok Yen. You talked about her ‘Hm, hm’: all these little things that Jo did with the way she compresses her mouth and the sound she makes…  She did it so skilfully that you could tell that she was accepting the pressures upon her and going along with them, but that she really didn’t want to. And that the way she felt confined within the expectations of her gender was what created her physicality and her voice, and defined her presence in the world—until she finds a way to break out of that. And equally, her husband seems to be trapped within gender constraints so that it is performing him rather than the other way round.

So that does set you up for a very nice journey where the characters learn to navigate and grow with that. I thought it was well-handled in that regard.

NS: Hm, I think also beyond like showing you a spectrum of this idea of gender, there was this also idea of the privileges that each gender gets, and what happens when you transgress a certain line. So for example, as a drag king, or when she is at the cabaret, she uses some of the slurs that Ethan uses with another friend who’s also a drag queen, and then they’re like, ‘No, you can’t say that just because we invited you into this world.’

ML: Even though, oddly enough, she is (although she’s in drag at the time), a cis woman saying the C-word at that point, and it is two men who take offense and feel like they own that word… which was, in context, actually plausible.

What was interesting to me is that the characters don’t always give the best argument. And I like that, because if you think of an Alfian (Sa’at) play, you have these incredibly hyperliterate characters who always give exactly the right argument. Whereas here… yeah, I don’t always think of the right argument first.

I think there was probably a little bit too much of that; some of the arguments in the play were a little bit circular, but I don’t know… it kind of worked for me.

NS: I think one example that I can remember is when Ethan gets really upset. Maybe in an Alfian play, it would be argued to the end of that point, that being a drag queen is not the same as being a transsexual—but with this play, she left it there because of what you’re saying Matt: that it was politically incorrect, and just allowed to breathe as a very realistic exchange…

ML: Because she trusts that her audience will get it, which I like.

NS: Yeah.

NK: And just to go back to your point on privilege, I think it was quite interesting as well, because obviously, trapped in her everyday working environment, she clearly feels that men – as well as very powerful femme-fatale types – are the ones who advance. But when the tables are turned and she’s within this drag society, she’s the one with the privilege.

And I think there was a line where they say, ‘This is just a weekend hobby for you. This is a way of life for us.’ You know, the men who come to this drag club have had some negative experiences, or perhaps being bullied or discriminated against, and this is a place where they have an outlet to be themselves and to find their own authentic voice.

But for her, it’s just a form of creative expression, and she can go back to her happy domestic life. She just realises that this time she is the one with the privilege for being able to snap her fingers and go back.  And therefore it cuts both ways, and that just makes her more aware of these issues as well.

NS: Hm, I like that actually, because Jo could have very easily fallen into the trap of centring the cisgender Chinese perspective. But with that scene, I felt that she showed that there was an awareness that there could be some problems with the fact that she was also the main actor, the writer… That could have been like the main thing. And I think that could be problematic. But she showed that she could break away from that.

I also feel like there’s the idea of the box that Geok Yen was finding herself in, and being Sterling allowed her to break out of the box… But there are limitations: even when you break out of the box, you can’t just say anything and do anything. There’s no freedom or lack of responsibility to what you say. And so some of the characters really put her feet to the fire in terms of the things that Sterling says, the problematic things.

ML: Quite. I guess at the start of the play, we see somebody who takes the bullets, and then she turns into someone who shoots the bullets… And then by the time you get to the end of the play, it’s like, ‘Hm, maybe we need to put the guns down.’

And it’s composed of all these binaries: each character seems to see themselves in terms of oppositions to the other, which—you know, look out the window, I guess that’s how the world works.

And I think by having these scenes where she’s able to play these very strongly defined (both in terms of the writing, and of course in terms of the performance) characters off against each other, with their own wants and needs and their own forces acting upon them, she is able to break off these chunks of identity, which we can then examine.

NK: Yeah, and I think that’s why it’s quite powerful to be able to see. And she does, I think, eight different characters. And obviously not all of them are as well fleshed-out as the other, but she manages to differentiate them quite well. And it’s very simple: she uses a single prop. So she’s just in this very simple, basic outfit for the whole performance (which is shot primarily on three cameras, one straight ahead and one on each side). But every time she plays another character, apart from the main character, she puts on one little prop, be it a pair of sunglasses or a feather boa, or, you know, a cigarette or something like that.

And it’s just a very simple idea of how we layer these little aspects of personality on ourselves every day as we perform the roles in our daily lives. And she did that quite well, from the Australian accent of the gay colleague, to the kind of sassy Mama Lemon at the club, to the alpha-male best friend—all these little characters are given their own shade. And I think it’s really a testament to her skill as an actor to play that wide spectrum.

ML: Yeah, it was extremely skilful. Talking about how she gave each one of them a prop (a feather boa, things like that), I can see why she did that in a play about drag, and she handled it very adroitly. Part of me wishes she hadn’t, because she didn’t need it. And it’s not because she put the sunglasses on her head that she became a character; it’s because she changed her face and her physicality: she leans in, she leans back, she changes the timbre of her voice. Some of the characters didn’t even look like each other. She did a really, really good job. And as well as that, she’s doing it from the waist up. It’s shot with three cameras and the cameras just switched… but they’re static shots, and we only ever see her from – I don’t know – belly button up, and so she isn’t able to access her gait… You know, she doesn’t have her leg. She doesn’t have the sidestep movement that you often do when you’re multi-roling. She just did all of it with her upper body and her face. It was really, really good work.

NK: Yeah. And we were also talking about this is Jo’s second full-length play. So she did Forked, which was a play that went through quite a bit of an incubation period. It was part of the playwriting programme which she had done, and then it was staged at the (M1) Fringe Festival before becoming a solo show produced by The Finger Players.

And that play went through many iterations, where I think in the earlier stages it was a wide cast of characters. And then it became more of a monodrama where she took on all the characters. And I feel this is in some ways a continuation of that: so she plays all the different characters, and not only was it performed well, it was quite powerful in terms of its themes and its writing as well. Obviously, there were bits that could have been explored better, but considering the limitations they had in terms of this being on a digital format, and, as you said, only from the waist up, I think it was a very entertaining and well-performed piece. Well-directed as well by Jasmine Ng, the director here.

NS: Yeah. I just think it’s a really good exploration, in both form and content, of performativity.

ML: I wanted… less, though.

I think at its heart, this should it be the story of Geok Yen, and how she uses Sterling – or perhaps is used by Sterling, this alternative identity – and how that affects her presence in the world. Some of the other characters… there’s the colleague that you mentioned with the cigarette, Andrew—he just has no reason to exist whatsoever.

And some of the others, I think, fall into that slightly uncomfortable middle ground where we either need more from them or we need less. Like they’re either their own people, or they’re there to support her. And I think there’s such richness in… You know, you said she is a cis woman, and maybe we want to hear more from the gay characters, maybe there should be trans characters… But maybe they need their own show, because there is enough to say about her journey within this patriarchal world.

So I’d really like another draft which focuses a little bit more cleanly on her, so that we don’t get into this, ‘Shouldn’t we hear more about that guy?’ No, he’s not there for himself. He’s there for her.

NK: I think I can see why you say that because especially for the Ethan character, I think he got quite well developed in the play, to evolve from a general acquaintance to almost a confidant. He’s the one who brings her to this drag club. And then he shares these secrets about his own life, about how he’s in a relationship with another man who seems to be using him, and he’s quite broken up about it. And due to an unfortunate incident, he leaves the country and we don’t really get a resolution with his story. And you might feel invested and slightly unsatisfied as to how that ends… But I think you’re right. It is ultimately Geok Yen’s story, and it does end on a positive note.

So she has clearly some character development. Not everyone else does, but maybe this is not the play for everyone to have a perfect ending.

ML: If it were, I think it probably couldn’t be a monodrama. Because she’s got two characters in there that she can really invest in the humanity of, and you can’t do that with every bit actor, you know? And I thought her performance of the Australian gay guy, Ethan, was fine. But it wasn’t nearly as strong or as detailed as her performance of the two leads. And it probably shouldn’t be, but then maybe that means that it shouldn’t be there in the writing either.

NS: Maybe at the end of it, she wants us to also question the cost of some of the development of Geok Yen’s character, because if she tied everything up, so perfectly even for Ethan, then maybe that point gets a bit lost. But perhaps the point she was trying to make with Ethan is that not everyone gets to have this happy ending… everyone’s happy… because for some people, that’s just their life, struggling. And if society doesn’t treat everyone as equal, then inequalities will always exist. So maybe it could be a thing that she was trying to do, perhaps.

NK: Yep, yep, exactly. It’s just a sad reality, you’re right. At the end of the day, she’s a straight woman, and I think she clearly has that privilege which unfortunately someone like Ethan maybe doesn’t get to enjoy.

ML: But then he gets to be male. In his work, he’s a little bit more butch. He’s not ‘out’ out at work. So the upsides and the downsides and how society rewards or punishes gender, it’s richly in there, I think.

NK: And I think there’s definitely enough there. I mean, I thought this is something that really tackles quite thorny issues about gender. And I think she does it really well. So I would be very happy if there was a further incarnation of this work, just because I’ve heard and seen how some of her other plays have fared so well in that journey which they’ve had.

NS: Yeah, I liked it a lot.

ML: Cool. Well then, moving on.

NK: So that was King by Jo Tan. And the other play we are speaking about today is The Book of Mothers. This was written by Eleanor Tan, and directed by Edith Podesta. And this was effectively a radio play. It was obviously intended to be a full-fledged production, but due to the COVID pandemic and the festival being digital, it was made into an audio recording.

And The Book of Mothers is basically the story of Louise, who is this middle class, young wife who finds herself pregnant, and is very ambivalent about the situation. She comes from a single-parent family where she was left alone and abandoned by her mother, who was a career-obsessed woman; her father died when she was young. And because she herself didn’t feel necessarily very loved when she was growing up, and resents the mother for that, she’s not sure if she herself can be good mother. So despite the fact that her husband is very excited about the child, she just can’t quite conjure up the same emotions. And the play’s an exploration of that tussle, I guess, between what motherhood means—that invasion into one’s life, and how a woman is meant to juggle this idea of having some sense of autonomy over her life, and being completely held to ransom by biological forces.

So what did you think, Nabilah?

NS: I guess the other thing about it is it’s also interspersed by Biblical, I think, references to the role of a mother or the expectations of a mother. So for me, I came away from it thinking that there was an allegorical tone to actually the entire play, because there’s something dreamlike and fantastical about it—so much so that the realistic parts of it were also not quite realistic.

So we were talking about how me and Naeem might have taken some of the scenes to have been realistic sequences, when they might not have been, right? Matt, you were saying…?

ML: I think that’s a very nice way of saying that it was very, very confusing, and that a lot of the time the play pulls the rug out from under you. And I couldn’t see the purpose for it.

So you start with a character who apparently doesn’t seem to want a baby. Okay, maybe she wants the husband then. But then, no, she doesn’t want the husband, so then she wants the baby.

And she speaks to her mother about it—and then at the end of the scene, you find out that no, she can’t have been speaking to her mother, because her mother has advanced dementia. But that’s not clearly put across, to the point where neither of you got that, right?

NS: Yeah.

ML: So you thought she was literally speaking to the mother, but apparently not.

And then there’s a scene where she says she’s going to have an abortion, and we believe she’s had an abortion. And then she hasn’t had an abortion, for very dubious reasons.

And then there’s a scene where the unborn granddaughter speaks to the dementia-ed grandmother, neither of whom, obviously, can speak. And the main character who is supposedly imagining both of them isn’t there, and they seem to be giving information that she couldn’t have known.

In one scene, the unborn granddaughter complains about being aborted, and in another scene, she then complains about being born.

And then in the scene between the grandmother and the granddaughter, the granddaughter ends up saying goodbye to the grandmother, and we all thought she was dead.

NS: Yeah.

ML: And then in the next scene, she’s alive.

I don’t know why it kept saying ‘This is red. No, it’s green! No, it’s red. No, it’s green!’ I didn’t get why it did that…

NK: Thank you for being able to articulate all the plot points, which it’s been—

ML: That hurt my brain…

NK: It’s been a couple of weeks…

But yeah, I completely agree. So just the fact that the mother (who’s played beautifully by Karen Tan) has advanced dementia, and it’s revealed that the mother is barely lucid—but in the play itself, for the most part, she is involved in very articulate, detailed conversations with the main character, Louise.

And I thought that was just as is, only to realise that most of these conversations were presumably imagined. And the fact that this was a radio play where we couldn’t see anyone… the plot itself just really needed some major work in order to cohere for an audience.

NS: I feel like I really relate to some of the things that Eleanor was trying to talk about. Like, there’s all this information out there about what mothers are supposed to be, and blah, blah, blah. And if you feel like you can’t quite relate to any of them, then you do feel alienated and you do feel alone.

Even the idea of all these people not actually talking in real life—to me it makes sense in terms of the alienation of the main character. But those fantastical sequences between the grandchild and the grandmother, there were some rules that weren’t clear. So for example, there’s one moment where the grandchild is like, ‘Oh, I don’t know enough to say.’ But then she also knows too much about everything. So then you don’t know whether she’s in the imagination of the main character, or she actually is a child that could have existed that may have all these memories and information about life. But because I felt that it was a bit inconsistent, as an audience member, I was like, ‘So is this a real child or is this an imagined child, or is it a…?’

ML: You do get stuck on those technicalities, don’t you? Whereas if the situation were presented in a different theatrical format (and I don’t mean radio play as opposed to stage play) I think it could have worked out.

You talked about alienation and ambiguity, and of course that is wonderful territory to explore, but it’s not territory that you can easily explore in this format where you have a central character engaged in conversations with others—you know, the traditional thing you do to get drama, and which propels a plot forward. That’s reliant on a character who wants something, not a character who is in this ambiguous situation or who feels alienated. So I think you need to turn to something postdramatic there. And if this play were able to invest in kind of a more fragmented, a more mystical, a more… you’ve used the word ‘fantastical’: yeah! But it didn’t seem that way, did it? And that’s, I think, what tripped a lot of us up.

NK: Yeah, and I think that’s exactly it, because it’s set up in this very naturalistic format. It starts with a domestic conversation between husband and wife. The wife reveals that she’s gotten pregnant and the husband is very excited, wants to bring her out to celebrate and have Mala hotpot. You know, things like that.

It’s written in this very careful, formal precise English of the sort that you would hear on television in the ’70s and ’80s, and which just somehow doesn’t quite relate to the theatre we see onstage these days. So that sort of made the play one step removed for me, like almost as this very formal forced skit that some governmental body would put up.

ML: Oh nice, yeah.

NK: You know, that sort of idea, like, ‘This is like the proper family.’

ML: Well, as a example, in the previous one we talked about, King, Jo was herself playing so many different characters, whereas here we had different actors for the characters. Now, if you just remember listening to it, which of those characters sounded most different? It’s Jo’s right? It’s King, even though she was only one person doing them.

NK: Exactly. Exactly. And I think the other thing I have to say is obviously there were seven or eight characters in this show, The Book of Mothers, just like in Jo Tan’s King, but some of the characters, were just so painfully underwritten and such caricatures. I mean, we have the best friend characters who are practically indistinguishable from each other. You have a potty-mouthed lawyer, you have some sarcastic pregnant best friend, you have some buffoonish comic relief, male, best friend character who will have two or three lines here and there. And then you have the husband, the wife, the mother.

At the end of the day, you wonder whether all these characters were simply put in just to fill out certain number of pages…

ML: There is a scene of a confrontation in a hospital where the best friends are hanging around, and I can’t for the life of me tell why.

NK: Yeah. So this is the scene where, and it’s a spoiler, but you know, it’s a short play and it’s over.

ML: Although they are being put on video or audio on demand on Vimeo from the 10th of August. So we’ll put that in the show notes.

NK: So this is a spoiler alert, but at one point, Louise decides to “test” the fidelity of her husband. So she has been experiencing some bleeding and is hospitalised, and when the husband comes to see her, she tells him that, oh, she’s lost the baby—

ML: Indeed, she’s had it aborted.

NK: Yeah. And he violently overreacts. And there’s this bitter—

NS: He doesn’t overreact!

NK: I mean, I think—

ML: Well, he violently reacts, it’s just not over.

NK: Which I think is perfectly plausible in the circumstances, and they separate for a while, et cetera, but ultimately get back together, and it’s revealed that the baby’s perfectly fine and she goes on to have a healthy baby girl… but I just thought that scene was very bizarre because…

ML: Well, if you think of it as a myth, like if it’s Greek drama, it’s fantastic. But if it’s presented in this very middle-class, very beige scenario, it strikes you as weird.

NK: And the character is written in such a way that she would never do anything so melodramatic: she chides the husband for making cheesy jokes. You know, she seems generally ambivalent about most things.

ML: Well, that’s the root of the issue, right? What does she want?

NK: That’s the thing.

ML: And that makes the characters unlikable. In this kind of play, it’s gotta be driven by somebody who wants something. You can want almost anything as a character, and if you want it hard enough, the audience will go with you and like you and want you to achieve that.

But she doesn’t want anything—she mainly not-wants things: she mainly doesn’t want what she has.

NK: Yeah. And that makes me wonder why did she even marry this guy who clearly is a perfectly decent man who just wants to embrace fatherhood? Why did they stick together for four years when she clearly didn’t enjoy her childhood, feels ambivalent about the prospect of motherhood, doesn’t really seem to have any strong feelings about what she wants in life? It’s a character which unfortunately – especially with the constraints of an audio play – you just are desperate to put your finger on, but you can’t quite understand what makes her tick. And I think that’s why it’s such a frustrating play to grapple with.

NS: I could really relate to the husband and how frustrated he felt throughout the play. ’Cause that’s kind of how I felt.

NK: Oh, he’s vastly better written than the wife.

NS: I felt very outside of what was happening, and whatever he was feeling, I was feeling usually. So when he was angry about being tricked or whatever, I was also like, ‘What? Why is my wife behaving so weirdly? I don’t think all of it is the pregnancy.’ You know what I mean?

ML: Would you agree that that’s not the playwright’s intention though? I mean, we can’t know, but didn’t it feel like the playwright was actually on Louise’s side and we were supposed to…?

What did you think about that? I couldn’t really tell…

NS: I’m not sure, but it seems like a very personal play to Eleanor Tan. That’s how it feels like. Right? I think, Naeem, you were saying that some of the biblical references came from Eleanor’s own…

NK: Yes. This was from the post-show discussion, which I tuned into. And she mentioned how she went to a, I think, Methodist or Christian school. So she obviously had these biblical verses, and she’s obviously a practicing Christian and used to teach at Sunday school. So obviously these biblical verses, which cherish this idea of the ideal wife and mother were things that had been ingrained within her for many years.

And structurally I think it does form a nice counterpoint and is slightly ethereal. And I think the other point which I really appreciated is that all these verses about the perfect mother are all verses by men. You know, they’re written texts for men on how a woman should behave. But then you have the character who wants to experience motherhood and confront it on her own terms.

And that was a nice contrast between tradition and individuality and modernity, that sort of thing. So it’s interesting that she brought that kind of personal religious experience into the play, but I still don’t feel that made for a play that one could necessarily really get into.

NS: I was going to say that I think the actor who was playing the child is Eleanor’s own daughter. Erin Chen. I’m not sure, but it lends to that whole personal aspect of this play. I was actually thinking about this because when I was thinking about the play, I did enjoy some of the manifestations of the frustrations and anger that women feel about the role that they have to play. But funnily enough, I feel like I got it more from the Bible verses than from the actual plot.

ML: Yes, I would agree.

NS: Right? And I’m not sure whether that was intentional, but…

ML: I’m totally up for a play where, as with the Bible verses, it just shows you how many doors get slammed. So then, what can the prospective mother do, but stand there spinning, not knowing where to go? But this was not the format that enabled that to happen. You just got annoyed at her pinballing off the doors, if anything. Whereas something that more psychologically or maybe more mythically explored the nature of that alienation and frustration, rather than trying to fit itself into a well-made play, which is just not the shape for it…

NK: Yeah, but that being said, look, I thought it was generally quite well-paced, so that at least made for a reasonably pleasant listening experience. And also they worked with singer-songwriter Inch Chua, who did the sonic elements, the soundscapes. And I think she mentioned at one point how she tried to give some aural texture to the performance by following the actors as they spoke, so there’s that sense of you actually listening to them as if you were witnessing the conversation unfold right in front of your eyes. So those elements I think were fine—they gave the naturalistic scenes a little bit more authenticity.

And also in terms of the acting, you know, you’ve Karen Tan—very, very experienced veteran actor as the mother.

ML: She’s so good at… ’Cause this was Robert Yeo dialogue, and she gave it such tonal variety. She made it sound like speech, but more interesting.

NK: I think, honestly, just listening, that was a very, very fleshed-out character just from the passages I heard, but I can’t say the same for some of the other characters. Obviously we talked about the extremely throwaway, best-friend-type characters. I thought Brendan Fernandez who plays the husband, Matt, did a fairly passable job.

ML: See? Another Matt.

NK: That’s also Matt. It’s clearly the name for husbands.

ML: Name of the month.

NK: It’s the boyfriend-slash-husband name, but anyway, yeah. So I think he did a passable job.

NS: Yeah, he did a good job.

NK: I mean, (Koh) Wan Ching… I think that was the thing, it brings us to the central characters… I just could not understand the character. I mean like, yeah, she read her lines…

NS: No. I mean, okay. So I think Karen Tan’s character was probably the most well-written character, because Karen Tan is obviously a really great actress, but I think the writing helped also. But with Wan Ching’s character, I think it was harder to transform all these lines into a really believable character with a good performance. That’s what I felt.

ML: With Karen Tan’s character, we did at least get details about her life. We didn’t really have details about the other characters.

NK: Exactly, and I think you made this very interesting point when we were speaking earlier, Matt, about how, if we go back to Jo Tan’s play, King, pulling a stunt like telling your husband that, ‘Oh, actually, I’ve lost the baby.’ That would be something that Jo Tan’s, Geok Yen may have done after exploring her gender with this drag-king personality.

ML: Oh yeah. Well so much pressure is put on Geok Yen’s character that she has to fight back against it. She does it by creating a drag persona, but if she’d done it by lying about having an abortion, we’d have bought equally. But there’s nothing—

NK: But this woman, on the other hand, there seems to be so little that we can penetrate in terms of her character. There’s no irony or personality that we get. She seems mildly irritated and going through the motions of her life. So to have this kind of soap-opera-esque moment where, ‘Oh, I have lost the child.’ And you can imagine all the friends standing there, and then the husband at the other end of the room looking on in shocked disbelief. It’s a scene right out of, you know, Glee basically. So I think that’s where I was just like, ‘Argh, where is this going in terms of tonal…?’

NS: And I think characters having out-of-character moments is okay. It’s not that you can’t do it. But the fact that after that happened, she kept changing her mind still. Then it doesn’t make sense to me as an audience member to give my full support to some of the implausible moments. If things are just going to keep changing and, like what Matt was saying, the rug being pulled from under the audience’s feet, then it gets very tiring and then you don’t root for any of these characters, essentially, is what it is. And you don’t even root for the play, which is really weird.

And I think it’s a kind of shame because of the issues that are so real, and such a rich theme that she could have drawn a lot more out of.

But I do feel that I would want to see this being developed. I’m coming away feeling like it has potential, it needs a bit more working. I don’t know whether an audio play is the form for it.

NK: Yes, I agree. I just don’t think, considering the character she’s dealing with, and some of the sequences that she seems to be introducing… you really need to see these things in order to have that buy-in, perhaps?

NS: Yeah. Can I just say that I actually went for a reading of this play a year ago, and it was done, you know, like a dramatised reading. And actually, at that moment, I felt that it had a lot of potential. And now I can recall some of the moments when, they kind of pick up an actual big book and they read from it, and those scenes now make more sense than this. Like, you needed to see some of these things.

ML: Well, Inch did try to do little bits of that with the sound design, and I wish she’d gone more; you know, there was reverb on some of those passages? One of the nicest moments for me was when the speech turned into a vocoder metallic sound towards the end of a passage that was being read out.

NK: No, there was this slightly ethereal quality. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but I could definitely distinguish that Book-of-Mother segment from the play proper. So I think that whatever she had done vocally or aurally to that worked.

ML: Yeah, there was some bit crushing, there was some pitch lowering… and just that sense that things might be breaking, you know, that the sound design was helping to break the world. And I want to see a play on this theme. I think it’s very interesting, but this is a play that’s so invested in telling the traditional three-act-play story, that its attempts to destabilise itself and break itself apart get locked within a framework that won’t allow that. So I don’t actually think there is potential in this play because I think right from the beginning it took the wrong formal path. And I think something that went a little bit more postdramatic, let the sound design break itself up, showed the kind of internal psychology of this woman who feels that the world is pinballing her around. So it’s not a one-on-one dialogue conversation, but it’s bigger than that. It’s fantastical again.

NK: And I’m just thinking also of other domestic plays, like Faith Ng’s For Better or for Worse, which was a fantastic play about this kind of disintegrating middle-class marriage between a couple who has been together for many, many years. And there were only two characters, the husband and the wife, but they embody all these other little characters in the periphery. And I’m just thinking, this is probably a better format for something like that: rather than having all these eight different bitty characters, you can have effectively the main character and the mother. I think that’s the relationship, which is at the core of this, it’s these two women. And you can almost embody all the rest by just reported speech or whatever else.

So I think it’s just a case of however you choose to edit it, it needs to be presented in a way that makes for a slightly more coherent text.

Okay, well, so that brings us to the end of the N.O.W. Festival, the Festival of Women. And as Matt was saying, I think The Book of Mothers is going to be made available—

NS: Both of them, I think.

NK: Both of them. So if you do want to catch these two shows, they are going to be made available online. So do that.

And till next time, this is the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. Thank you very much.

NS: Thank you

ML: And bye-bye.

NK: Bye-bye.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

Naeem is an arts reviewer and commentator who has been writing critically about performance in Singapore since 2011. He runs a dedicated theatre blog, Crystalwords (crystalwords.blogspot.com), has contributed theatre reviews to publications such as arts journal The Flying Inkpot and Singapore newspaper TODAY and participated in workshops and panel discussions for organisations like Centre 42. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Arts Equator and co-hosts the theatre podcast for the site.

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