2022_podcast 99
Crispian Chan / Tuckys Photography

Podcast 99: The Mother and ________ Can Change

In this episode of the ArtsEquator theatre podcast, Naeem Kapadia, Matthew Lyon and Nabilah Said discuss two productions: The Mother by Pangdemonium, and ________ Can Change by The Necessary Stage.

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Podcast Transcript 

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello and welcome to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. As usual, we are back again to talk about theatre. My name is Nabilah Said, and I have with me Naeem Kapadia–

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello, everyone.

NS: …and Matt Lyon.

Matt Lyon (ML): Hello.

NS: And today we’re going to be talking about two plays. First off, we’re starting off with The Mother by Pangdemonium, directed by Tracie Pang, written by Florian Zeller. And it’s actually part of a trilogy of plays… So this one is The Mother, we had The Father in 2018, and The Son in 2020. Naeem, tell us about what The Mother is about.

NK: So The Mother is a play about a middle-aged woman called Anne who just spends her time at home. She’s a deeply unhappy woman. She suspects her husband of having an affair. Her son has moved out of the family home with his girlfriend, and she misses him and somehow feels resentful against the girlfriend for taking him away.

And I think this feeling of emptiness, which could be an empty nest syndrome situation as well as some sort of deeper depression or schizophrenia, manifests itself throughout the play. And she starts imagining situations and getting to a very dark and difficult place.

NS: And I think there is some uncertainty with this play because you start off thinking it’s a wife and her husband, she’s welcoming him from his long day of work—and he’s obviously the kind of person who is always in the office, and he has a conference that’s coming up on the weekend. And at first she’s just innocently asking him about the conference, and then there’s a lot of repetition where suddenly she’s like, ‘Oh, are you screwing your assistant?’

And you start to question what is real and what is not. And essentially that repetition and the things that are said are her real true feelings that start to creep out through her little comments. And you realise, ‘Oh, maybe not everyone is hearing some of these comments that she’s saying.’ And yeah, Matt, you were saying that you were a little bit confused at the start.

ML: At the start I was, and I think a couple of things didn’t help. One was that the sound design just held this slightly sinister chord for what felt like 20 minutes. And really? That has to keep going to give us the idea that this is maybe not quite right? Come on, please. But the other thing is just… you know Yasmina Reza plays? Her characters argue so much and it’s like, just leave. You’ve upset each other enough. You’d kill each other if you stayed. So just leave. And this play started with that kind of energy. She’s saying such unwarranted, nasty things to him. And you’re like, ‘Why is he acting like this is normal?’ But ultimately, I liked it because you do have that realisation at some stage, that ‘Oh, a lot of this isn’t happening!’

And sometimes the play signals more strongly that it isn’t happening. And sometimes it signals that it is happening, but in retrospect it probably wasn’t. And so that unstable grip on reality, which I think really came to its zenith three quarters through when there’s all kinds of people changing costume and reality completely breaks down… I actually really liked that journey of it.

NS: Naeem, you were mentioning about empty nest syndrome, right? But we were kind of thinking about how her children are like 20-ish years old and wondering whether that’s plausible.

NK: So I think for me, the problem was the plausibility. So to all intents and purposes, this is a wealthy, middle-class woman who sits at home sipping wine. And I didn’t feel that she necessarily was someone I would sympathise with very much. And I think this whole idea of an empty nest syndrome… this play is set in modern-day Paris, and her children are grown up 20-somethings. It’s perfectly normal in the Western world for kids to move out of the family home when they’re 18. So I just didn’t quite understand why that would be so much of an issue for her.

And the other thing that really confused me was that earlier on in the play, they mentioned that there is a daughter. Now this daughter never appears, and her absence is nothing but a footnote, but it is the son that she continually latches on to—at one point she almost comes on to him. There’s this Freudian element. And you know, Matt, you mentioned when we were talking earlier about how this could have been written a hundred years ago—

ML: I tell you what, if someone had told me that the translation was 30 years old (cause it’s a little bit clunky), but that the script itself was a hundred years old and newly influenced by the ideas of Freud, I would totally buy it because it feels that outdated in what it’s saying about lived female experience.

NS: Yeah. I actually really, really like what Janice Koh did with the character. So I feel that we are starting to say here that something about the writing is not really sympathetic to the mother’s character. To be honest, I feel that it’s almost misogynistic. It really starts to break down in the third act of the play, where we realise that she is maybe in a mental institution or she’s—

ML: She might be imagining it, but maybe she’s there.

NS: Maybe she’s there. But I think just showing that that’s where it leads her to tells me that the moment a woman actually reveals her true feelings, she has to be… I mean, that’s how I saw it, you know? And I felt that there was no sympathy for the character because even the other characters, anytime they talk about her, they’re like, ‘Oh, have you told her yet?’ Or ‘Oh, your mother isn’t well’, or whatever it is. But for me, Janice, really brought a lot of empathy to the character in a way that I feel actually the writing didn’t–

 

Photo: Crispian Chan

 

ML: Yeah, it’s basically expressionism disguised as realism. And that’s a hard thing, I think, for an actor to hit, because you need to present yourself as plausible on the one hand, but on the other hand, you’ve got these vast, uncontrollable currents of emotion which the script demands of you. I thought she did a fantastic job of that.

But for me, the sympathy was really just not coming from the playwright. He’s made this character absolutely define her life by the presence or absence of men. The other female character in there exists to steal men. We don’t really find out anything about her, except that men are in her life, or not in her life. And that there are varying degrees of difficulty with the parameters that their presence or absence entails. And yet the focus is so firmly on her interior thoughts that we don’t have any sense of society being to blame for that. So I can kind of see that this empty nest syndrome might push someone to that level of mental trauma, but society has a part to play in that. And even a person with that level of mental trauma is going to have other things in their life which are not exclusively men—like, where’s the rest of her entire existence, including the society in which she lives? That’s what makes it for me feel so outdated. It’s like old, bearded Austrian people finally found out what a woman was, and then wrote a thesis on it and turned it into a play.

NK: Even, as you said, the other female character, Emily who’s the girlfriend, is portrayed in this very sinister light as a man snatcher, if you like. She sort of creeps out from the side, she wears these flirty dresses. At one point, she seems to be taking the husband away. I just felt that it wasn’t very sympathetic towards woman overall. And it just made me feel a little bit uncomfortable, as you said, because is that the natural end, then? Someone who just whiles away at home and then begins to question her situation, and her rightful place is basically to be restrained in a hospital bed?

NS: And I think there was a scene where one of the plausible things was that her son actually killed her, right? Like strangled her in a kind of mercy-killing scenario.

ML: I mean, you’re never sure what’s plausible and what’s not—but yeah, that’s certainly a fear which we’re supposed to accept as a possible outcome.

NS: But I think in terms of plausibility, I do feel that it’s kind of believable because it is trying to paint a picture where a woman can be trapped by certain patriarchal structures and what society says she needs to be doing: she needs to be taking care of her husband and her son. And so the moment her son leaves, no matter how old the son is, she feels like she has nothing to live for, essentially. And the moment the son comes back just for one night, she’s like grovelling at his feet, I think literally. And for me, it’s not implausible because there are people who are trapped in that situation.

 

Photo: Crispian Chan

 

ML: Absolutely. But both Ibsen and Chekhov did it better. If you think of Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House – again, plays literally written over a hundred years ago! – we’ve got something that is both more fleshed-out psychologically because the women have a richer interior experience, and their societies are fleshed-out more so that we can see the pressure upon them. Even in Chekhov where there’s a little bit less of a sense of society causing it, the richness of the interior experience is so much greater than in this play, which just seems to paint in really obvious primary colours with a trowel.

NS: Yeah. I was thinking about how, the parts that I really liked were when the mother expressed really ugly thoughts, but very true thoughts—you know, the kinds of things that women are not allowed to express. I remember watching it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they went there!’ you know? They’re actually showing what mothers feel, but can’t say, and, you know, like all the things that come out in postnatal depression, for example. And it’s almost like painting the woman as that monstrous female who comes out, right? But instead of it giving power back to women, he essentially takes away the power from the female character by the end of it. You know, she actually does try to break out of it – or at least in her mind she does – but it ends up with a possible death or an imagined death.

And so that’s why I feel it’s misogynistic, despite whatever his intentions were.

ML: I wonder if phrasing it as realism was a trap. If you think of Albee, a lot of his women say the things that can’t be said as well. But then you take something like The American Dream and the Mommy character, and she says all these horrible, horrible things—but because it is more deliberately expressionistic and not tied to verisimilitude and the appearance of reality, it gains a mythic power. And I felt that a little bit, three quarters through the play where we had the total breakdown of reality, and people were shouting and everything was changing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is really interesting! Suddenly this psychodrama and its primary colours make sense to me.’ But whenever people were interacting in the manner of your standard French-window play… you need more complexity and nuance if you’re going to do that.

NK: Yeah. I think that’s one thing I missed compared to the other two plays, The Father and The Son, because I just felt that there was more of a fully fleshed-out picture in terms of what drove those characters for The Son. You know, there was this boy suffering from depression because his parents have split up and he’s moved into a new home, and there’s a new lady and another sibling… And, you know, you can see that there’s this world beyond him. And the same thing for The Father: there were two very fleshed out female characters, the daughters; there was the sense of new men taking over the space. But here you have nothing about her private life. I think she gives us this big, long monologue at the end where she wishes that her kids were young again and they would need her, and she could say goodbye to them and watch them eat in the morning and go off to school. But I think for most of the play, she’s just upset and aggrieved, and there isn’t much else that’s offered to us.

NS: Yeah, no, you don’t really get backstory.

ML: It all comes back to the script. I thought the production was very good.

NK: It was, yeah.

ML: And I’m just thinking of the script, and thinking, ‘Well, how would I stage it?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’d probably stage it like they did.’ I mean, I thought that the set design gave that sparseness (it chose sparseness over clutter; you could possibly have gone either way). I like that it went for this white, adaptable space where things can appear and disappear, and you can’t quite hide from anything.

I really enjoyed so many of the choices: the acting, the moment-to-moment direction. I just think it’s a really dated script—and it shouldn’t be because it’s only 10 years old!

NK: I think for me, it was really just the script because otherwise I think Pangdemonium has done a fantastic job with this production. I mean, obviously we spoke about Janice giving this fantastic, authentic experience, which I think almost goes beyond the script because she injects so much authenticity and empathy into that character, which obviously speaks to her own lived experience as a wife, as a mother.

I think that was fantastic. And obviously we’ve got good support by Adrian and Jamil Schulze as well as Mehr Dudeja in the other roles as well. But I think the set for me was really powerful. And I think it was a symbolic set as well because it’s this mental fortress. So it’s this tower of scaffolding, if you like.

ML: No, you are making me think now of, like, Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the same icy whiteness…

NK: It’s this mental fortress that she’s in, right? And the moment you walk into the theatre, you see this monolith of scaffolding, and that’s the world she’s in. Even all the furniture – the sofa, the chairs, the drinks cabinet – everything is integrated into this space, and it’s done beautifully by the set designer, Eucien Chia. Who’s done a lot of work with Pangdemonium. I think it’s a fantastic expression of that mental fortress she’s in.

And then obviously that is integrated with the sound and light work where during moments of tension, you’ve got these crackles of electricity that pulsate throughout the structure. And yes, I think Matt, you mentioned that at times it might have been a little bit jarring, but I think it all quite cohesively tries to comment on that frenzied, mental state that she’s in.

NS: Yeah. But I feel like ‘frenzied mental state’ is essentially the max of where the play goes, because I feel like at the end of it, I didn’t really understand what the message was. And I wonder if even within the company they landed on one, because at the end of it, Adrian Pang comes out and he says like, ‘Oh, go home and hug your mother,’ or something. And I’m like…

ML: It can’t be that, right?

NS: It can’t just be that! We just saw a woman entirely break down and crumble mentally…

ML: …after, frankly, putting completely unreasonable requirements on her male family members!

NS: Yeah.

ML: Like, if your mother is that narcissistic and demanding, maybe you shouldn’t hug her, you know?

NK: Yeah.

NS: Yeah. So I was just quite flabbergasted with the last message. I wasn’t even able to process what I actually saw because I didn’t know what the message was.

NK: Yeah, I think that’s why compared to the other two plays, it’s just a little bit more complex because there’s this element of the empty nest syndrome, but then there’s also these other complex mental demons, if you like. So maybe it’s just that acknowledgement that there are these people all around us who are living in this way, and this is their reality, and for us to just be aware of that.

NS: Yeah. And I also feel like shouldn’t the message also be, ‘What about society?’ I mean, it’s not just about hugging your mom. Like how can you help change the entire structure of society, essentially? Of course, that’s a very difficult question to answer or start to answer, but…

ML: And it’s not necessarily a question that the play needs to include, as long as it does include enough psychological nuance. But when you don’t have either the psychological nuance or the social factors, then you’re not left with very much, really.

NK: Yeah.

NS: Because actually the husband is a terrible husband right?

ML: I mean, maybe? We don’t know he’s having an affair. He probably does have to go to the conference.

NS: I totally judged him, but yeah.

ML: We’re left with all these open questions. Yeah, it’s legitimate to judge him, but I think it’s also legitimate to sympathise.

NK: Look, it was for me, at least (on a more positive note), it was a real return to form for Pangdemonium. I think the last two years obviously have been challenging across the board for the theatre companies, and Pangdemonium did a Zoom play last year called Waiting for the Host, and earlier this year they did a one-woman show called Girls and Boys—and I really missed just seeing a proper family play, which someone like Tracie does so well. You know, like Rabbit Hole and Next to Normal and Falling, and the things that they’ve done in the past. So it was just really nice to be back in the theatre and see a good, classic Pangdemonium play. And, as you would always expect from a Pangdemonium play, a beautifully staged, technically brilliant production.

NS: Yes. So that was The Mother. And our second play that we’re going to talk about in this episode is _____ Can Change. That is a play by The Necessary Stage, kind of a restaging of a concept, perhaps?

So in _____ Can Change, there are three mini-plays. So the first one is ‘Indians Can Change’, the second one is ‘Homosexuals Can Change’, and the last one is ‘Marxists Can Change’. And I believe ‘Indians Can Change’ is the completely new one, and the other two are older works, but have been reworked in this version.

So as all TNS plays are, this is written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan. And all three plays are performed by a cast of four actors, so there’s Joshua Liam, Karen Tan, Masturah Oli and Lian Sutton. So I’ll start with ‘Indians Can Change’ first because that’s a brand new one, and honestly it was probably the strongest one of the lot.

NK: Yes.

NS: So in this play we have Masturah Oli—I think she works in a bank and she is putting up a skit for her company’s D&D of a Bollywood dance. And you see her starting to do the dance, and then she turns around and her colleagues, who were planning to surprise her, have decided to do so by wearing brownface and dancing. With good intentions, apparently, to kind of surprise her and, you know, pay tribute to her culture. But obviously it’s a very horrifying act and she gets very upset and she wants to complain, but because of how race issues are dealt with in Singapore and in company culture, she essentially starts to apologise for even bringing it up or causing trouble and calling her colleagues racist.

So what happens at the end of that play is that it’s like a company townhall (and this is after counselling by an American counsellor), and she comes on stage and she says sorry for having caused the trouble, and that next time she’ll know better than to do what she did, which was to have caused a fuss. And, you know, she was really angry at the start. And then she ends up being kind of mellow about it and learns her lesson.

ML: In inverted commas, yes.

 

Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

NK: And then we as the audience are invited to ask questions to her, as well as to an HR director and an American counsellor, all of whom remain in character, as we process her change of heart.

NS: But we’re meant to be her colleagues in the bank.

NK: We are meant to be her colleagues basically. But I think because of this framing device, they have this flippant line, ‘This is how an angry Indian can change and become compliant and happy!’ sort of thing.

And I agree: I think that first segment for me was so powerful. I mean, being a minority in Singapore, I think there’s all these microaggressions that we’ve just internalised over the years. Simple things like people mispronouncing your name or not necessarily being aware of your ethnic or cultural identity and you know, all these things.

And I think it’s just a textbook example of gaslighting as well, which I think has come so much to the fore in our conversation—in the past year especially, with all the furores about racism in Singapore. So I think for me it was so important to have a play like this staged, and I’m so glad that Haresh wrote this entirely new segment because it is a very, very real situation where you have a minority race employee in an organization, which may not necessarily be sympathetic to her. She’s constantly being made to feel that she’s the one kicking up a fuss for nothing. And just based on the conversations that were happening during that inbuilt post-show dialogue, I think a lot of people resonated very strongly with the messaging, and obviously felt even angrier than the character, and they almost were questioning ‘Why are you accepting this? Why are you somehow okay with just letting it be?’

ML: You’re talking to the character, right? The character Devaki?

NK: Devaki, yeah. So I think it was very well-structured in that sense, and powerful and topical.

NS: Yeah. Let’s go quickly to the next one first, and then we can talk about the overall kind of thing.

The second one is ‘Homosexuals Can Change’.

ML: Yeah, it’s the third time I’ve seen this because originally it was a part of Abuse Suxxx!!! in 2001. At which time, this kind of gay conversion therapy (trying to for religious reasons live a closeted life or convert oneself to heterosexuality) was, I think, more of a culturally accepted or expected thing. Still obviously very wrong… but the world was at that place at that time.

And also within the play in which it was framed, Abuse Suxxx!!!, it was a real contrast scene. The rest of the scenes in that play were calls to action, like ‘This is wrong!’ And ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ and ‘I have suffered!’ And this one was ‘No, you really should hide your homosexuality…’ And so that was striking and brilliant. I loved that scene at the time. And then when they did it again roughly 10 years later (was it 2010, the first staging of _____ Can Change?), already by then it felt very slightly dated? Already by then I think the world was learning that gay conversion therapy may not be the way to go. And also it no longer had that contrast from the rest of the play that it was in, so it didn’t feel as fresh or striking. And now having this thing where a young gay Christian guy decides to turn his back on homosexuality and embrace some construction of heterosexuality because of the religious and societal pressures on him… compared to what we just heard about the brownface playlet, it really feels old fashioned.

NS: Yeah. You felt like what was biting commentary back then, it became almost like something with the poison taken out, like…

ML: Oh defanged? Yeah.

NS: Yes, it was really defanged. And so I actually watched it almost like a weird melodramatic drama.

ML: It does become an exercise in style, doesn’t it, to an extent?

NS: Yeah. So there was one scene where it was almost like a breakup scene. It was quite a heartbreaking scene to me. So the couple was Joshua Lim and Lian Sutton, and Joshua is the quite Christian guy who’s wanting to break up with his boyfriend who he actually really, really still loves. And then the boyfriend’s like, ‘Do you love me? If you say no, then we’ll break up. If not…’ And obviously he can’t because they’re in love and they actually did play it quite well for me. And that was the only scene where I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ But everything else… I didn’t buy it as something that could happen today.

 

Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

ML: Like, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen today, but it’s also not really where the world is at right now—at least not the world that we in this room are in.

NS: Right. So the conversation has moved on.

ML: So the conversation that’s happening in the Esplanade Recital Studio as we are watching that play does not feel relevant in the way that the brownface one did.

NK: Yeah. When I was watching that first segment, the ‘Indians Can Change’, you could feel the tension in the room, right? Like the moment you see Chinese characters with brownface, and then the things they say to this angry Indian character, it just speaks to you. But then when you watch that play about the converted gays, I mean…

ML: Nap time.

NK: Yeah, exactly. It just felt like I was watching a recording of a 1995 skit or something like that. And I think the other thing was that we were given the chance to actually speak to the characters in that first play: there was that built in talk back. The second thing is just presented as this very short little playlet, and then he apparently decides to just give up his lover, marry a girl, have a kid, and that’s the right choice for him. Okay. Full stop. Nothing else.

ML: And I think, Nabilah, you said it happened on both nights that we saw this show, that after the ‘Indians Can Change’ talkback (or townhall if we’re going to call it that), that there were people in the audience who said, ‘Oh, thank you, I feel seen now.’ And then not having that talkback after ‘Homosexuals Can Change’ raises the question, ‘Oh, so I guess homosexuals aren’t supposed to be seen?’ It’s a stupid inference to make because of course they don’t mean that. And I don’t really think anyone would want the play to be that much longer by adding another talkback session when you’ve already got two… but structurally it does mean it falls apart a little bit.

NS: And I guess we can talk about ‘Marxists Can Change’. So that was the third one. And it was kind of a wink-wink thing about TNS’s history of being labelled as Marxists because Alvin and Haresh did that Boal workshop once. And the structure of the show was almost like a PowerPoint slide made by government employees, right, about TNS? And then because both of them have gotten Cultural Medallions and are NAC-supported and things like that, it therefore purports that Marxists can change.

NK: That’s right, yeah. So obviously it goes on to the point where they’ve won the Cultural Medallion and then there are these gigantic faces of Alvin and Haresh which are flashed up, which I was a little unnerved by with them grinning at the camera and everything. But then it goes on to talk about how The Necessary Stage has lost its space at Marine Parade after many years. And it’s almost hinted that maybe their Marxist past has finally caught up with them.

ML: Well, it’s more than hinted.

NK: Yeah. I just felt that was what made that last segment so problematic because if it just ended with that poker-faced ‘Oh, we’ve changed! Full stop!’ And then it’s left to you entirely to make the inference, it would have been fine, just like in the homosexual segment, but here it’s very obvious that they have an axe to grind against the government officials who have now left them without a home and them having to operate out of an industrial space. And it’s not helped by Alvin and Haresh themselves then coming onto the stage in a final, real talkback where I don’t think they hold anything back in terms of how they feel about the situation. I think they talk about ‘careerist bureaucrats’, and how the government has lost its heart in caring for arts people. And it just felt very angry. I was talking just now about how it almost turned the play into a pity party where they’re just upset and angry at what has happened to their beloved company.

NS: Yes, on one hand a kind of pity party… I do feel that it’s not unwarranted in a sense, right?

NK: No, of course not.

NS: But for me it actually robbed the entire show of the power that we definitely saw in ‘Indians Can Change’, right? So on the night that I watched, the post-show dialogue became all about TNS and their struggles, and I’m like, ‘That’s valid, but what about this entire show where you’re trying to say that “blank can change”? Because you’re not just talking about TNS, you’re also talking about society.’ And so for me, that ‘Marxists Can Change’ was tonally slightly off.

 

Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

ML: It was an arts community townhall meeting. It didn’t even bother to disguise itself as anything other than that, and I don’t really think it has any business being a play.

NS: The last one, you mean?

ML: The last one, yeah. The framing device that they used, that kind of, ‘We are the People’s Association and we do PowerPoint! And we tell you what the truth is!’ That was the only way in which the last play, ‘Marxists Can Change’ was brought to the audience, but it was also used to frame the others. And I quite like that as a framing device. When they did it in 2010, they made that look very amateurish, as if the People’s Association had done it on a low budget with people who don’t know what they’re doing. And it seemed at the time that that really undersold the propaganda that organisations like that put out. But this time I thought they’d done it very well. You’ve got these bland international pastel-coloured gifs on the PowerPoint slides. And the tone of voice is exactly right, and the doublespeak… I thought they managed that very well. But it only works as a framing device; it really doesn’t work as content in itself. And so when the last play is just a framing device and doesn’t have content, then why aren’t you just having an arts community townhall meeting about this, rather than pretending you’ve made a play on that issue?

NS: Hmm. Are you still talking just about the last one?

ML: Just about the last one, only about the last one. I like the framing device for the other two, but the framing device is the last play: it has nothing else.

NS: Right, right, right.

So something that Haresh and Alvin shared during the post-show was that the first time they did _____ Can Change, they said that they used a parodic tone, so you were always laughing at the government employees, you know, you were always laughing at the other side that you don’t agree with, right? So this time around, they said they were trying to do it slightly differently.

ML: I think it was more successful in that respect, especially in the first playlet.

NS: Yeah, for the first playlet, sure. So they said they were trying to give voice to the normative perspective on all these issues, which you definitely saw in the first one, maybe the second one? But—

ML: Not at all in the last one!

NS: Not at all in the last one. And there is this messaging that they’re trying to say, like, ‘Oh, the world is so polarised! It’s always one against the other!’ And so _____ Can Change was meant to be a place where we could all share our views.

ML: And it absolutely isn’t.

NK: Yeah. And that’s why it’s so problematic, because this is taking place in the Esplanade, this is a TNS play, and you have an audience full of middle-class liberal people—you’re basically preaching to the choir here. I mean, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who may perhaps share some of these views, but in terms of these so-called community-majoritarian values that they purport to uphold in the play, I don’t think there are many people who are going to be saying, ‘Yes, yes, that’s my view, and I feel seen!’

NS: Yah!

NK: So yes, the parody is what I walk away with. I feel it is just a parody, but then why do you have that very obviously partisan coda to the show?

ML: I mean, on the night, you and I saw it, Naeem, Haresh and Alvin seemed to differ very greatly in what they thought their play was about. Everything that Haresh said in the post-show dialogue indicated that he saw it as a call to action: that yes, we are showing you gaslighting, and it is our responsibility to face up to that gaslighting in our lives for ourselves and for others. Whereas everything Alvin said was aimed at, ‘Oh, no, I think this play shows that we need to get people to really listen to each other and really speak to each other.’

I mean, I agree with Haresh on this issue–

NK: Yeah, same.

ML: Totally! This play is not a ‘let’s sit down and have a cup of tea’ thing, because the people that you would want to have a cup of tea with are not even in the room. And then, increasingly throughout the evening, you are parodying them.

NK: Yeah. I appreciated the first talkback because I think it was very nourishing and quite healing. And I think there were a lot of people in the audience who actually felt very moved and very seen, and to have those issues shown on the stage and then be able to directly talk about those issues straight away… it’s obviously something that’s been preying on a lot of Singaporeans minds, right? Like this idea of us being racist, despite all this rhetoric of multiculturalism and everything. So I would have liked to see that same level of engagement about the homophobia, which I think unfortunately has been swept under the carpet for far too long.

Yes, I know the theatre is a safe space in terms of being able to showcase these stories, but why shouldn’t this also dominate a talkback session?

ML: I think you’re right. Although I think it would need an updated play on a slightly different issue. Still related to homosexuality obviously, but probably not that one. I think that one’s had its time.

NK: Yeah. And I think then that just led me to think that because I was somehow dissatisfied from how that last segment had just become a pity party for TNS, and the somewhat weak and unconvincing middle section, we should have just taken that initial play and made it a stand-alone play. And honestly, that would have been one of the best social plays I would have seen this year.

ML: Yeah, it would’ve been really good.

NS: Yeah. You said people felt seen, and for me the first play was like horror—I watched it in horror. And in a sense the talkback should have taken as long as the play… it could have gone on as long as the play because there’s so many things to talk about just in ‘Indians Can Change’.

And I feel like even if you wanted to say that they took a normative stance, that I think they really didn’t—just by having the HR person being called ‘Karen’, which I still feel like I wasn’t very happy with because—

ML: I mean, to be fair, the actor is called Karen too. But I take your point entirely.

NS: Nothing against Karen Tan: Karen Tan is great…!

 

Photo: Tuckys Photography

 

ML: Her improv was fantastic. She just embodied that corporate doublespeak. (Sorry, I interrupted.)

NS: No, no, no, but for me there was a bit of a joke there that means that if there was someone who was really like that in the audience, they are not going to say anything at the end of the talkback. That’s what I think.

ML: But you’re right. I mean, the talkback should have been longer, but probably it shouldn’t have been a talkback. This is the perfect candidate for forum theatre. What we saw was an anti-play.

NS: Yeah.

ML: So then why not go for a full evening of forum theatre on this issue? I think we’re still allowed to do forum theatre now?

For those who don’t know, forum theatre is when the audience gets up and acts the parts of the play that went wrong and tries to fix them. (I guess we should point that out…)

NS: Yes. So I’ve never watched _____ Can Change, right? So when they did the ‘Indians Can Change’ talkback, I was like, ‘Is this forum theatre?’

ML: Yeah, it seems to be, doesn’t it, for a minute?

NS: Yeah. And I was like, ‘Did I misread this? Oh, okay. I guess that’s what this is.’ And then because they moved on really quickly and I didn’t feel that they actually dissected the issues, then I just got progressively more and more confused about my role as an audience.

And the other thing I think – because Naeem, you were talking about policies and rhetoric and things – I feel like the other horror that is in the play that is not talked about is why people even think these things. So the reason why I think ‘Indians Can Change’ is so powerful is because it’s juxtaposed against ‘Oh, Singapore is racial harmony!’ and all these things, you know? The ‘Homosexuals Can Change’ I guess you can argue is like religious fundamentalism or something, I don’t know. And ‘Marxists Can Change’ is obviously government against the arts and freedom of expression and things like that. But for me, no one talked about that in my show: about government or structural issues or anything.

NK: I think we had that, because we had a personal experience of someone from an ethnic minority who was sharing her experiences of being gaslit, and the show resonated with her. And then I think there were some other comments about how the government people have lost their hearts and, you know, things like that. So I think there was a bit more of an acknowledgement of those issues…

But yes, I agree. I think it just felt overall a bit mixed. Like I felt there were some really strong ideas there, but then they were kind of negated by the tone of that final talkback.

I kind of wish that they would continue to work on this though, because I just feel it’s such a good play, the first one.

ML: Maybe they did intend it to be forum, but they can’t do it under COVID.

NS: Perhaps.

ML: Like once audiences are able to take their masks off and get on stage, a forum version of ‘Indians Can Change’ would be fantastic.

NS: Hmm, possibly.

So I do feel, just as an endnote for _____ Can Change, that I love the _____ Can Change concept and I feel that it can be done really, really well. And there is obviously a lot of  merit in having talkbacks and discussions, and during COVID we couldn’t do it, right? So I feel that we need to talk more, and now audiences can be part of post-shows.

You know the fact that you could speak into the mic? I was so thrilled just by the fact that we could.

ML: Yeah, still masked, but nice, right?

NS: Yeah, super nice. So I still want to see a _____ Can Change in the future, redone, with three powerful plays. I can kind of see how that would go really, really well. But yeah, I guess for now ‘Indians Can Change’ has a lot of legs, and I do hope I can see a full play—like you said, Naeem.

NK: Oh, definitely, yeah. I’d love to see that one get restaged perhaps.

NS: Yeah, potentially very powerful as well.

So I guess on that note, that’s the end of the episode, and we will be doing one more by the end of the year on basically our thoughts or opinions or conversation about the year, and how the year has been for theatre. I think, admittedly kind of a weird year, still.

ML: At least.

NS: But we’ll see how that goes. And we’re going to be inviting some special guests as well, so look out for that. With that, thank you so much for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.

ML: Bye-bye!

NK: Thank you. Bye.


The Mother by Pangdemonium ran from 22 October-7 November 2021 at Victoria Theatre. 

________ Can Change by The Necessary Stage ran from 10-14 November 2021 at Esplanade Recital Studio.

Catch the final theatre podcast episode this year live on Telegram on Saturday 18 December, as part of Year In Review 2021.

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About the author(s)

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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