Podcast 93: Girls & Boys by Pangdemonium

In the episode of the ArtsEquator theatre podcast, Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss Girls & Boys by Pangdemonium, which ran from 25 Feb to 14 Mar 2021.

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Podcast Transcript 

Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello everyone, and welcome to the ArtsEquator Theatre Podcast. This is Naeem Kapadia, and I’m joined by Matt Lyon…

Matthew Lyon (ML): ’Tis I.

NK: …and Nabilah Said, who is back! 

Nabilah Said (NS): Hello!

NK: Today we are going to be talking about a production by Pangdemonium called Girls & Boys. This is the company’s first live theatre production in over a year since The Son, which they did in February 2020. It is by Dennis Kelly, directed by Tracie Pang, and is starring Nikki Muller in a one-woman show. And it’s basically the story of – and I’m quoting from publicity materials here – an ordinary woman and her not-so-ordinary life, and the story of her and her family. 

So, yeah, Nabilah, I understand you watched this show in London some time ago with Carey Mulligan, and now you’ve seen the show in Singapore—so maybe tell us a little bit about your thoughts about watching the show initially, and what this production brought to it.

NS: Well, first of all, spoiler warning! It’s going to be spoiler-y, this whole episode. This play, as Naeem says, is about a woman recounting how she meets her husband. And it’s almost like a meet-cute in Naples, and the long story of it is that they get married, and they have two kids. And so for most of the play, she talks about their relationship, and you know that something’s not quite right. And they go through ups and downs, and it builds up into her revealing that her husband has killed her kids in this thing that’s called ‘family annihilation’, where a husband totally destroys the family by killing children, sometimes the wife, sometimes himself. In this case, he’s killed their two young children—

ML: And attempted to kill himself, but failed.

NS: Yes. So I watched it in London. And the funny thing is, even though they do try to make it a reveal that happens very suddenly, almost towards the end, I knew it from the start. And so I was trying to see how they were building up to that kind of reveal.

And it’s pretty interesting because the characterisation of this main character (who’s not named—I think she’s an everywoman type)… Nikki Muller actually plays her as a kind of quirky oddball. She has a very interesting energy; she does a lot of accents, almost like a comedic… 

ML: Turn.

NS: Yeah, almost a comedic play on that character. And Carey Mulligan was so different. And it’s so interesting because it’s the same lines, right? But with Carey Mulligan in the London production in the Royal Court, she had almost like a masculine quality. So you would always see her with her hands in her pockets and standing really straight and long: very restrained.

So that was the first thing that I noticed: from the start, Nikki Muller was expending a lot of energy in trying to make her very likable. And I did find her likable—I did really feel for this woman and I was laughing at her jokes. But it did feel a little bit like she was projecting outwards into the audience too much. 

ML: It was too much for me. You’re right, she was projecting it very strongly. And I think I would have preferred the Carey Mulligan approach (what I’m imagining, of course, I didn’t see it). But, you know, you see performances where the audience is invited to come towards the actor, and you see other performances where the actor goes after the audience very strongly, and the Singaporean one was very much the latter. And I tend to find that a little bit off-putting. I think also when you’ve got auditoriums that, for COVID reasons, are not full, I think it’s hard to go after the audience, because you’ve kind of got your own personal space around you: you lose that herd mentality of being part of the crowd.

And I think also the actor loses a little bit of a sense of everybody laughing and sharing reactions at the same time, which you get when you get a full house. And so I think they’re really trying to play against an imagined audience. And I’m not sure if in the acting/directing process that enough work had been put into imagining the audience so that the timing would work out, and so that the extent to which the actor had to project their physicality and their personality out into the auditorium was… pleasant even for the audience to listen to. 

And it’s strange because Tracie’s incredibly good when she gets more than one actor at making sure that it is only possible for one of the actors to speak if the other is willing to accept it, is ready, has that impulse of understanding. And she’s wonderful at that— it’s a standout point of her direction; but she doesn’t seem to have applied the same logic to the audience. So all those little pauses that we take—I mean, I’m looking at you and Naeem’s nodding and you’re nodding, and that means I can continue with what I’m saying. And it just wasn’t there. It felt like I was standing bracing against a tidal wave that just kept coming past me. And so a lot of what she was doing, yeah, I wanted to like her, but I had that very English sense of ‘You’re too close. You’re too close. Let me make a cup of tea and we’ll sit down at opposite ends of the table and we’ll be fine.’

NK: Yeah. And it’s interesting because this is the first show to my mind that Pangdemonium has done which is a one-person show. Everything else has been played with an ensemble cast. So you don’t have actors playing off each other’s energies. And I think I was a little similar to Matt: I was drawn into the story because I wanted to find out what was going on. Obviously it’s set up as some sort of a romantic comedy, maybe with a divorce element—that’s what I thought initially. But yeah, she was speaking really quickly and I just didn’t feel myself fully relaxed. I didn’t feel invited in. And I think I felt a bit that I was working maybe a little extra hard just to understand her, and try to figure out what was going on. Whereas maybe more work should have been put into building that relationship with the audience and ensuring that the audience exchanged energies back with the actor. Whereas I just felt there was a lot of energy being projected on me. 

Not to say that it detracted from my appreciation of the play, because as you have pointed out, she was fantastic in embracing the comedy, and she obviously played up the character a lot more than I imagine the London production would have. So she was very physical, she was doing a lot of little comedic bits. Um, I think she was reenacting a moment where she had a sexual encounter, and she was doing a lot of accents, which was very entertaining to watch. So there was always something to see, but sometimes it felt a bit much. And when I think about the revelation (which she does towards the end of the play) when there was this absolute stillness as she recounted to us what actually happened, and how her kids got stabbed, and exactly where—it was almost visceral, but so quiet and still… I just kind of wished for that quietude, I suppose.

NS: Yeah. I mean, I can see why you’d want to go for that contrast, right? But it’s like you’re not trusting the audience to come to you. It’s assaulting you almost with all this energy and charisma and personality, and doing that so that you can contrast it with the stillness. That’s what I thought they were trying to do.

ML: And even then, the contrast with the stillness? Yes, she was still at the end, but when she cried, it continued to have that presentational quality of filling the space. So I’m not even sure it was that big of a contrast. In terms of, did she do what she was doing well? Yeah, absolutely. And maybe there are people who would prefer this choice, especially when we’ve been locked indoors, watching film and TV acting, which tends to be a lot smaller.

So yeah, maybe there are people who absolutely responded to this, and it’s their cup of tea… but not mine.

NS: There definitely were, because on the night that I went, there were tons of people who gave her a standing ovation. So people were really appreciative of all this energy that she expended in telling this story, and even in recounting the darker, more violent bits. Or maybe just applauding the resilience of the human spirit, or this woman’s spirit.

So I did sense that there was an appreciation for that, and I can kind of see why there was, because of this post-COVID (well, not post)… but an appreciation for that live performance that’s really trying to do a lot and reach the audience. 

ML: Yeah, but if I contrast it with the other monologue I saw, the Siti K one… An Actress Prepares… she let us come to her. And that gave me the warmth. I think Nikki Muller gave the impression of working harder, and one always wants to respond to that kind of diligence with appreciation, but I’m happy to do some work as well: I’m happy to come to you.

NS: It’s funny because I remember reading this article about how a lot of acting by Asian actors is very restrained and very internal, so much so that a lot of Western awards shows tend to overlook these performances as being too subtle. And just something that you mentioned reminds me of that. And I think Siti K has more experience in doing monologues as well: holding space in a room without needing to go out into the audience that much. 

NK: Undeniably, it’s a very demanding performance. And there has been a lot of work, which Tracie and Nikki Muller have obviously done in working on the cues and the facial tics and the miming and things like that. 

And I think perhaps, Nabilah you might’ve picked up on this more because you watched the first iteration, you knew of the horrible tragedy, so you perhaps were a bit more heightened to the points where you can get the sense that something is wrong. But I think for the rest of us, there’s no way that I think anyone can plausibly expect how this is going to turn out. I think you get a sense that something is off and something’s going to happen… there’s a line that ‘the kids are no more’ somewhere in the middle of the play, so I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe they were either taken away from her—or… accident? Something or the other’. But obviously nobody expects it to be a killing by the father.

NS: No, you can never expect violence like that. But in a story, whether or not we should be expecting the playwright and the director to drop more clues, so then it doesn’t become such a big reveal at the end that comes too late, right? Matt, you were saying earlier that it was ‘unexpectable’. That’s an interesting word.

ML: I think so. Throughout the play, there are three or four supposed flashbacks where she interacts with imaginary children, and mimes hugging them and talks to them. And the sound design there by the unnamed sound designer (who presumably has a name, but the electronic program was so abysmally designed that I was not going to spend the amount of my life that it would take to find that name)… So well done, unnamed sound designer, because immediately it was clear that something had gone wrong. There were these little distorted children’s voices echoing in the background; they put some reverb on her; it’s all discordant and… But it’s not overdone: you know, something’s bad, but you can still engage with what’s going on onstage. But you don’t know what is bad. 

And then at the end of the play, when it turns out to be family annihilation, and the last 15 to 20 minutes deal with that, the question it raises for me is: ‘Why isn’t the whole play about that?’ And if you think of Pangdemonium’s other issue-based plays (Next to Normal with mental illness, Falling with autism)… most of the plays they do, they deal with the issue for the vast majority of their running time. Rabbit Hole also deals with the death of a child, as does Late Company. And they’re all about unpacking the aftermath—and that’s how most issue plays are going to work, but this one deals with a ‘beforemath’, but it still doesn’t even lead us through a sequence of events which would result in family annihilation. There comes a point where we are told what has happened—and sure, we can look back and say, ‘Okay, he was behaving a bit strangely.’ But it’s not like you’re joining the dots and coming up with a picture; it has the element of a twist. And I’ve got to wonder why would you do a twist? Because you have a twist just before the play ends, and then there’s no time left to discuss the aftermath.

And it seems to me like you can’t pretend that this is an issue play if you’re not willing to discuss the consequences or even the proper warning signs. And so it felt a little bit cheap for me in that regard. We’re supposed to follow her along and then, ‘Oh, shock horror!!!’ Okay, shock horror, sure: somebody gets killed in the last act, we can have that kind of twist. But: ‘Shock horror!!! By the way, family annihilation is very important and we should talk about it.’ Okay, well write a play about it then.

NS: Hmm. I’m still of two minds about this. I don’t know to what extent we can expect family annihilation in any kind of way in our daily lives—it’s just so out there. And I also think that in this play, they’re trying to say that there’s no real way to know that this thing is going to happen. You know, your husband may display some signs of being removed or distant, but no one says like, okay, so he’s going to kill his children tomorrow.

ML: Absolutely. So then a discussion of it would be how you grieve, how you deal with it, how you reconcile the idea that you may have your own guilt. But instead, what we get is essentially a female monologue—essentially, we get Shirley Valentine for an hour and a half, something like that? An hour and twenty? Where, yeah, there’s little disconcerting bits, but you can’t predict what’s going to happen.

And what I would say is, I cannot psychologically believe that anyone who has gone through the experience that the main character has gone through in this play could perform that first hour and 20 minutes. They would not speak like that about meeting their husband and him being cute and him being so… She recounts a little scene where he deals with fashion models in an airport queue, and gives them a dressing down because they’re trying to manipulate him and, ‘Oh, isn’t he attractive for doing that? And isn’t he clever, and isn’t he funny?’ This is the man who, by this point, she knows has killed her children. It is not possible for her to act in that manner. And so that cheapens the element of the twist for me. And yeah, I think you’re absolutely right: talking about ‘How to spot signs that your husband is going to kill your children…’ It’s not relevant. But an authentic recount of what happened would by no means take this form.

NS: Yeah. So it made me think about the idea of the unreliable narrator. Like not in a literary way, but kind of, ‘Are we meant to believe this person?’ And I think the reason you are saying it’s cheap is because we are led to fall in love with her or believe in this character. But then with the ending, it becomes like two Lego bricks that don’t fit together. And I think maybe that’s why you really felt cheated. 

NK: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s why it almost feels like two different plays, because the first two thirds of it was essentially like this nice chummy monodrama with the ups and downs of family life, if you like—and then suddenly there’s this shocking revelation, and then kind of an attempt to analyse the character where she goes on about, ‘Oh, you know, family annihilation happens more often than we think; it’s not reported.’ And she throws some statistics in our face, and it kind of becomes a bit, ‘This is how to spot the signs.’ And I don’t know that I necessarily liked the way that was dealt with. And I’m just thinking if that revelation could have happened earlier on, possibly even at the midpoint, so that at least we had some, you know, pivot to kind of navigate.

ML: I think there’s a part at the end where she says she’s attempting to rewrite her memories with the children to take the father out of them. So that no matter whether it’s a loving scene that she’s remembering with the children or even one of tension (which most of the flashbacks are), then at least he wasn’t there.

So then why is she spending the entire play, talking about him? 

NS: Yeah, that’s true.

ML: You know, that’s just a self-negating premise. As opposed to another of Dennis Kelly’s plays I’ve read and seen (it was directed by my colleague last year), called DNA, which I think is an absolute masterpiece for young actors. It’s also about unexpected or unexplained brutality. And it’s about a group of kids who, somewhat accidentally, somewhat in a Lord-of-the-Flies manner, end up killing one of their own and have to cover up the crime. And so it deeply investigates over its entire running time the nature of that brutality, and advances the premise, ‘Are we chimps, who will rip each other’s faces off and go to war and smack each other with sticks? Or are we bonobos, where it’s all about the good times and the loving and the compassion and the empathy?’ And it plays those ideas off each other. It’s wonderful. And it’s absolutely an examination of what it claims to be an examination of: what is written into our DNA that will result in these behaviours? And then this play seems to be like he wanted to do brutality again, but he’d forgotten how.

NS: Just now you were saying how you’re calling this an issues play right? I kind of disagree. I don’t think it’s an issues play; I think it’s an ideas play, or it’s a play with a thesis statement that there’s a kind of pattern of violence in our society. It seems like he’s saying it’s rooted in maleness and masculinity. It’s there in the title, right? Girls & Boys. And then we see it played out in the children. The girl is like a creator, right? She loves building things and creating things. 

ML: She seems to want to be an architect.

NS: And the son, like Naeem was saying, just wants to destroy and he wants to play at warlike scenarios in their home when running around. And so that violence and that binary of girls versus boys, it feels like that’s the idea that the playwright started with, and family annihilation was just like one way to paint that scenario…

ML: So then it seems shoehorned for me and inauthentic, and possibly even exploitative. But I do agree with you: I think that was probably the genesis of the play, and I wish it had followed that track a little bit more.

NK: Yeah, no, no, I think I agree as well. I think that seems to be more in line with the theme. It’s about, you know, masculinity and femininity. It’s about the roles which we play in society. There are all these anecdotes about her trying to make it into the film industry and working extra hard. And then her boss was an older woman having to prove herself – even though she’s been successful – when she wants to adopt a child.

And there’s another little anecdote I think she has with an older male colleague about how male achievement is celebrated, but male failure isn’t—and, you know, there’s all these little hints that men seem to have it a lot easier and are able to go and do as they please.

And obviously there’s the hint of destructiveness with the son, which is sadly echoed in the father later on. So I suppose the gender dynamic was ultimately the idea, and this was maybe just a slightly curveball or violent way of dealing with it. But yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it as a family annihilation play, because if it’s meant to be, then absolutely it should start with that, and we deal with the aftermath.

ML: I think it’s also, though, not a very good gender play. I think that’s probably a hard thing to achieve by having a single-gendered actor performing a monologue anyway—unless it’s a very, very multi-role thing. Whereas this is essentially her telling stories. I mean, gender is in there, but I don’t really think it was pursued to its apotheosis either. A lot of the flashbacks where she’s dealing with the kids and they have very gendered behaviour got quite repetitive.

NS: They did, they did. I was thinking about how… I think we mentioned Nikki Muller was quite physical in how she was playing that character? I did wonder if – maybe I was overthinking this – but I was like, ‘Oh, is this about women trying to reclaim their space?’ Because I felt like she kept bending down, and she used levels quite a bit, trying to really fill the space. And of course, it’s set in a kind of living room that’s being packed up, right?

NK: Yeah, yeah. And Pangdemonium is famous for having these symbolic things with their sets over the years. And again, immediately, it came to mind like, ‘Oh, she’s trying to sort out her life. She’s an empty box at the moment. She’s a husk. And she’s trying to fill herself up again, probably fill herself with the right memories,’ that sort of thing.

And I think that segues nicely into the set, which has been designed by Wai Yin Kwok. And it’s quite interesting because we’ve got a full, open-plan living room with a kitchenette and a sofa set and a lot of cardboard boxes, which she spends the play packing things into, but it’s contained within a little black—

ML: Within essentially a black cage.

NK: Yeah. And I’m not sure what I felt about that, though? What the point was? I didn’t know… What did you think about that, Matt? Because I just thought, is it just a symbolic gesture of how she’s trapped or something?

ML: I think you can sell it like that. But I think essentially you’ve got to make the call when you’re doing a monologue like this, do you want to have no set or some set? And if you go with the ‘some set’ option, then you can’t fill a stage that large with the set—you have to limit the space or it will look ridiculous.

So things like The Weight of Silk on Skin, they went with the other option of, well, let’s have no set then—and indeed let’s open all the travel curtains so that we go all the way back to the back wall of the theatre, and we play with the idea of being able to use all this vast amount of space. But you can’t put an unusually large living room on the stage of the Drama Theatre, and then operate within it. So I think it was largely a correct but practical choice, which was then probably dressed up a little bit by having the black ironwork surrounding it. 

NK: And also fluorescent lighting below, if I’m not mistaken.

ML: And I did like that choice. I think—

NK: That glows, right?

ML: Yeah, it glowed from below, and they put this black cage within a white cyclorama essentially, so that gives you light-painting options. So I think that gives them a little bit of a symbolic opportunity to use colour and to create alienation and distance for the audience. I thought it was well done. I don’t know if there’s enough there to write a thesis on…

NK: Yes. Yes.

NS: We were talking earlier about the idea of whether this play needs a trigger warning. And this is something that we saw in a comment on a Facebook post. And I was thinking about this because I usually think you always need a trigger warning. And I do feel that this play could have done with it, because the violence that isn’t shown but is described in amazing detail, as Naeem was saying, was very visceral, was quite disturbing. And some people may not be able to handle that. But for me in the play, I felt that having a female protagonist, a very warm character, there are some hints that she drops—maybe a bit too subtle, or maybe it just doesn’t add up towards the end… But I felt that there were like gentle forms of trigger warnings that were built into the play.

ML: Yeah, but once you’re locked in your seat…

NS: Once you’re locked in your seat. So I think that’s something for Pangdemonium to think about when they do plays with visceral, difficult violence being portrayed.

ML: I’m not really sure what I think about trigger warnings at the best of times. I will say that the fact that this didn’t have one is an indication that it privileges the idea of there being a twist. And that I think that that is, again, quite cheap.

NS: That’s probably true because didn’t they have a message at the end that said don’t reveal the spoiler?

ML: Oh, yeah, they did.

NS: Which I was a bit, I dunno…

NK: And I’m not sure how I feel about even describing it as a spoiler, you know? I don’t know whether that would even cheapen (to use your term), like cheapen the whole experience. I mean like your family being annihilated is a spoiler? I mean, like— 

ML: That’s what I felt too.

NK: If you want to have a play about it, I think it should absolutely be discussed. ‘This is a play about family violence.’ Not, ‘Don’t tell the audience, don’t tell your friends!’ You know, let them come into the play thinking it’s a romantic comedy. 

NS: And enjoy it!

NK: I mean, not to say that this detracted from my enjoyment, but I think it’s also about responsibility as a company. And, you know, having some sense of care for the people who watch this play.

I mean, I remember the M1 Fringe, and there were constant announcements about safe spaces outside the auditorium.

ML: Even in plays where you were like, ‘Really? Someone would need them?’

NK: Yeah, I remember it happened in almost everything I watched for the M1 Fringe. And I can’t think of a play where it’d be more relevant than this one, even if it was just an announcement at the start of the play.

NS: It’s interesting, because it feels like an indictment on society, isn’t it? Because the line at the end of the play that says ‘Society is built to stop men from enacting violence.’ I feel that the lack of a trigger warning, it’s almost like saying that we don’t need a trigger warning because this is our world: our world is filled with violence and we should be inoculated against shock, or feeling hurt or aggrieved by seeing violence. I don’t know, just some interesting things to think about, I suppose.

ML: Yeah.

NK: So that was Girls & Boys. Thank you very much. And we will be back in a couple of weeks with one or possibly two shows. 

NS: Stay tuned to find out!

NK: Stay tuned, and thank you very much.

NS: Yeah. Thank you so much! Bye! 

ML: Bye. Bye.

Girls & Boys by Pangdemonium ran at the Drama Centre Theatre from 25 Feb – 14 Mar 2021.

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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