In the episode of the ArtsEquator theatre podcast, Nabilah Said, Matthew Lyon and Naeem Kapadia discuss The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company, which ran from March 11 to March 21 2021.
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Matthew Lyon (ML): Hello, everybody, welcome back to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. I, Matt Lyon, am here as usual with Nabilah Said…
Nabilah Said (NS): Hello.
ML: And Naeem Kapadia…
Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello.
ML: Today we are discussing the Second Breakfast Company’s presentation of The Singapore Trilogy, which is, of course, three plays written by Robert Yeo: Are You There Singapore?, One Year Back Home and Changi, which were written between… was it the 70s and the 90s, with Changi coming quite a lot later? Let’s go to Naeem—some thoughts, please.
NK: So first and foremost I think it’s a very ambitious production because it’s three full-length plays. I believe they would have taken seven hours if performed in full, and what the director, Adeeb Fazah and the dramaturge Dominic Nah and their team have done is really just take those three plays and condensed them into a two-and-a-bit hour production, which obviously meant them having to delete a lot of scenes, remove extraneous dialogue, give dialogue to other characters, and really make it about three principal characters. So there are two friends who start off in the UK when they’re students. And there’s another lady who is the sister of one of the friends, and these two friends end up being on opposite sides of the political spectrum when they ultimately move back to Singapore.
And it really becomes a story about these three principle characters, just dealing with their personal and professional lives, I suppose. Also, interestingly, there was a revised ending in this production, in consultation with the playwright Robert Yeo, so it doesn’t include the original ending, but something which I think was perhaps informed by the recent elections from last year.
So yeah, more on that later, but I think that’s just the general thing. It’s an ambitious production. It sought to take a very long set of plays and make it snappy, which I think to a large extent has been successful, because Robert Yeo’s plays can be extremely tedious in terms of their dialogue to anyone who’s experienced them.
And I think for me, it was quite nice getting that entire sense of how all the events transpire. But yeah, I think as a project, it was definitely an ambitious one that the Second, Breakfast has done.
NS: I think one of the main things that felt like something new that the dramaturge, Dominic, and Adeeb the director did was to create this spine in the play of Changi, which is the last play in the trilogy. And we feel it’s the strongest play in trilogy.
NS: Much better written with a stronger character. And you see scenes of Fernandez’s interrogation or scenes in Changi all throughout the play. So from the start, even when we see predominantly the events of the first play, you’ll get a foreboding of Fernandez in the jail cell in a darker tone. And we see that interspersed throughout the play. So I saw that as a kind of spine that they were trying to have, and I thought was very smart, because if it’s the strongest play and you have it all throughout, you get this kind of juxtaposition of what’s happening in the earlier part of the play and then what’s going to happen. So I thought that sense of suspense or what’s going happen…
ML: It created stakes, didn’t it? Because without that, the first two plays don’t have any stakes at all. So the kind of slightly fake superimposition of stakes that will eventually happen to one of the characters in the first half… as the audience, you trust that it will all be related, and that those stakes are relevant.
NK: I think it just created, as you said, a sense of foreboding. And I think for me that framing device was perhaps the strongest intervention that they made to the text, because if you did read the original two plays, they were very much drawing room comedies—I wouldn’t say comedies… but like drawing room dramas, basically, between a couple of characters. And you kind of have a change of scene in Changi, where one of the main characters, Reg, is being interrogated. So I think just seeing what’s happening to him, as you said, and juxtaposing that against the beginnings of the friendship and the journey was quite interesting, and that created a little bit of tension and excitement.
ML: Yeah. But the smartest choice they made was just to cut a lot of it, because the more you cut out of this play, the better it gets, until the point where it doesn’t exist anymore, which is its ideal state. It’s extremely bad. The last one, I think, is a somewhat mediocre play—like if you’re going to do an interrogation drama, Tan Tarn How does it better in Undercover or, even later, much, much better in Fear of Writing.
But the first two plays are not even below average: they’re just execrably written. There’s no stakes: you have to borrow them from the third play. The relationships between the characters are stated but never actually shown by the action onstage, and there’s nothing that the actors can really do to even make that happen. Much of the dialogue is unsayable, with the possible exception of the character of Reg, because he seems to be written as more of a rebel, and so there’s more of a loose sense to the dialogue. It’s still a bit stuffy, but the other characters, especially the one who’s supposed to be stuffy, Chye… it’s like random words chosen from a thesaurus a lot of the time—they almost don’t join up in a way that could possibly be spoken by anyone.
So I’ve got a lot of problems with this play but essentially they spring largely from the fact that the text – although historically important because it was the first time (arguably) someone in Singapore had tried to wrest the idea of the drawing room drama from the British… so it’s historically vital for that reason. But historically important is not the same as good.
NS: Yeah. I’m a bit torn because, like you said, Matt, Are You There, Singapore? is one of those classic Singapore plays if you’re learning about Singapore theatre. It’s one of them up there that’s like, ‘You need to know about this.’
I still remember the graphic design of the brochure or the flyer of the original 1974 play, because I was meant to know about it. It was the first political play in Singapore—it was the first one that apparently used a type of Singaporean English that wasn’t Queen’s English—of course it’s not Singlish… but at the time it was kind of lauded as a first, as you said.
So I feel like when you say ambitious, Naeem, I’m like, on one level I want to applaud them for trying to do this thing that’s really hard to do, and trying their best, I suppose. But whether or not it really worked, it’s definitely like a mixed bag for me. And also, at the end of the day, it felt like three hours of quite tedious… As an audience member, I really felt that I had to really fight to stay invested in this play, which only really got better in the last bit maybe.
NK: I completely agree. And I think when I say ambitious, it’s ambitious that they’ve taken three plays and condensed them, which involves a considerable amount of work. I think they had to do several meetings with the playwright, and obviously decide which scenes to take out here and there. But the fact of the matter is that they are not strong plays, and it’s difficult for an audience member – especially one in 2021 – to be invested in characters written in this way, speaking in this very, very awkward, forced, formal manner about—
ML: Especially when one of the strengths of Singapore theatre now is the dialogue. Like so many playwrights write wonderful, authentic dialogue. Sometimes the plots are not quite as they might be… but the dialogue is there.
NK: Yeah, you want the life, the relatable nature.
ML: And so listening to this, it’s a very difficult experience. But talking about the abridging, yes they did well to cut so much of it and make it more or less coherent—although I think we struggled with the chronology a bit, didn’t we? But even then, there were whole scenes left in where we’d had a scene, we’d seen what happened; and then we have a scene with two older parents, and they explain what just happened; and then they explain what’s going to happen, and then in the subsequent scene, the thing that they just explained happens. Those scenes should not have been left in.
NS: Yeah, I’m quite curious about why they chose to leave some of those side characters in: the parents of Chye and Hua I feel were not necessary at all. I think Reg’s mother, played by Aiswarya Nair, was slightly better. And I did quite feel for her maybe—
ML: I think she had a place in the play, and the acting was pretty good.
NS: And maybe because Reg was also good, and you rooted for him, so then it was just a better choice. But we were talking about some of the other characters that we really did not know why they were there, so… the Italian paramour of Hua?
ML: Oh ‘paramour’!
NK: ‘Paramour’! Oh, Nabilah!
ML: Golf clap! Golf clap for ‘paramour’. I love it!
NS: All the scenes with him and that dialogue, I was like cringing internally for the actor.
NK: Yeah, I was actually just telling Nabilah this beforehand: once we got past that initial snazzy interrogation scene that opens up the entire show, we basically are launched into full-blown Growing Up material, because that’s what it felt like. It was 1960s London, very staid drawing-room dialogue… Singaporean characters… very, very colourless. And it got almost cringey in a sort of very secondary-school-play-like manner. And I think a lot of that has to do with the original text itself, but I think, that being the case, when you hinge so much of this play on three characters, the three characters need to obviously work together well.
Now Shrey Bhargava, who plays Reg, obviously was by far the best performance in this production. I mean playing that firebrand political rebel character, I found resonances between him and even modern-day opposition politicians, which I think is a great credit to his performance. But when you look at the other characters, Chye, who was played by Casidhe Ng, and Siew Hua, who’s played by Ong Yi Xuan—I just really struggled to see the chemistry between the two of them. The two men are meant to be friends but it just does not come across at all.
ML: Yeah, I mean you can’t pin that entirely on the acting, because the playwright insists that they are friends but never gives any evidence.
NK: I just could not see the fact that they were friends because he just looks mildly irritated for pretty much most of the play, Casidhe who plays the character of Chye. And then likewise, the sister character… she’s meant to always have this emotional connection to Reg.
ML: Well, she’s always stated to have this emotional connection with him—but again, it’s just not in the text. It simply isn’t there. They never have a conversation that indicates that they even like each, other apart from saying, ‘I like you.’ And that’s not… that’s not how you do playwriting.
NK: So it just becomes very difficult because you have these characters who are meant to be with each other through thick and thin over the course of 15, 20 years. But I don’t think they’ve really developed as a trio from the start.
ML: No. And you were right to mention the soap, Growing Up, because if we look at the acting style, I mean Shrey is basically doing your Stanislavski-system, good theatrical acting thing, whereas Yi Xuan really seemed to be doing that soap-opera, where-is-the-camera, turn-and-walk-to-the-rainy-window thing. And aesthetically, that’s a bit of a mismatch there… even in the acting style. Which you can put on the director, I think.
NK: And then I think the other thing for me which made this quite tedious at parts was just the numerous, numerous scene transitions. Now obviously you’re taking three plays, you’re slicing them together—there’s going to be about 50 different scenes. The problem was they had a central set which is this drawing-room-type situation where you’ve got flats, a main entrance in the middle, you’ve got a sofa on the side, a little table upstage… But that was used pretty much throughout the play in every single location both in London and Singapore, and even though there were scene transitions, not much was actually done in those transitions to transform the space.
ML: Sadly, they clearly they thought that they were doing a lot, because they spent an awful lot of time taking off one type of cushion and putting on another type of cushion.
NK: Which didn’t really add much.
ML: It made absolutely zero difference. I wonder if, in their heads, they thought they’d made a naturalistic set. But they hadn’t: it didn’t look like anyone’s room. It vaguely gestured towards someone’s room… but that puts you in a difficult, between-two-stools situation. They would have been much better with a set that was entirely gestural, where they could have left the furniture on, or just moved it to create different spaces, rather than having to take it on and off—and not try to make it look like any given specific space, which with the budget and, as you say, the fact that there are so many scene changes, is completely impossible to do.
NS: And I’m trying to remember the play now… I feel like their orientation in the space never changed.
ML: You’re right.
NS: And I remember at the time thinking that I really like the scene where they hung the flag over the door and then they all turned and looked towards the door. And at a time I was like, ‘Oh this is quite a nice scene.’ And I realised it was because it was the only visual change that happened throughout the play.
ML: You’re absolutely right. And unfortunately it’s because Adeeb has I think some work to do directing naturalistic stage movement. He did a really nice job in…?
NK: The Hawker.
ML: The Hawker, where it was site-specific and based around tables, so there wasn’t a lot of movement. But in the bits where they moved around the hawker centre, it was well-managed. (Ed: The Hawker was directed by Tan Hui Er, not Adeeb Fazah)
And he also did a nice job in Family, where it was either patterned choral movement or monologues, and that’s a little bit easier to do…
But what he’d done with the set is, Naeem, as you say… there was a clump of furniture stage left, and there was a clump of furniture stage right. And then going from the audience toward the back wall of the theatre, you walk along and then you rise up a step. And half of the furniture on each side is up a step and half of the furniture is down a step. But they’re also, despite the steps, squeezed really close together. So you’ve just got two clumps. You can’t walk from the upstage table to the downstage sofa because there’s not enough space in between. And even if there were, there’d be a step hindering your movement.
ML: Even in the middle where there isn’t any furniture, you’ve got that bloody step in the way, so there’s like a metre and a half that you can’t stand in: you need to make the choice to either go up the step or down the step. And then he’s put down flooring material on the bare surface of the stage obviously, and he’s done it such (and fair enough, this is possibly a COVID thing), that the floor runs out quite a long way from the front row of the audience. And if you hadn’t got a floor, then you could just walk where you wanted, but since you’ve got a floor, you can’t stand too close to where the floor runs out because it looks like you’re standing with your nose pressed up against the fourth wall.
So the set was absolutely forbidding naturalistic actor movement, which a lot of the time is… You can read it in old plays like George Bernard Shaw or even Albee, you know where it says ‘he moves to the drinks cabinet’. You need a drinks cabinet to move to. You need places that are far enough away from each other that it becomes significant when an actor moves from one to the other. And in this production, if you’re on stage left or stage right you can’t do that because all the furniture’s too close… but you can’t even move from stage left to stage right because there the furniture is too far away: there’s a huge gap in the middle! So there’s a lot of learning to do there, unfortunately. It did not work at all.
NK: Yeah, that’s what made it quite difficult to, I think, just get through. And the other thing was that you know you are doing plays that span a certain period of time, and I do want to see that effluxion of time, I do want to get a sense that—
NK: I know, I’m learning from Nabilah.
ML: I don’t even know that word!
NS: Is that a word?
NK: It is.
ML: I don’t even care, I love it so much! And if it was never a word, it should be.
NK: So yeah, you do want to see that that idea of…
ML: No, that’s an effluxion. That’s what that is.
NK: You do want to see that effluxion of time, and the sense of these characters maturing. But I think the most jarring thing for me was Siew Hua, who gets pregnant by the Italian paramour, is pregnant in one scene—and then in the very next scene there is a fully formed eight-year-old child lying on the sofa. And we’re just like, ‘Okay, did about eight years just go by without any signposting for the audience?’ It’s just that sort of thing where—
NS: I feel like the child was meant to look younger or to appear younger. It’s just that—
NK: They couldn’t find the actor to do that.
ML: And then I suspect she was supposed to look older so they just went with the middle.
ML: And it wasn’t ever right.
NS: Maybe that’s why. So initially I thought they were trying to use sound to signify time. So I thought it was like tuning a radio and—
ML: I expected that as well, and I thought that there was evidence for why I should expect that early on…
NS: Yeah, I thought that as well—but then with each transition I realized it was like the same music happening again and again, and after a while I got a bit triggered every time I heard the music. I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to happen!’ And then I remember them taking very long trying to switch a noticeboard and put things on a noticeboard to make it look like an office, which can be quite insulting for the audience, because if it’s an office, we’ll just believe it’s an office if people are moving in a certain way.
NK: And that’s your point about just going for more gestural approach, right?
ML: The weird thing is, the way they’d laid out at the stage was like a Greek theatre, which famously didn’t have set pieces because you’ve got this back wall, which is your skene; and there’s kind of a back corridor which goes off left and right, which are your paradoi; and then there’s the area that you act in, which is the orchestra; and just in front of the skene there’s a raised step. If you’re a theatre student and you look at that, you’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve made a Greek theatre.’ It does imply what you then do with your set pieces and your movement, i.e., no set pieces to speak of, and move around a lot. Now, can you have no set pieces in this? No, it is a domestic drama, so I guess you have to do something… but it does imply that sense that you have to keep it moving, that it’s about creating dynamic stage pictures, which was not at all done.
NS: Yeah, and small note: the wigs were really bad. Especially Shrey’s wig. I was really distracted by his wig. I felt that—
NK: It was another character! Pretty much!
NS: It was! And I felt that he had to work against the wig a lot of the time, and the moment he cut his hair and came out, I heaved a sigh of relief.
NK: Oh my goodness me, he looks so much better!
NS: I was like, ‘Oh my God, we can finally see his face!’ And he could do more also because of that.
NK: I’m just curious about the reason behind that wig. Was it supposed to connote some kind of ’60s wild lifestyle?
NS: It’s also like rebel…
NK: Because he’s a rebel… but then everyone else pretty much looks exactly the same. I mean, I think maybe Siew Hua’s character had a couple of costume changes to show her maturing a little bit. Chye obviously looks exactly the same in a white shirt. Literally his entire costume change was like tucking or untucking the white shirt, right?
NS: To signify whether he was relaxed or stressed or—
NK: Or agitated! You know it’s like, ‘Let’s remove a button because I’m agitated!’
NS: Yeah, I feel like Casidhe Ng really got the short end of the stick a little bit. There isn’t much you can do with those lines, I feel. But also, I feel like with the blocking he couldn’t do anything that signified—
ML: He often got stuck downstage left, didn’t he?
NS: Yeah he was always there.
NK: So much of this play is described as being this friendship or this relationship between two friends from the time they’re students. And Casidhe Ng’s character, Chye, is meant to be a bit more of a rebel back in the day. I think there were lines about how he took part in student protests, et cetera. I don’t get any shade of that from the way he portrays the character. (I mean, it’s probably not written in that way either…) And he just plays it as this completely strait-laced, angry and agitated older brother from beginning to end. And I would have liked to see a little bit more of transition to him deciding to go into politics, and then doing the typical Singaporean pragmatic approach and still trying to care for his sister, and still trying to look out for his friend. But, you know, it was very, very one-note.
ML: But, I mean, if it’s a political drama, then what did the two different parties or people believe in? Because you’ve been describing Reg’s character as a political rebel, but he’s not: we never really find out what he believes in, nor do we really find out what Chye believes in. Now, sure, there’s many reasons why that’s the case, because probably back in the ’70s you couldn’t write about that or you would get… erm…
NS: Carted off.
ML: Yes, ‘carted off’, that’s the word. And also because I guess it’s implicit in the context that the audience would know. But that doesn’t so much work these days, when 40 years have elapsed and the audience doesn’t necessarily know any more. So then, just as you are left with the statement ‘I am your friend’ and nothing is done to prove it, you’re left with the implication that this is a great political rebel, but no real sense of what would be the rebellion. And equally, that this is a stick-in-the-mud conservative, but again no indication of what that implies or entails.
NK: I think the only time when they’re pitted against each other was when they were going up against each other for that election campaign with the very effective posters on both sides of the door. And obviously Shrey then gives this excellent speech where he defends the people of Bugis Street, because I think there’s a demolition that’s apparently being proposed. And that was obviously one of the strongest scenes in the play, and you know, Shrey was just really doing the absolute best he could with the character as that very charismatic opposition politician standing up for the everyday people who perhaps are cast aside.
NS: And it’s real as well, right?
NK: It felt very real. I think for me that was the one scene that really transported me to even the present day. You can see those charismatic politicians just standing up for everyday people. And for me that one moment I think made the play really resonant.
ML: Yeah, because it was not just saying ‘This is an opposition politician’; it was showing us the specific things that that person would say at that place in that time.
NK: Yes, and I wish that was carried through more.
ML: It was the best-written part of the entire play—and Changi is easily the best-written out of the three. I think they should have just staged Changi, because the first two are worthless.
NK: The other thing we were talking about was that this play was originally meant to be staged in 2020, at the height of the Singapore general elections, and perhaps then a play about political rebels and friends on different sides of the spectrum would have resonated… But, you know, the pandemic has happened, and this is now being pushed out by a year, and watching a play like this today in 2021 just doesn’t quite have that same impact that perhaps it would have if it had been staged in the midst of an election.
NS: I kind of disagree in the sense that I feel like this kind of political drama thing? I feel like it’s still resonant even today… Like there’s always something happening with our politics, you know? So I feel like the resonance is still there, but I feel it’s working against itself because of those two earlier plays that they have to do because they’ve given themselves the challenge of doing them.
NK: That’s the thing, yeah. So I think it’s almost the case where, as you said, the first two plays are propped up by these scenes from Changi. And then there are some good scenes from Changi. And I think that the scene where his father passes away and he comes back a somewhat sobered-down character is again from Changi. Again, that was that was a strong scene.
ML: It’s not horrible.
NK: And there was some really powerful emotional acting by the mother character, which I appreciated. Obviously, he removes his wig, and we see him kind of look different. So for me that was like, ‘Oh look, he’s kind of become more mature.’ There’s a sense that he’s changed a little bit, sobered up…
NS: And the plot was also interesting at that point because he was saying they took away his passport. So they were essentially trapping him in Singapore where he wouldn’t be able to make his speeches. So there’s this sense that the plot was not just about personal life but it was also about what the government was trying to do with him.
ML: And things actually happened rather than merely being stated to happen.
NS: Yeah, so a lot of things were happening within that one scene—I thought it was well done.
ML: It was pretty good.
NK: Yeah, maybe Changi might just have been the right thing to focus on. But then again, that went against the ambition of taking these three plays and staging them for the first time in one sitting—that was one of the stated goals.
NS: So this is the thing that I’m worried about with Second Breakfast Company, because one of their missions since they were set up is to go back into the canon of Singapore theatre and rework plays and stage them for a modern audience. But a lot of these older plays (and Matt, maybe you can elaborate) may not have been written really well, or have their flaws. And when you’re beholden, especially to living playwrights, I feel that it’s really hard to do a great job at reworking these plays. And you can do a lot of things with adaptations: you can be playful and rework them in a very contemporary way—and maybe do this in a less realistic way, I’m not sure? But I feel like they’ve set themselves up to do this really impossible task, essentially.
ML: Yeah, I would agree. In ’74 when Robert Yeo first staged Are You There, Singapore?, his inheritance was not the mid-century American plays: the really good stuff like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. It was not the seventies British playwrights like Edward Bond. It was not even Beckett and the Irish or the Absurdists. It was unfortunately what had filtered in through the Stage Club, which was, at latest, early half of the 20th century, essentially very, very English drawing-room plays, where you have a butler. And so you see in the first plays that he’s working within and against that tradition, but in a way that unfortunately is rather incoherent.
And several of the Singaporean playwrights of the time, without naming names, also probably have difficulty with the idea of what does it mean to write a play in English. Of course, there are standouts: Emily of Emerald Hill is an excellent, excellent monodrama. But I wonder if Second Breakfast Company is going too early in their sense of what the canon is, because there are a lot of good plays written in the generation after that. And those might be the ones that there’s more merit in bringing back.
NK: Yeah, plays maybe from the later eighties or even early nineties. I mean it has been 30 years since 1991, so you know, it might make more sense to perhaps focus on that era rather than some of these really early plays which I think modern audiences would struggle with, just in terms of the dialogue sometimes.
NS: And I think in that 1960s, ’70s era, people were still trying to figure out how to write Singaporean dialogue—like believable Singaporean dialogue. And, you know, Kuo Pao Kun later did it, I believe in the 1980s. But maybe the time before that, they were still struggling a lot. And I feel that it wasn’t just the craft of struggling with writing that Singaporean type of English; I also think that acceptance from the audience was something that people were still struggling with: like, ‘Is Singlish really valid?’ You know, ‘Should we be proud of it?’
NK: The crowd would have been different. The crowd would have been this very westernised, extremely upper-middle-class…
ML: Even when I first came here in ’99, if someone spoke Singlish onstage, people laughed.
NS: Right? So I think there’s this struggle also that’s underlying a play like Robert Yeo’s and what he was trying to do at the time, which was groundbreaking at the time… But now, because we have so many plays with Singaporean English done so well, with all these layers underneath the written lines, I feel like this just pales in comparison, and we can’t help but compare.
ML: You can’t; you’re right.
NK: Yes. And I think that’s why for me I kept thinking back to my last experience with the Second Breakfast, The Hawker, which was actually a new play. It just felt so much more fresh because it felt authentic. And it felt like a story about Singapore that I was quite happy to experience, not some fusty old memory which I didn’t necessarily connect with. I mean there were obviously moments, but on the whole it still felt a little bit… difficult.
NS: Yeah. Oh, I remember something that made me happy that this play was being done. The audience on the day that we went, Naeem, because we went on the same day… there were some really old people who came to watch the play. And maybe Robert Yeo’s friends, maybe not, I don’t want to generalise… but I was like, wow, this is one of the most diverse audiences in terms of age that I’ve seen. Which I like. Because of what Second Breakfast Company is trying to do, I appreciated just being able to attract young and old audiences. It’s actually quite rare.
ML: So we ended on a nice note. Surprising, considering the rest of it…
But yes: next time we’ll be talking about the Singapore Arts Festival, so that might take a while because we’ve got to see the shows first, and they’re not happening till May… June…
NK: Yeah, end of May.
ML: We shall return then.
NS: See you then.
ML: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.
The Singapore Trilogy by The Second Breakfast Company ran from March 11 to March 21 2021 at the Stamford Arts Centre Black Box.
This post has been updated to correctly reflect that The Hawker was directed by Tan Hui Er, not Adeeb Fazah.