By Nabilah Said
(1,887 words, 7-minute read)
Trigger/Content Warning: Discussions of sexual assault
I watched two shows in the span of two weeks recently. Besides the fact that they were Singapore plays, they did not, from the outset, seem that much alike. One was This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls by Pangdemonium. The other: Checkpoint Theatre’s Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner.
Walking out of the theatre on both occasions, I was struck by the fact that I felt nothing. Both deal with compelling themes – This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls tackles #MeToo and how sexual violence impacts both men and women; Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner lays bare the murky world of humanitarian aid efforts. My response doesn’t quite speak to the quality of the art making – both solid efforts (Helmi Yusof reviews Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner here). The nothingness, I realise, was a defence mechanism.
Both plays featured incidents of sexual assault, whether portrayed onstage, offstage or recounted verbally. This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls had three to Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner’s one – not that it is a numbers game (it would be a sad world if it was). The two theatre companies adopted very different styles. With This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, director Tracie Pang chose to viscerally portray two of the three incidents of assault on stage. There was no nudity, but we see enough signs to imply that an assault has taken place: a removed panty, unzipped trousers, and the faces, distraught, frozen. The third incident – one akin to a non-consensual schoolyard prank – is recounted in great detail by the now-adult victim.
It is undeniable that Pangdemonium was aiming for the jugular. As early as last year, I had heard rumblings of doubt from my peers about the show – its victim-blaming title furrowed brows, and its playwright, Ken Kwek, is a cis-heteronormative man writing about a movement largely centred on the experiences and voices of generations of silenced women. Perhaps to counter this, the company pulled out all the stops with a no-holds-barred production. Hence, the stark realism tending towards in-yer-face: colourful language full of references to balls and boobs courtesy of Adrian Pang’s Lester, the head honcho of a bike-sharing company whose charisma hides an inner turmoil; the sleekly designed set by Eucien Chia, where entrances and exits are orifices ensconced within towering, though elegant, structures of breasts, buttocks and a groin.
I know that this play is the result of a lot of work from the entire team, including the cast of eight who all turn in strong performances. I admire the care taken with the research process, involving interviews with 100 people, selected excerpts of which are printed in the programme booklet. That Kwek’s plotting is clever is also without doubt, though sometimes the puzzle pieces fit almost too well. But all these are let down in the depictions of assault – making that care seem performative, gestural, almost rendered null. Did you really have to go there? I found the scenes distressing, wondered if there had been any trigger or content warnings. The writing too did not quite say anything new about #MeToo – these were stories I had read on countless blogs, short stories, tweets and privately sent WhatsApp messages. The perpetrators in the play, all men, receive some punishment for their actions – two lose their jobs, but seemed likely to re-offend, and one is rebuked by his mother – but the narrative stops short of allowing them to really reflect on where things had gone wrong and how to prevent future incidents from happening.
The ending of This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls left me chomping at the bit for a resolution that would have made sitting through those searing scenes of assault anywhere worth it. I longed for a catharsis, that which Aristotle once wrote about, which would have left me feeling cleansed, purified. Surely that should be the value of staging a tragedy? Instead of purification, I ended up unsettled, all those scenes and the subsequent scenes of the victims having to deal with the aftermath of their assault, more or less on their own, now swirling in me like sediment and disturbing my insides.
Can catharsis be possible when a play is about sexual assault? Was director Tracie Pang perhaps aiming for a Brechtian distancing, where a resolution is held off to help guide the audience towards making social change? There is some merit to this line of thinking, except I question the ethics of it when it has been reported that 1 in 3 young people have experienced some form of sexual violence. AWARE reports that it receives almost 80% more calls about sexual assault and harassment since the #MeToo movement took off in October 2017, and these numbers have largely remained constant since then. For victims of sexual assault sitting in the audience, plays like This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls can be potentially triggering and distressing. Are plays that deal with prickly topics designed with the most vulnerable person in the theatre in mind?
In Huzir Sulaiman’s Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, the first we hear of an incident of sexual assault is from the perspective of the victim, Sara Chiu (Dawn Cheong) as she describes what has happened to her to her female colleagues. Director Claire Wong opts for a specific physical vocabulary for the play, one in which erratic, repetitive actions such as form-signing and hand-scrubbing stick out within an otherwise naturalistic writing. These repetitions, which at first appear surreal, turn horrific as we realise what they echo. There is no gratuitous action. We know what has happened because it is a story we have heard before. But it is no less painful to see steely Sara come to grips with it.
The country in Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is never named. This places the human drama of the aid workers centrestage, and in some ways, the tragedy that befalls them seems like a drop in the ocean of suffering of the similarly unnamed refugees. This doesn’t make Sara’s pain any less real, and in a way, the stylised treatment cushions us against a more brutal blow. The abstraction also makes it easier for you to situate yourself within it. You’re a substitute for her. This could be you, you, you.
When Sara’s colleagues wrap a shock blanket around her, you understand the kind of comfort and gentleness that is needed when faced with something so violent, so ugly. It reminds me of this post about the compassionate staging of a rape scene in the Jacobean play The Changeling, staged by a Virginian theatre company noted for its feminist approaches to works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Do we face brutality in the eye? Or do we soften its edges, to protect, so we don’t open old wounds? And if we do pick at a wound, whose responsibility is it to close it back up? As far as I know, This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls had one post-show discussion, held together with AWARE, during its two-week run. The real work is often then only done after – in the men who reflect back on their attitudes towards consent and toxic masculinity, in the care workers who receive the calls, in the women who confide in their loved ones. And maybe some of us end up nursing our wounds ourselves, in the quiet of the night.
There is a kind of death that is associated with performance. Performance is ephemeral, as it is enacted, so does it die. But the problem with staging sexual assault is that it lives on. It is seared into memory. In an op-ed titled “How we make excuses for violence against women on stage”, Martha Schabas writes that putting violence against women on stage “demands a kind of manufactured forgetfulness, a self-rewarding amnesia”, in which audiences get to claim that what they’re seeing onstage is revelatory, to let them off the hook for real-life instances of violence. It is feel better theatre, where people are moved to act only to the extent of recommending their friends to watch the show. While I don’t quite blame these productions, I think I am also allowed to say that I feel worse, and for me, the forgetting is where I falter.
If theatre is meant to be a safe space, how can we build a community of care around our audiences? Different productions have managed to do this in different ways. Edith Podesta’s Leda and the Rage, with its validating and intimate post-show sessions held after every performance comes immediately to mind. In Cerita Cinta, akulah BIMBO SAKTI’s hard-hitting play on domestic abuse, there were post-show discussions of different topics each night, helmed by experts in the subject. Drama Box’s immersive Flowers included a “Decompression Space”, where you could speak to someone if you felt affected by the themes of the show, which spoke of patriarchal violence. But the community can be audience-led too. When An Octoroon was staged at London’s National Theatre, there were objections to the depiction of racialised violence in a show largely attended by a predominantly white audience. A discussion session, exclusively for members of the black community, was called. So perhaps some catharsis can be achieved, even if it is after the fact.
In This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls, some scenes make the audience laugh, especially when Adrian Pang’s dude-boss character Lester makes ribald remarks in the office. This laughter could have several meanings: a laugh to cover discomfort, a laugh that reveals the darkest of humours, or just simply a reflex reaction. It makes me think of Beckett’s description in his novel Watt of three laughs that are not laughs – the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless – especially the third, the quietest laugh:
“The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout—Haw!—so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy”
UK critic Kate Wyver, upon watching scores of #MeToo plays at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018, wrote this response in which she says she felt “stabbed by the audience’s laughter”, yet also wonders if we need to embrace the laughter. I’m not quite advocating laughing when it comes to a topic like sexual assault – David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, a satire about Harvey Weinstein, aka Barney Fein, opening soon in the West End seems poorly timed at the very least – but I do hope for a future in which a woman can feel safe in her environs, be able to safely express herself in the greyest moments of consent, put #MeToo firmly in the past, and, yes, laugh.
This piece, I think, it is my attempt at a kind of reparative writing, having watched these two plays in close succession. Perhaps it is my own chance at catharsis, having neither laughed nor cried, but received these scenes of assault almost as a detached spectator. Whatever sound I wanted to make, it stayed choking in my throat.
Related articles that further, muddle, challenge these issues:
Eve Leigh’s On (not) watching gendered violence on stage
Maddie Gaw’s What’s Problematic, the Play or the Process?
Alice Saville’s Do trigger warnings ruin theatre’s power to surprise?
This Is What Happens To Pretty Girls by Pangdemonium ran from 10 to 26 May at Drama Centre. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner by Checkpoint Theatre ran from 24 – 26 May 2019 at Victoria Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Nabilah Said is the Editor of ArtsEquator.