By Casidhe Ng
(1,160 words, six-minute read)
The breaking apart of Pangaea. The parting of the Red Sea. The abolitionist movement in all its contexts. The division of Taiwan and China in 1949. The separation of Singapore from Malaysia on 9th August 1965. The erecting of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Its complete fall in November 1991. The four “houses” we were split into in my primary school, which determined my classmates and my friends. The various streams we entered after PSLE. Race and religion. A divorce in my extended family. My grandfather’s death in 2013, which left a hollowness in my immediate living space, the lack of his presence forever and deeply seared into my memory.
In TheatreWorks’ The Reunification of The Two Koreas, things don’t just fall apart. They drift, they crumble, they evaporate. Here, almost everyone’s a sinner. These characters are flawed, impulsive and irrational, constantly fighting against the urge to do what is immoral. They are often reprehensible and selfish, and use words as a tool to threaten others, to instil fear, to indicate malice.
Joël Pommerat’s play, translated from the French, consists of 20 short scenarios, each about a facet of love and/or its influences, the binding agent of its myriad of characters adeptly portrayed by nine cast members. But it also delivers a kind of love that can appear as something sinister, something intangible yet undeniable, a love taking the form of spectres, apparitions, and revenants.
One particular vignette involves Muriel (Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie) and her partner (Tan Shou Chen), being confronted by a figure who reveals himself as Muriel’s former lover (Ebi Shankara). There is little we understand about Shankara’s character, and what we do know we glean from the horror and enchantment upon MacQuarrie’s face, as she repeatedly emphasises the impossibility of their “reunification”, yet is strangely enraptured by him, much to her partner’s frustration. Shankara embodies a kind of mysterious horror in his stoic portrayal of the character; he delivers his lines calmly, but the words themselves seem to slice through the relationship like a hot knife to butter. Though it is later revealed that Shankara’s character has “ceased to exist”, he nevertheless represents the inescapable force of Muriel’s past. At one point, he utters “he (Tan’s character) will never be able to fulfil your desires”, and Muriel has a moment of epiphanic understanding, falling into a trancelike hopelessness to the temptation of the notion that true happiness may lie with someone other than the person she’s pledged her life to.
In another scene, Janice Koh and Tim Nga portray a couple who return from a night out only to discover that their children have disappeared, and their babysitter (Umi Kalthum Ismail) is unwilling to divulge what has happened to them. They are naturally livid, and the initial verdict is that the babysitter, who is strangely apathetic to the woes of the duo, is the possibly-sociopathic culprit. She states plainly, devoid of emotion: “Madam, there’s no kids” – to the gut-wrenching despair of the wife’s barrage of questions. Yet as the scene progresses we bear witness to a slow reversal of roles, another key element of the vignettes in Reunification. Husband and wife steadily lose their composure, and what was once attributed to a deep grief at a terrible loss of loved children gives way to a desperation to prolong the artifice masking their childlessness, culminating in a brutal confession: “we will be nothing without our kids… we have no identity of our own”. Does the absence of physical “children” render their love untrue? Are the couple to blame for their deficiency, their unorthodox psychology – or should blame lie on the babysitter, who goes back on her word to oblige their private pantomime?
Taken as a whole, the 20-odd episodes cover themes of self-worth, connection, authenticity of emotion and familial drama. A prostitute (Karen Tan), upon being told by her lover (Shankara) that he has found another woman, pleads for him to have dinner with her in place of sex, so that she may retain a part of this relationship for herself. She iterates that “there will be no physical contact”, but we know the act of simply agreeing constitutes betrayal in itself, and the tainted interaction will inevitably become a catalyst for infidelity.
Bolstered by sound designer Bani Haykal’s subtle renderings on the guitar and piano, and a complex multimedia sequence in which we follow Zelda Tatiana Ng into a lonesome, insular arcade, a world unto itself, the production’s bare-bones staging connects the ensemble with the audience, another reunification of sorts: the cast, seated in a line in full view when not performing, reacts to what is unfolding onstage as naturally as we do, and we both partake in a mutual attempt to comprehend the complexity of the stories before us.
The play asks hard-hitting questions with no right answers, and without judgment: each vignette never takes sides with either of the opposing forces pitted against each other. The vignettes are similarly concerned with an acute portrayal of unexplored possibilities, and the lengths people will go to in the name of an emotion, a thing, that is all-consuming.
What I felt was the most striking episode of the evening conveys this best: in it, a couple (Shankara and Koh) demand an explanation from a teacher (Tan Shou Chen) regarding the events of a school camp, believing him to have inappropriately touched their child. Stung, the teacher retorts that he comforted the child out of love, in an attempt to provide care, concern and affection, things he is certain that the parents do not supply. To Tan’s character, the allegation of perversity in his actions is just as vulgar and offensive to him as his act of intimacy with the child is to the parents. In the seemingly liminal space, the back-and-forth dialogue is explosive: the sentences “I even feel love for him” and “Do you often have children in your room, sir?” are thrown about like verbal daggers in a complex war of perspectives, with each side so blinded, so convinced that their reactions are driven by love, that they cannot even begin to comprehend how things might seem on the other side of the border.
“The world crumbles under lovelessness,” Tan yells in a moment of anger and utter desperation. The Reunification of the Two Koreas reminds us that this is not the case: it is the excess of it, the inability to communicate it, how it can break us apart through division and destruction, as well as how it can bring us together — and in a process of learning empathy, we come to see “both sides, now”, where neither side is right nor wrong, but both equally vested in the process of love and beholden to its transformative nature. The characters may be sinners, but that’s because they’re fundamentally human. They are vulnerable, and true, and prone to desires, agendas and the wants of their heart, which must, in every circumstance, supersede everything else.
The Reunification of the Two Koreas by TheatreWorks was originally written in French by Joël Pommerat. Directed by Jacques Vincey, this staging ran at 72-13 from 1 – 11 November 2018. This response is based on the performance on 2 November 2018, 8pm.
Casidhe Ng is currently studying at Yale-NUS College, having graduated from School of the Arts, Singapore in 2015, where he majored in Theatre. In his free time, he enjoys binge-watching TV shows and films, as well as reading. His reviews can be found at centre42.sg and The Flying Inkpot.
This review is part of the Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme with Corrie Tan, which is initiated by National Arts Council and organised by ArtsEquator. It is a six-month programme during which theatre critic and mentor Corrie Tan guides mentees Casidhe Ng and Teo Xiao Ting in reviewing one performance a month from September 2018 to March 2018. The program seeks to push the writers’ and the readers’ expectations of the forms and perspectives of critical writing, as a way to expand beyond the conventional shape and depth of criticism in Singapore.