By Akanksha Raja
(1,000 words, six-minute read)
Four of the five productions from this year’s season of The Studios are commissioned works revolving around the theme of “Between Living and Dying”. Most of these are new, original monologues recounting deeply introspective journeys that navigate the melancholy of loss and seek hope and meaning within grief. Opening the season is Faith Ng’s A Good Death, directed by Chen Yingxuan. It follows a palliative care doctor, Dr Leong (Karen Tan) as she assists patients in their final days, while coping with the challenges of her own father’s deteriorating health and the attitudes of her family members and peers towards death and end-of-life care.
The performance begins with Dr Leong ruminating on how palliative care is like ghost-writing – often the hardest part is “getting the ending right”. Finding such analogies between healthcare and art-making struck me as the script possibly being self-reflexive, revealing something of playwright Ng’s process of writing this story, of attempting to understand or assimilate her work with a profession so different from hers. She has done a commendable job. The performance is the fruition of almost a year’s worth of research shadowing palliative care doctors, as well as their patients and their families, within hospitals, hospices and homes. Ng marries these real-life stories with her own sensitive and thoughtful style of writing that is a delicate blend of pathos and wry humour, resulting in a moving yet realistic portrayal of multi-faceted and nuanced characters dealing with mortality – whether their own or that of loved ones – in their own individual ways.
Dr Leong’s contemplative introduction is soon interspersed with re-enactments of characters from the hospice and her home, until it begins to feel less like we are listening to one woman’s memoir, and more like we are vicariously experiencing these characters first-hand within her headspace, like a theatrical Pensieve. In 90 minutes, Karen Tan inhabits and seamlessly transitions between at least a dozen characters. Her talent particularly shines in scenes of high tension and difficult conversations between individuals of vastly different temperaments, such as the painful rift between Dr Leong and her brother Benjamin as they tend to their dementia-stricken father. It’s remarkable to watch Tan switch between the siblings in conversation together or with their father: gentle, patient Dr Leong with her measured, soft tone and reserved manner, clearly experienced at staying calm in a conflict, versus the more pragmatic, hard-hearted Benjamin with his gruff voice and near-violent energy, with too short a fuse to understand how to care for his father. There is humour in Dr Leong’s perplexity at her Peranakan mother’s light-hearted banter about whether or not to wear beaded shoes in the coffin. Then there are the doctor’s tête-à-têtes with Safia, a disenchanted teenager coping with the pains of adolescence and her troubled relationship with her ailing father. It is hard enough for two actors playing two separate roles to achieve emotional synchronicity; one can only imagine the many internal journeys Tan must have taken to be able to channel the uniqueness of each character’s physical and mental skin so fluidly, and for each to achieve (seemingly effortless) chemistry with the others.
Because we are held so captive by the intensity of such situations and characters, there is a momentary feeling of dissonance when Dr Leong shifts back to “storyteller” mode, when she segues out of the re-enactment of a particular scene to her monologue. This slight dissonance raises the question of why, or how, the format of the monologue is the best vehicle for telling this story. The easy answer is that it was in the commission brief, and that you can never go wrong with Karen Tan doing a monologue; she has turned in admirable performances in one-woman productions like Emily of Emerald Hill and Chong Tze Chien’s To Whom It May Concern. A Good Death moves beyond using the format of the monologue to highlight only a singular, personal subjectivity (where the audience is usually empathising with only one person) to realising multiple subjectivities and an expanded sense of compassion through the journey of one person. A Good Death is a monologue about death, but we don’t only get to hear the protagonist’s thoughts on the matter; the play also explores ideas of death through the many characters she interacts with. When we watch one person who is simultaneously telling her story and also making the effort to embody the many characters in her life, it is a reminder of the difficult nature of compassion, especially when it comes to such heavy issues – mortality, illness, the struggle of caregiving – that are defined by many varied points of view and no monolithic resolutions. That is the magic that A Good Death achieves.
The monochrome aesthetics of Eucien Chia’s white marble stone set, together with Dr Leong’s functional black suit designed by Anthony Tan, visually align with the duality of the play’s theme of life and death. The casket-like slabs of marble evoke a cold morbidity, intensified by the harsh, clinical glare of white lights, designed by Adrian Tan, overhead. But the towering backdrop – a wall with an abstract pattern squares – conveys a palpable sense of movement, achieving a feeling of dynamism and fluidity that sets the stage for a rich and immersive journey into Dr Leong’s everyday life as well as the many people she cares for and works with.
It is its multi-faceted, open-minded and true-to-life quality that marks A Good Death as Faith Ng’s next signature work since her landmark play Normal (2015) about the failings of the Singaporean education system. Ng is adept at tackling such difficult topics, and it’s refreshing that instead of using her characters as didactic spokespersons to address contentious issues, she often allows the situations they are placed in and their interactions to speak about these themes. A Good Death is no different. This is her first monodrama, and it is a laudable foray into writing for a different kind of performance, and I look forward to more tough and tender works from her, brought to life by stellar collaborators.
A Good Death ran from 29 March to 1 April 2018 at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay as part of The Studios.