A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish/ Stand Behind the Yellow Line

by Dora Tan and Michelle Tan
Singapore Repertory Theatre: Stage Two
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

In a refreshing break from its typically Western-centric programming, the SRT has dedicated the next two months to not one, not two, but three original Singaporean plays under its Stage Two wing. The first two plays under this "Made in Singapore" banner, A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish and Stand Behind the Yellow Line, by emerging playwrights Dora Tan and Michelle Tan respectively, are showcased in a double-bill where cosy realism rubs shoulders with sombre allegory.

Both these hour-long, four-handers are the product of a dedicated playwright incubator programme with esteemed playwright David Henry Hwang as mentor and Jack Bradley as dramaturg. They are finished off with a professional cast and helmed by director Samantha Scott-Blackhall.

The evening kicks off with Dora Tan's A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish (3/5), the tale of émigré air stewardess Seraphina (Amy Cheng) who visits home for the first time in years with British boyfriend Alistair (Daniel Jenkins) in tow. What Alistair does not know is that he is about to attend his own wedding and be privy to a series of revelations that will send ripples through Seraphina's family. Tan has a good grasp of writing for the stage and her dialogue has a richness and authenticity that makes for engaging theatre. There are echoes of Claire Tham and Tan Hwee Hwee here with themes of the dislocated Singaporean and the perennial clash of cultures between locals and foreigners.

Photo Credit: SRT

Wedding benefits from a strong cast and there are great dynamics between Jenkins's polite and very English Alistair and Seraphina's zealous mother, a role which veteran actress Catherine Sng inhabits with vigour. Isabella Chiam, as younger sister Xin Ru with her own mysterious life, also proves a revelation and one can’t help but feel that this is a character whose story demands to be explored further.

Yet Dora Tan's script, by trying to reach for comedy, drama and farce, ends up stretching its emotions far too thinly. After an intriguing exposition, the second half of the play pits one revelation against the next in a manner that strains credulity. Some of the exchanges between the characters also ring false and the writing could have benefited from more subtlety. The play could easily have ended at the point when the miserable, desperate Alistair agrees to go ahead with the Chinese tea ceremony but Tan tacks on a superfluous final scene where it is revealed that the mother knew about the father's death all along but had decided not to do anything about it.

Scott-Blackhall invests this tight family drama with the requisite dramatic pace and is alive to its moments of tension and comedy. Despite all the plot twists and turns, it’s impossible not to be entertained. On the production front, Wong Chee Wai's set effectively conjures up the minute, cluttered world of Chinese domesticity - all red banners, joss sticks and festive foodstuffs.

By contrast, Michelle Tan's Stand Behind the Yellow Line (2.5/5) is an entirely different beast. Here we leave the world of sunny realism behind and are confronted with a nameless, surveillance state where the mantra is “rules are rules are rules” and everybody’s actions are watched over by a cryptic, omnipresent Mayorman (R Chandran).

The narrative focuses on a homeless woman, Bags (Zelda Tatiana Ng), who awaits the release from prison of her son, Slip (Isaac Ong) - where he has been sent due to vandalism of public property – and the odd friendship she strikes up with a young, depressed girl (Jean Toh) who decides to help her.

Photo Credit: SRT

One cannot deny the powerful symbolism that Tan weaves into the script: the blackly humorous political double-speak, parodies of MRT announcements on suspicious objects (even if they are harmless doughnuts), the constant reminder of people being reined in by boxing them up in areas marked by yellow tape. Yet, for all the clever allegory, the plot falls short of amounting to something truly gripping. I was reminded of Pursuant, the Singapore Lyric Opera’s tedious musical-opera last year which posited a dystopian Singapore of the future where dreaming was banned and the exploits of one young man who decides to stand up and buck the trend.

It seems almost ludicrously neat when it is revealed that the Mayorman had had a relationship with Bags in the past and Slip is his own child. Yet, all said and done, the state proves more powerful than the individual and the haunting vision we have at the end is that of Slip being a mere crony, methodically painting those same yellow lines that had boxed him and his mother in all their lives.

Unlike Wedding, the comparatively young and less experienced cast in Yellow Line do not have the depth to bring out the script and Scott-Blackhall seems unable to find a way to drive the action forward. The scene changes are clunky and even at sixty minutes, the plot rapidly grows dull. Tan definitely deserves kudos for trying her hand at a challenging political piece that tackles issues of conformity and individualism but her scattered, somewhat disjunctive style lacks finesse. Despite having been developed for over a year, one senses that this is a play that is not quite finished yet.

The design element Wong employs in Yellow Line is simple but effective: a wall of variously-sized television screens which repeatedly broadcast the Mayorman’s propaganda, creating a flickering reminder that nothing escapes his eyes. In a striking scene, the Mayorman (in the television screen) lists out all Slip's violations by throwing out pieces of paper at the screen that eerily cascade to the floor.

All in all, this double-bill makes for a satisfying evening. The SRT has brought together two very different original plays with probing themes and with the aid of a professional team, these have been successfully realized on stage. As far as Singaporean writing goes, Wedding and Yellow Line may not be especially strong pieces but one senses that we have in Dora Tan and Michelle Tan two powerful chroniclers of the Singaporean identity. I’m keen to see what will come next from these two playwrights.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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