The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ

by Eleanor Wong
Singapore Theatre Festival 2006 (W!LD RICE)
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

At the outset, expectations were high for Eleanor Wong's latest full-length play after her well-received lesbian trilogy, Invitation to Treat, staged by W!LD RICE in 2003. With a title so overtly provocative, the play created quite a buzz even before it was performed. So is this campaign as fantastic as it sounds? Quite.

Wong's cast of just two actors is complemented nicely by director and scenic designer Ivan Heng's minimalist set, a gently sloping black platform with the simplest of props, supplied to the characters from the wings as the play proceeds. This simplicity of set and structure is unfortunately compromised by certain scenes that have been tweaked to elicit maximum response from the audience where a subtler rendering would suffice.

In Act 1 (The Campaign), we are introduced to the character of David Lee (Rodney Oliveiro), president of the NUS Association of Students for Self-Expression (ASS), who decides to launch the title campaign. We soon discover that the JBJ in David's campaign is not Singapore's famous polictical rebel but rather, an unnamed wildlife activist sharing the same intitials. While we may feel disappointed at this rather anticlimatic turn of events, Wong's device is a shrewd one, highlighting the poignancy of labels by using a seemingly innocuous namesake to satirise the narrow-mindedness of Singaporeans. Everyone gives David and his campaign a hard time simply because the initials JBJ connote a certain symbol and image that is considered taboo in this country.

Photo Credit: W!LD RICE

The beauty of this satire is marred slightly by Oliveiro's uneven performance and tendency to lose conviction at times. His rendering of a host of characters in the second half is much better, though his ability to take on different accents and mannerisms clearly leaves much to be desired. Pam Oei, the obviously stronger actor of the two, delivers a variety of mostly comic roles in the first half and sends the audience into fits of laughter with her spot-on impersonation of a lackadaisical Malay secretary and a New Age radio talk show host, amongst others. Wong's knack for the occasional comic one-liner is delightfully manifest; lines like "Remember, there are more crustaceans in the Carribean!" and "In the past, everything also cannot!" linger on long after they are uttered.

Act 2 (The Conferring), following the rather surprising death of David, centres around rising civil servant Clara Tang (Pam Oei) and her attempt to deal with the ugly aftermath. Wong's writing as a whole is less elegant than Invitation to Treat though she packs in a powerful punch with a series of subtle and witty scenes, distilling the emptiness that lies beneath the so-called 'New Singapore'. She cleverly uncovers the pretensions of wary police inspectors, pragmatic government officials (including a run in with the immortal "elder_ly") and cautious theatre practitioners treading the thin line between artistic expression and political blasphemy. We are are made to ask ourselves again and again - is there really a transparent civil service and open-minded government in this country?

The finale, a dance sequence between the two characters, is left deliberately enigmatic and possibly suggests a compromise being struck between the bolder ways of the young and the stoic conservatism of the older generation, a political tango that vacillates between being sure-footed and shaky in these uncertain times.

The Crystalwords score: 7/10


Popular Posts