Rising Son

by Dick Lee
Singapore Repertory Theatre: Stage Two
DBS Arts Centre, Singapore

Hot on the heels of two new local plays by budding playwrights under SRT’s “Made in Singapore” banner, veteran singer/songwriter and musical theatre personality Dick Lee gives us a heartwarming account of his family history in Rising Son, his first serious play in years. Rising Son is the first part of a family trilogy by Lee that is to be staged by the SRT over the course of the next three years. It is inspired by the unusual friendship that developed during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore during the Second World War between Lee’s father Sunny (Tan Shou Chen), the latter's younger sister Ruby (Seong Hui Xuan) and a Japanese army lawyer, Colonel Hiroyuki Sato (Caleb Goh), who lives next door to the siblings.

For a wartime story, Rising Son is surprisingly tame: most of the action plays out in a living room and the atrocities so commonly associated with the Japanese during the war are only hinted at. The only account we have of the horrors outside is a long, somewhat tedious monologue. Instead, what emerges as the central theme is the moral dilemma faced by protagonist Sunny Lee. Should he make friends with a man who, to all intents and purposes, he is conditioned to hate? Does the nationality of an individual make that person repellent, despite how pleasant and kindly he may otherwise be?

Celebrated American director Eric Ting extracts strong performances from the cast of three and succeeds in bringing out the small moments of comedy and tension in Lee's writing. However, the play could have gained by giving us a looming sense of urgency rather than remaining wistful and talky: we never quite feel the threat of war and the risk of the illicit friendship between the siblings and the soldier being exposed. I also found Ting’s decision to have the characters run around the stage to mark the passing of time oddly jarring.

Tan Shou Chen catches the awkwardness of a boy on the cusp of manhood, one who feels himself torn between protecting his family and making a new friend and how this tension slowly gnaws at him as the war goes on. Seong Hui Xuan turns in a mesmerising performance as the teenage Ruby, the innocent yet headstrong girl so desperate to experience the world beyond her cloistered existence that even flirting with a Japanese officer proves a welcome distraction. In a delightful scene where Sato come over to their house for dinner, she coaxes him to dance despite his protestations.

Photo Credit: SRT

Caleb Goh grounds the play with a nuanced performance as the mild-mannered, cultured Sato. We see in him the conflict between between loyalty to his emperor and the desire to lead his life as a peaceable individual instead of an oppressor. In a pivotal scene where Sunny catches him drinking with Ruby and assumes the worst, he flares up and almost resorts to physical violence even as he blinks away angry tears at being thought of as a lascivious person with evil designs by someone he has come to regard as a friend. There seems to be the merest hint of a Japanese accent in Goh’s delivery and one wonders why he had not tried to make this more obvious; it would have allowed for a stronger aural contrast between the actors.

The set is spartan yet functional and designer Wong Chee Wai creates an atmosphere that is homely with just a few simple props. The notable design element are the rows of books in Sato’s house, suggesting a world of quiet intelligence and order. I was less enthused by the projection work at the start which attempts to set the play in its historical context by flashing headlines of the Japanese military advance but feels rather protracted.

All in all, Rising Son is a tender and compelling piece of writing by Lee and it's certainly refreshing to be offered an alternative narrative of the war as a time for the quiet blossoming of human relationships amidst all the adversity.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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