The Way We Go

by Joel Tan
Checkpoint Theatre
SOTA Studio Theatre

The first thing one sees in The Way We Go is a coffin. Silent, serene and spectral, it is a stark reminder of the theme of death and loss that underlies the play. It is also a quietly comforting image bathed in celestial light, a symbol of a cherished end and new beginnings. This is the coffin of Agatha Mao, former principal of the fictitious Convent of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Checkpoint Theatre’s latest production, written by Associate Artist Joel Tan, is a tender exploration of the complex ties of love and companionship that animate us at different stages of life. While remaining anchored in the solemnity of the present, the play takes us back and forth in time, delving into the lives of Agatha (Lydia Look), her best friend Violet (Neo Swee Lin), her life partner and Violet’s cousin Edmund (Patrick Teoh) and two younger women – teacher Lee-Ying (Julie Wee) and her free-spirited lover Gillian (Chng Xin Xuan).

Lydia Look does a fantastic job as Agatha, the prim, poised educator. Her measured, quasi-British intonation, regal posture and wry humour paint a picture of a woman in full control of herself but who has yet, in some ways, to learn some of life’s lessons. She makes an admirable transition as she exposes her emotional and physical vulnerability when she begins a relationship with Edmund and finds herself ravaged by cancer.

Look is complemented by crowd favourite Neo Swee Lin in a wonderfully earnest performance as Violet. It’s easy to forget how skilled Neo is an actress; she truly inhabits the character with all her heart and one can sense in her the apprehension of a woman getting married well past her prime and someone who genuinely wants the best for her ailing friend. Her scenes with Look are the beating heart of this play and convey a warm, mature relationship between adults dealing with problems that typically plague the young. In a delightful scene, Neo beams with joy at the sight of Edmund having prepared a meal for Agatha. “It is such a beautiful gesture” she gushes, her eyes twinkling with pleasure.

Photo Credit: Checkpoint Theatre

I found myself less taken by the parallel storyline of Lee-Ying and Gillian, former students of Agatha and Violet’s who tentatively begin a relationship back in school and whose lives grow strained as the pressures of adulthood intrude. Julie Wee gives off the best she can with the material but one gets the sense that her older character is largely a mouthpiece for the pressures facing the teaching profession and there isn’t much emotional development in the story arc. Chng also occasionally lacks conviction in her scenes with Wee and her dreamy petulance feels fairly one-sided.

As straight-talking Edmund, Patrick Teoh’s delivery feels decidedly artificial; more than the other cast members, one is aware that he is acting and taking pains to enunciate his words and deliver his lines. I’m not sure if this was just a case of him having yet to warm up to the character, but it did make Edmund a far less easy character to empathise with. It is also difficult to reconcile his tetchy behaviour for most of the play with his final display of emotion.

Joel Tan’s writing has matured since his debut play Family Outing and he has created here a rich portrait of the pleasures and pains of love. He shows the ability to skilfully handle nuance and write characters that feel authentic and proudly Singaporean – it’s hard not to be reminded of one’s own teachers when watching Agatha and Violet. Tan could however do with a little subtlety in his dialogue. Certain aphorisms about the nature of education and love seem to have spouted right out of a book of quotations and his use of humour is, at times, slightly laboured.

Photo Credit: Checkpoint Theatre

I have always admired the simplicity of the design in Checkpoint productions – the rows of chairs in Occupation and the series of suspended lamps in Atomic Jaya come to mind – and the beautiful symmetry of Tolis Papazoglou’s white set (which reminded me of a still from a Wes Anderson film) is a perfect counterpoint to this introspective, emotionally engaging performance. I was slightly less clear about the flooring, a patchwork of firm and bouncy squares that proves visually distracting.

It is a credit to director Claire Wong that the play unfolds slowly like a delicate flower, allowing us to enjoy each vibrant layer while never allowing the emotions to overwhelm. Wong masterfully teases out the nuances of each word and gesture from her actors, making for a performance that is by turns hilarious and heartfelt. It makes perfect sense that the programme is designed to look like a school exercise book – as we emerge from the theatre, we inevitably feel that we have sat through a wonderful, nourishing lesson in life and love.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.


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