The Weight of Silk on Skin

by Huzir Sulaiman
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Huzir Sulaiman's The Weight of Silk on Skin, a masterful monodrama about Singapore's upper class, was one of the highlights of the 2011 theatre calendar. Acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, it went on to win Best Original Script at the Life! Theatre Awards 2012 and was immortalized in a new collection of Huzir's plays launched by Checkpoint Theatre in 2013. I'm ever so glad that Silk is back on stage as one of the five headlining plays of The Studios' monumental all-Singapore season, fifty

Silk plays out in the dressing room of wealthy, middle-aged playboy John Au Yong. He's a man at the very pinnacle of Singapore society: he went to the right schools and has all the right connections to allow him to glide effortlessly through life. John whisks us from the salty promiscuousness of his present to his heady days of student romance in Eighties New York and his return to the crisp, moneyed world of Nineties Singapore. As he dresses for a black-tie gala where he hopes to reunite with ex-girlfriend and love of his life, Anna, he slowly opens up, exposing a rawness of emotion that even the finest suit cannot mask.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

This production of Silk is helmed by an entirely different team from its 2011 premiere as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival. The result is an altogether richer, more intimate and evocative experience. Director Tracie Pang displays great sensitivity to the script and makes subtle but important additions that enhance the text. Adding a mobile phone for John to witheringly respond to a PRC paramour gives the bitterness of his lines more thrust. Music is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. I also liked the detail of John gradually fortifying himself with whiskey throughout the play, the alcohol forming just one more layer which he uses to hide his real self from the world.

Adrian Pang turns in a superb performance as John and even if one finds his almost careless muttering of certain passages frustrating, he truly conjures up the character with all its manifold contradictions. Pang conveys that insouciance and sense of entitlement that only comes with class and there is a conscious effort to rein in his sometimes showy acting, allowing the words to speak for themselves. It's no mean feat talking non-stop for ninety minutes and Pang keeps us rapt throughout, giving the character an unforgettable stamp of his own.

Working with set designer Wai Yin Kwok, Tracie presents us with a gorgeous, glossy backdrop of a male walk-in wardrobe, complete with mannikin, shaving basin and plush leather chair. The black box venue with seating on three sides of the acting space gives the play the intimacy of a confessional, an aspect which the original production lacked. There is also particularly impressive lighting work by Lim Yu-Beng that elevates the narrative. The back panels of the wardrobe glow red, then switch to blue as John takes us from the world of seedy Manhattan to squeaky-clean Singapore. Lights fade almost imperceptibly as he describes staying awake all night till the sun rises. The return to Singapore is cleverly marked by a harsh overhead glare.

Suffice to say, Huzir's writing itself is a treat in its own right. There is a musicality to his words that is akin to poetry and one cannot help but marvel at the sharpness of his observations. The text is awash with delicious description of shoes, shirts and suits, material objects which a man like John enjoys having around him and which each tell their own unique story. A perfectly crafted shoe, that "hollow leather coffin", appeals to John because of its constancy and is sharply contrasted with the faithlessness of the female sex.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

My only real issue is the character of John itself. While it's undeniable that the text is beautifully written, there is an artificiality about this modern-day lothario. Who exactly is this man? Is he based on anyone from real life? I've certainly encountered people from this world from my own days at school and currently in the relentless financial world of Shenton Way. However, I've never quite met a man who speaks in this strange manner, throwing out casual Wildean aphorisms about one night stands and likening shaved vaginas to a minimalist, muted economy. It's all very well on the page but it's hard to be drawn in when one is bombarded by ornate strings of words from someone who is meant to be a real, authentic person.

It's worth asking if this effusion of language is really necessary to paint a picture of this elite sub-stratum of the country. When John tells us how he feels his "JC littleness slough off like a skin" when mugged and held at gunpoint at a New York subway station, it feels just too contrived. If one really had a gun pointed at one's throat, I'm not sure one would be distracted by details like its colour. It's due to statements like this that I'm simply unable to be moved by the closing arc of the narrative, which paints John as a desperate, broken man simply wanting to be loved. His plea to "please be with me" rings hollow and it's hard to weep for a man who has maintained such a flighty, phantasmagorical presence throughout.

Tracie's stellar direction and Adrian's nuanced performance have given Silk a superb treatment that is a pleasure to watch. While I applaud Huzir for doing such a meticulous job in lifting the veil on this gilded world of privilege, a small part of me wishes he had left us with an actual piece of John to connect with once the lights have finally dimmed.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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