“Imperfect past makes present tense”. This line sets the mood of the play by Eleanor Wong as being slightly comical, yet hinting at a darker undertone. David Lee, an ambitious National University of Singapore student played by Rodney Oliveiro, takes it upon himself to launch a campaign to confer the public service star on JBJ while Clara Tang, a feisty up-and-coming star of the civil service played by Pam Oei, is tasked with exercising damage control when he dies a mysterious death.
Even before attending the play, the audiences’ level of expectation, or “Erwartungshorizont”, of the play would be triggered off by the controversial title. Anyone aware of local politics would have definitely heard of veteran opposition politician JB Jeyaretnam and his clashes with the PAP government. Thus, one would expect the play to be riddled with political references and issues.
The play takes place in a fixed theatre space, the Drama Centre Theatre, which acts as an end-stage, or a proscenium arch. The minimalist stage had a very simple set, choosing only to strategically rearrange a table and some chairs to indicate changes in setting. This abstract set design not only forces audiences to think creatively, it enables the fast change of scene so as to increase the pace of the play.
Uniquely, the stage had a gentle gradient that sloped upward. This serves a variety of functions in the play. The most practical and literal function would be that of blocking between the characters. With a slanted stage, the characters could stand one behind the other and not be blocked from the audiences’ view. However, the slanted stage could also be symbolic of hierarchy, or power. This can be seen in the scene where Rodney’s character with the cane and a hunch, presumably a veteran politician of the surname Lee, was standing at the highest point of the stage, which was furthest away from the audience, passing instructions to Clara Tang, who was of a lower status.
Lighting was an integral part of the play. Spotlights were used as a deictic sign, during the scene where David was desperately looking for a Guest-of-Honour, by drawing audiences’ attention to the four corners of the stage where Pam did a fabulous job of switching between roles of receptionists. Lights were also used as a symbolic sign for the stairs that David had to climb to reach his apartment before his death. In that scene, the “stairs” that David climbed switched off after he stepped on them, symbolizing the fact that there was no going back. Lights could also be used in chiaroscuro to symbolize vulnerability. The scene where Clara Tang was bathed in light while receiving instructions from the old man in the car park, who was shrouded in darkness, could allude to her as being a deer caught in the headlights.
Light also had another recurring deictic role in the play. The chalk figure that indicated David’s death was constantly being illuminated throughout Act Two, drawing audiences’ attention to that corner of the stage, making them wonder if the death was accidental or indeed the shady work of the government. The chalk figure was not only an iconic representation of itself, it also pointed to David’s death, making it also a deictic sign, and it alluded to the mystery surrounding the cause of his death, thus a symbolic sign for the suspicious circumstances of his death.
Jiri Veltrusky said that the actor is “the dynamic unity of an entire set of signs”. The entirety of the play rested heavily on the shoulders of Pam and Rodney, but they managed to do a convincing job in the end. The fact that both actors had to rely on just naturalistic vocal inflections and behavioural nuances to play a multitude of different characters with vastly different backgrounds proves that the actor can indeed replace all other sign-systems in theatre. However, great actors focus on performant function while good actors focus on referential function. Even though both were talented actors, it seemed clear that Pam was the better of the two. In Act One, Pam’s versatility shone through when she had to change roles to play different receptionists in a short span of time. Even though she took on various roles, including that of Clara Tang, one had the sense of Pam’s true self in each of the characters. In comparison, Rodney tended to lose himself in his roles. Even so, both actors were competent enough that there was a lack of obvious involuntary semiosis present.
Parts of the play force the audience to sit up and pay attention, thereby bringing them out of the passive audience state. In the scene where David gives his speech as the president of the Association for Student Self Expression, the lights in the audience gallery were thrown on and the audience became part of the act. Also, at the start of each scene, inter-titles gave a background story, detaching the audience from the play, causing them to think critically. This is reminiscent of Brecht’s defamiliarisation technique where theatre conventions are subverted. This would thus produce a critical yet entertained audience, just like in Brecht’s Epic Theatre.
Due to the nature of the play, audience competence was extremely important to aid in decoding the signs on stage. One would need to have a high level of cultural acumen to actually be able to grasp the finer points in the play, especially in Act Two, where things take a slightly more political twist. For example, a politically apathetic student watching the play would find it baffling as compared to a widely read one.
In conclusion, Eleanor Wong uses the play not just as a political vehicle, but to showcase sensitive issues like political expression, the climate of fear in Singapore and the idiosyncrasies of the civil service. Even though these issues are seldom discussed, they are ever present and should be brought to light, especially to the politically apathetic Singaporeans among us.