There is a zen-like quality to _____ Can Change that might have proved testing on the patience of militant feminists and those who wear their gay identity on their sleeve. The strange, impenetrable neutrality in the latest offering by The Necessary Stage seems so all-embracing that it can easily be taken as capitulation, turning the other cheek to the aggressive oppressors of the mainstream. And to add to their refusal in passing judgment on single women and homosexuals who make switches to societal norms, playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan gleefully volunteer their own ‘Marxist past’ as an example of how the progressive can ‘change’ and be co-opted by the system, before rounding off the show with a segment of forum theatre – the very thing that earned them the Marxist label originally but is no longer banned by now. It is up to you then to call the bluff of this dynamic duo as the gamemasters, if you think you got their stonewall silence all figured out. But since the characters in the play are all humanised and none demonised for effect, exercise caution in passing verdict on them, for it might be revealing only of your own convictions or inclinations.
Wise are the ones who adopt the policy of speaking always from a bureaucratic high ground, like how the four actors make formal speeches as introduction and conclusion to the play, wearing a thin PR smile while couching pro-family or pro-government arguments in moderate terms that assume universal consensus. Curiously, even the stories they act out appear to be such mundane situations, completely devoid of ironic plot twists, that one may well walk out of the theatre thinking he or she has seen an educational programme commissioned as a community development project. (In fact the play failed to carry endorsement from the authorities for culture, but that’s like an insider’s story.) While some reviewers may judge the end product as bland or weak with questionable motives, I would like to submit that it stands as art imitating propaganda imitating art, but that a classification of the work as political would again be to miss its full dimensions. Let’s just say for starters that there is something typically and unmistakably Singaporean even in the deceptive simplicity of the three presentations – presentations complete with powerpoint as a tool employed so ubiquitously here to chart out one’s personal planning of family and finances or to flash out the multicultural fabric of society. Its ritualistic, matter-of-fact use appears to reflect the Singapore psyche or way of life rather than any attempt by the propaganda machine to penetrate it, or perhaps you cannot even divorce one from the other once you have grown up in the system. It is no perverse attempt here to satirise an institution like the SDU or the baby bonus scheme – and you can just imagine a lesser theatre group succumbing to such temptations. Instead, the decision for change, to give in to the normalcy of a married life, is always something that the character can only ‘blame’ himself or herself for; if there is noticeable coercion by any institution at all, well that institution is known as the family.
‘Law’, a keyword used very loosely in the theme of the overall fringe festival, not only refers to the laws that bind us in society, but can also be interpreted poetically as laws of nature; in any case, it is up to the individuals to decide if these are meant to be obeyed or broken (or changed, if we use our imagination?). The production begins intriguingly with the actors prowling in the dark, surveying the space littered with upturned furniture, as if they all harbour their own designs of bringing order to the place. The ‘message’ for Singles Can Change is delivered by the character of an aunt in her 50s (played by Nora Samosir), who has been left on the shelf way past her expiry date for marriage, and her own example of a regretted solitary life makes her advice to her career-minded niece (Siti Khalijah) all the more heartfelt. While the scene of institutionalised dating is most hilarious, what with the banker rambling on life partnership and investments in one breath, the same audience who laugh may well recognise the validity of parallels between security in finance and in emotional support. And the way the story unfolds makes the progression of marriage and childbirth look as natural and compulsory in life as death and taxes. (An alternative like adoption, on the other hand, would seem a legally problematic issue for the poor aunt, just swept under the carpet.) Not that there is no resistance on the part of the wife against bearing children too early, for her body belongs to her and she has the right to decide, as she would point out; but after the husband’s emotional blackmail and whatever it may be, she eventually makes a sacrifice on her career. There is a carefully constructed scene whereby the wife character becomes a spokesperson for parenthood with her husband; as she steps out of the limelight to a spot of softer light for a soliloquy, one almost expects some outpour that is ironical, but instead she simply professes that it is all of her own accord, for she has decided that a woman is worth nothing if she is not a wife and mother. The audience would probably be taken aback by the frankness of such bleak if truthful outlook; the discerning might also observe the subtle difference between making a statement in privacy and making the same in public realm – for there are those who would find it obscene to make a campaign advertisement out of one’s parenthood.
In Homosexuals Can Change, the fault line is between the respectable living room shared with one’s parents and the secret rendezvous of bedroom affairs with one’s boyfriend. Again, the green, green grass in a better world of ‘normal’ married life beckons from a cardboard cutout. Rodney Oliveiro plays the masculine half of the gay couple who finds it hard to come out to his parents, and also finds himself increasingly subscribing to the dogma that homosexuality is an ‘abomination in the eye of God’. Our playwright wisely gives that line to his character instead of the pastor character; after all, in the light of the attempted church takeover of the woman organisation AWARE in Singapore last year, there is really nothing more worth exposing. Instead, we are presented with an unlikely character of a female pastor, reminding us that homosexuality is not alone as a gender issue in churches. We are also given a galore treat of an entertaining scene whereby Chua Enlai, otherwise acting as the gay boyfriend at a raw end of the deal, plays the doctor who analyses the negative traits of homosexuals and recommends aversion conditioning, a.k.a. electric shock treatment. As he speaks, graphic images of gay sex pop out on the screen, featuring very shapely abs and asses, all of a foreign stock – which is interesting, for we all know of country bumpkins who think homosexuality is a social disease imported from the West and never existed in Asian culture before. (We can’t blame them of course for never studying enough history to know that the penchant for boys dates back to Huang Di, the earliest Chinese emperor more than 4,000 years ago according to some literature; or that according to the Law of Manu from 2,000 years ago in India, a male homosexual act needs only be atoned by a ritual bath, that being long before British laws like 377A were imposed.) Anyway, unlike the harsher or bitchier members of the gay community, this play shows a more understanding attitude towards gay men who turn straight – well it’s like, if they choose so to be, let them go to heaven with all their righteousness, no? It leaves just one point to ponder at the end of the story, as the man’s wife makes him promise not to hide anything from her – so would it be a sin or just a white lie to suppress one’s true being?
Sometimes the truth can truly set you free. As the fictional doctor in the play points out, the life of a gay man is beset with jealousy, insecurity, competitiveness, malice, tantrums, infidelities and hysterical mood swings. Those in the know would find something to laugh in this, if they have come to terms with it. It is sad to hear there were apparently gay men who boycotted the show, in the belief that it is counter-revolutionary. In his discussion on ‘culture wars’, British cultural theorist Terry Eagleton once commented that “what a gay rights group and a neo-fascist cell have in common” is that “both define culture as collective identity rather than as critique”. He went on to say: “Cultures struggling for recognition cannot usually afford to be intricate or self-ironising, and the responsibility for this should be laid at the door of those who suppress them. But intricacy and self-irony are virtues even so.” In more ways than one, _______ Can Change demands a more enlightened audience. Those who watch plays with gay themes expecting them to be a theatrical equivalence of a gay pride parade would be sorely disappointed by this production, which may seem muted instead of helping to fly the pink banner higher. But what it is doing precisely, amidst all that din of battle calls and claims on universal values, pro-family, pro-Singapore and what not, is to bring the focus down to individuality; as the old song by Mama Cass Elliot goes, you gotta make your own kind of music.
It is really all in good faith that there should come a time already when society can dispense with labels of dichotomy and just be civil. While presupposing the golden rule of respecting differences as a renewed rule of engagement in public discourse, one takes up the game here in a more subtle and sophisticated manner than even one’s devious enemies may know. The play, stripped down to a bare minimum in plot, confronts the audience plainly with the idea of change into uniformity. You may be shocked by the inanity of what you perceive as the selling of one’s soul; I kind of agree with you personally but I can still enjoy it like I enjoy a horror show. The final analysis made here is that an understated approach can, in fact, make one’s propositions the more compelling.