NUS Stage held an impressive production, Shifting Sands, which featured two plays, Post-Traffic Barrier and Postvorta on 18-19 October at UCC.
This is the first play on campus I have attended since some tragic Hall Production two years ago, which had an amazing budget, terrible singing, acting and a limp plot. I am glad I have discovered (somewhat belatedly) through my juniors Manoj, Salima and Shiv, that NUS Stage exists! I certainly hope NUS funding for theatre operates on a meritocratic basis!
My Amateur Critique
The visual I have now that flashes vividly in my head is that of Paul Nair (Rahul Ghai), perched on the arm-rest of the sofa, hunched over his tiny wife Winette Nair (Aruna Narandran) and trying to explain to her about the racial hegemony that grips our civil service. Winette is not catching on to the subtext, and Paul exclaims, in a deliciously obnoxious Australian accent, “Mr. Ching only hires Mr. Chong and not Mr. Chandra!”
So now that we can abandon (or at least I feel somewhat licensed to abandon) the façade of being politically correct, I must say that the South Asians were really outstanding tonight. South Asians, Singaporeans of South Asian origin, whatever. It was the acting, the comic timing, the rapport (I noted that quite a few were involved in The Good, The Bad, The Sholay), the script.
On a sidenote, it was peculiar that both plays tonight seemed like separate, racial bubbles –Post-Traffic Barrier had one token Indian actor and was mostly a Chinese affair, while Postvorta was a South Asian family drama with a token Japanese and some minor non-Indian characters.
Indeed, the main plot in each play operated on an assumed ethnic/racial homogeneity; that, and the phrase on the front cover of the pamphlet – “Two Singapore Plays” – gave me some food for thought in the moments after Paul Nair’s Ching Chong Chandra exclamation.
Moving on from this much flagellated topic, Postvorta was indisputably the crowd-pleaser of the night; but perhaps comedies have an easier job, whilst more sombre, solemn plays have to do more to generate a similar amount of audience satisfaction. Postvorta’s script also had plenty of gems that I have committed to (imperfect) memory, starting with: “We all have somebody from our gene pool we’d like to drown!”
It is a smart play, both in its script and the dramatic delivery – the use of masked actors for example to perform the various family members’ narratives of the past was brilliantly conceived and executed, I thought.
The masks looked professionally crafted (kudos to their makers!) and the masked actors adopted a distinct cache of dramatic quirks and choreography that really brought forth (I felt) the constructed nature of all history.
The easy manipulation of the masked characters by (and the accommodating acquiescence of the masked characters to) present-day Selvarajans on the same stage further underscored the thoughtless alterations we introduce in each telling and retelling of our stories – for example, Ian Selvarajan casually steps into the masked space of the past, grafting his mother onto the same scene with her deceased brother and father, trying to forcibly elicit a damning account of the veritable grandfather Winette glorifies in her book. (featured in main article image, the mother is the only unmasked one on the left)
In terms of acting, Postvorta was truly a delight – the waiter, by the way, was a truly memorable waiter, and had me awakened to the incredible effectiveness of communication through movement without need for words.
The one flaw of Postvorta was that I thought it could have been tighter, and not ‘dragged’ on for so long. After the last monologue about the god of history temping on two part-time jobs, the audience was almost about to break into a resounding applause before we realized there was still another small scene left. Not that I would complain much though, the dynamism of the cast was such that I didn’t mind watching them go on for a bit longer.
Also, the various monologues/soliloquies were a bit heavy on content – there was Clio, Postvorta and possibly an Antivorta who could look into the future. I also wonder about the title of the play, and the need to ‘universalize’ so resoundingly the lessons from this particular Singaporean family drama. Did we really need the protagonist to hark back to the Greeks and the Romans, regaling us with classical references to the tune of some Hindu-Buddhist instrumental soundtrack under the watchful eyes of Sai Baba, whose picture was hanging in the background?
Postvorta was enjoyable nevertheless.
Post-Traffic Barrier was a much more sombre, humbling experience that actually depressed me somewhat by the end and reminded me of recent issues regarding types of financial aid available to NUS students.
I came in five minutes late to the UCC theatre but quite comfortably caught on to the plot, and figured out that the lady in the pink dress was the present-day ‘self’ to the short-haired girl who was dressed like a Secondary 1 or 2 RI boy (all white, short shorts).
The play appeared to be a cluster of anecdotes – a bildungsroman rendered into a play – those lovely growing up years in school trying to be properly feminine, trying to get a date, attempting to reconcile new religions with old ways of life, etc.
Post-Traffic Barrier appeared to an autobiographical work presented in a fragmented, choppy style ordered in reference to whether they occurred before or after ‘that traffic barrier incident’.
The climax occurs when X and Y (present and past selves of the protagonist) have a heated and rather shrill debate on whether it is okay to reveal to others what was once a sensitive, intensely private turning point in the young girl’s life, but what has now become just another, rather amusing memory.
Growing up is like a series of swift, incessant mask changing acts (as in a Chinese Bian Lian performance) ; perspectives are exchanged for new ones and are then exchanged for newer ones and soon the intensity with which we engaged certain events in the past dims, alters and fades. Despite the shrillness of the exchange between X and Y, which made it hard to figure out what was being said by whom, the brutally honest presentation of such tensions regarding self-representation and memory that stemmed from the ‘ugly truth’ of financial hardship moved me even as it unsettled me. That the whole dramatic piece was held together by a trivial, mundane little stumble into the traffic barrier at Block ADM reinforced the financial strain.
It is an important point that too many in our society, satisfied in their safe socio-economic bubbles, have overlooked, and although I thought Post-Traffic Barrier did not ‘charm’ me the way Postvorta did, its rough, slightly unhewn blockishness was endearing and gave me much food for thought. Who says that the function of plays is to charm its audience anyway?
There were also delightful comic parts of Post-Traffic Barrier (as you can see, I am partial towards comedy) that brought out (or at least I imagined they were due to) the director’s skill and craft. Y (Astrid Lim) ‘s audition for various parts in school plays was a hilarious, smooth sequence culminating in a “THIS, IS, SPARTAAAA!” complete with this fitting blood-red light shining in from the left, transporting me momentarily into comic-book land of 300.
Both plays were impressive showings from what I imagine to be a great, dedicated team from NUS Stage – at least this is what I deduced from what little I understand about stagecraft, scriptwriting-craft, acting-craft, stage management, music (Incidentally, there was live music in the form of two violinists, a pianist, a guitarist and a drummer at the back of the stage! Wow!) props, lights, and everything else. This was a delightful experience and I look forward to more!