Annually, whenever The Theatre Practice kick-starts its theatre season and meets its audience members with a new production, the “goodbye” we had for its last work is just as exhilarating as the “hello” we have when we see the new work. This is because I know, in the absence we had after goodbye, the company has been working diligently behind-the-scenes, and this often translates into the hard work, effort and progress the audience witnesses in its new production. This year’s absurdist play, The Bride Always Knocks Twice is no exception. It brings fresh insights and thought-provoking revelations, giving one much fodder to think about. How, then, should I critique this new work? Stepping out of the theatre, I had much difficulty coming to a simple conclusion with regards to this production. Much like a surface of a crystal, one may see cracks, others may see luminance; some may even feel lost confronting the multitude of lines on the surface of the crystal – And this is precisely why the brilliance of the work shines through. It is able to withstand various perspectives one has about it, and essentially, it is a work which breaks conventions while being imperfect, hence securing its status as a precious piece of work. And just as how rays of light enhances a crystal, the concern the audience members have for history also helps them to better appreciate this work.
The Bride Always Knocks Twice was about a runaway bride who unexpectedly ventured through a door into a mysterious world which consisted only of women, and her entrance into their space sparked off the sharing of the forgotten tales of these women. In the marketing collaterals, it was mentioned that this play was a comedy, but yet it had 8 melancholic characters; it also mentioned how this was an absurdist play but yet it was painfully accurate in its depiction of reality. The characters in the play covered a span of 8 women from our island’s history, each of a different background, each having a different story. Each of them is representative of a certain era, but definitely not a stereotype. The door in the play also referred to not only literally the door, but it was also intangible at the same time – It was a frame in which we enter and exit, both physically and metaphorically. Once you successfully make it through this door, time stops and all the troubles and unhappiness you have had in life instantly dissipate. This space is a safe place, but also boring, the initial security you felt would now turn into tolerance, conformity, cowardice and finally into self-deceit. The play covered stories and issues which these women face in the backdrop of our local history. In this play, they have no name, yet are characters which we can identify with --- epitomized by their costumes, make up, actions and speech. These women were unique to their era, and we question ourselves, “Is this because of the structural and behaviour impositions of the society then? If so, then who is the one imposing these rules?” The strengths of this play include invoking the audience to think deeper about societal issues, especially gender issues. These characters were archetypes of women who had been part of our history, even way before the discovery of Singapore in 1819. Chronologically speaking, the archetypes which had been chosen to represent women prior to the independence of Singapore, included the beautiful and innocent concubine of Shah Iskandar Shah, the critical yet solemn nun, the hunch-backed and overworked Samsui woman, the flirtatious yet caring movie actress. Archetypes of females post-independence who were featured in the play include the career women who had to juggle between work and family life, the Chinese woman who illegally worked as a masseuse on a study permit, a runaway bride who discovered that her fiancé has been unfaithful to her, and the righteous policewoman who accidentally revealed that she has been having an affair with her superior. These female characters had all undoubtedly faced some sort of unhappiness due to the circumstances of theirs lives. Our feelings towards these characters were also very complicated; at times we may be trying to empathise with them. Yet at times, we also felt a sense of disgust and pity, all because of the character attributes they displayed within the play.
The play made me think about the history of our island, be it through looking at history books, local literature or the stories of any iconic women of our times, so that the emptiness I felt after watching the play could be assuaged. In the early 19th century, the Chinese immigrants were mostly males. These were what the history books wrote: in 1853, there was a Xiamen businessman who brought his wife here to set up a family. It was then a very significant event. Subsequently, there were the emergence of the comfort women, Ma-Jies [house servants] and Samsui women, and also Dr Lim Boon Keng’s first and second wife, who were all iconic females of their time. The very first article which chronicled the life of Singaporean female was written by Singapore’s first female doctor, Dr Lee Choo Neo – The article was titled The Life of the Chinese Girl in Singapore, and described the life of a 20th century Singaporean female, and was published in an English magazine. After which, there were more iconic females appearing in the fields of education, social and community work. Our society has been progressing, with the leveling of the playing field for both males and females, such that we now witness more and more outstanding females in the political, business, technological arena. I often wonder, is it because the initial writings occurred at a time when we were not so aware of the power politics nor were we influenced by politics, therefore they were free to develop on their own such that they ended up being shallow, self-fulfilling and commercialised? And as such, many of the characters were also caricatures, and/or petty heartlanders who would only engage in shallow dialogues, which was a true reflection of the underbellies of the society then. This was also the problem of pop culture infiltrating our society; we are no longer asking for deep intellectual debates, but instead asking for instant gratification through shallow comical humour. In my limited reading experience, I have seldom found female characters with sufficient aesthetic quality within local works. Maybe this should be an awakening for me to change my learning methods of so as to better understand things in their raw, unrestricted form.
I savoured this highly iconic local play of history and realism just as I how I would savour Nyonya cakes with an authentic cup of Nanyang coffee, excited at how I can identify with those multilingual dialogue and local syntax, while being deeply intrigued by the rich flavours present. It was mentioned that only in theatres can we witness such a confluence of language, and it is an accurate reflection of the lives Singapore have, be it at kampongs, alleyways or at the market. This play may have seemed to be absurdist in nature, yet it reveals many truths, allowing for a deep discourse on our society, particularly gender issues. It allows us to better understand the society, be it the roles of females, their collective image, and even issues such as the declining birth rates, low marriage rates, etc --- these issues may seem universal, but they are also extremely pertinent for the Singaporean society. We have lost the concept of “home”, and that is because within the Singapore society, while we are harping on progress and development, we have inadvertently neutralized the two genders. While we may want women to be of the same status as men, and be recognised for their efforts, I believe, at the end of the day, women are after all women. They play important roles within our society, and is a significant factor in measuring the quality of our society. The play puts on display the female characters present in the last century of our history, and serves as a timely reminder to remind us that within our history, there were still iconic females for us to take notice of. And how would that be in the future? It only leaves us very much in anticipation for the appearance of another such icon.
Continue reading on Issue 2 / May 2014:Opening The Door To The Arts