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“Playwrights’ Lab” Book Club

Translate / Wang Liansheng

Note: Playwrights’ Boot Camp was a presentation where it condensed the process of a production by rehearsing and presenting within the same day scripts which the three participating playwrights each wrote over the course of one week. Prior to the presentation, the three playwrights also formed a book club where they read classic scripts and shared with one another their thoughts about the works. Here are some of their conclusions about these scripts they have read:

Reader: Liansheng

Rhinoceros in Love by Liao Yimei

Rhinoceros in Love looks at the modern day city dweller’s concept of love. In the play, the protagonist Ma Lu is obsessed with a female character Ming Ming, to such an extent, that he eventually kills his one-and-only companion, a rhinoceros, in order to prove his love for her. The playwright, in creating such a scenario, questions the increasingly rational society – have we become so logical such that we have forgotten how to use our heart to feel, and hence truly experience life?

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

The story tells of a mother who constantly nags at the protagonist Tom, because he often goes to the movies and loses himself within the fantasies of these fictional worlds. The mother also constantly reminisces about her glorious past. She wishes that someday Tom would help his sister find a suitable partner for marriage. He finally agrees, and brings home Jim, a colleague at work, but Jim has a fiancée already. In the end, after all these incidents happening, Tom chooses to leave his home for work, but is unable to forget the glass menagerie that his sister possesses. This script is full of symbols, and explores many different themes. The characters in the play are an embodiment of the nature of a glass symbol, so fragile and detached from the realities of life, only to be infatuated with their own fantasies, as if the playwright is trying to use them as a reminder for us readers to constantly live in the present, and not be oblivious to our surroundings.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House is a classic realism play, and tells of how Nora, the protagonist finds her true self in times of crisis. It was revealed that previously she had forged a signature for a loan to her husband’s medical treatment. Nora’s husband detests people who make loans, and hence upon realising the truth, he gets into a fit, and calls Nora a “criminal” and a “slut”. From that incident, Nora then finally understands that she has been repaying her debts towards her family her entire life, so much so that she has forgotten how to live for herself.

Pulau - An Island Tale by Ng How Wee

Pulau is a non-realism play, and shares different stories through different scenes set in a fluid temporal and spatial dimension. The playwright, through such a device, attempts to look at the notion of being trapped. The little vignettes in the play include a confrontation with a play-by-the-rules administrative officer, a scene involving the chopping down of hundreds of old trees, and a sinking island – all these scenes are a stark reminder of the bureaucratic restriction, oppression, and entrapment we face on our little island state. In naming the play, Pulau - An Island of Desire [a literal translation of the title], I question, is the playwright also trying to remind the audience to continue pursuing their hearts’ desires, or if not, they would forever be trapped on this island?

Reader: Suhuai

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

 “Hell is other people.”

This is a classic absurdist work, and talks about three strangers in hell, all enclosed within a confined room.  They start to validate themselves through the lens and criticisms of others, and have a final revelation that hell is not about the physical torture brought about by the torture devices, but the emotional torment brought about by the opinions of others. This script thoroughly manifests Sartre’s philosophy on existentialism, and allows the readers to think critically about the concepts of “consciousness”, and “absolute freedom”. It left me quite an impact and provoked me for quite a period of time.

The Zoo Story by Edward Albee

 “I’ve been to the zoo.”

A bench in the park and two characters –

An extremely simple set up, a seemingly illogical plot, absurd witty lines, and a monologue spanning 1/3 of a page – these are the elements which form the meat of the script. 

I feel that The Zoo Story is a piece that metaphorically hints at the reality that we, as humans, are no longer able to communicate as we are gradually becoming increasingly apart. And the playwright’s choice of a bloody assault on one character over the bench is an awakening call for his readers – to awaken those who are still living in their fantasies, being all comfortable with their lives, trapped in the façade of their foolish misperceptions of men. These people are not unlike those caged selfish animals. This is my favourite out of the 4 scripts I have read as well.

The Other Shore by Gao Xingjian

 “A location: From the world of reality to an imaginary shore”

This is one of Gao Xingjian’s most iconic works. Through an ensemble of actors presenting the work as a game, it provides layers to lead the audience into thinking deeper about the work. It uncovers the story of an individual lost in the collective consciousness of others and the trials and tribulations of an individual’s struggle against the society as well. The script is poetic and filled with abstract actions as well – the game moves from a muddled, unknown state to one which is cold, ruthless, manifesting the development of not only the writer’s personal journey, but it also parallels that of the society he was residing in. The individual’s desire for freedom in a uniformed state of consciousness and his dilemma to leave or stay within the society struck a chord in my heart. The play was written in 1986, and subsequently, Gao migrated to France.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo

 “Gossiping and lying are acts which are normal to man, but I am a mental patient.”

Through an immediate response to current affairs, the curious public is enticed into the theatre, causing a human traffic jam, and then they were subsequently released back into the streets after watching a round of mockery and criticism on these social observations, albeit this time round as an angry mob – This was the purpose theatre initially served, and should also be intention which modern day drama should reclaim. This piece not only places the spotlight on current affairs; it is also a critique that goes beyond merely the political aspect of things. Its witty dialogue, well-crafted characters and tight structure make it a classic that is set to last.

Reader: Chun Ying

The Room by Harold Pinter

There is an unspoken sense of anxiety and uneasiness in the banality of the conversation between the two elderly characters. The howling winds outside makes me feel that the room is comfortable, but not peaceful. If the weather outside is chilling to the bone, why then did the elderly husband still decide to leave this comfortable room? Who exactly is the wife Ross? What secrets does this room contain? Who lives in the dark, humid and cold basement? What relationship does the landlord, who does not seem like one, have with the room? The unexpected ending was startling, like a grip on my neck, and I was also almost unable to get my breath back.

Night, Mother by Marsha Norman

My most favourite script. The dramatic question of whether the daughter will commit suicide was no longer of importance; the crux is now how the mother would prevent her daughter from doing so! So exciting! Just like the first script I read, The Room --- The playwright here capitalizes on the banalities of daily conversation, at times unimportant yet thoroughly related to one another, to conjure up a script which is full of dramatic tension. As layers and layers of underlying deep-seated emotions are opened up, more and more secrets are revealed, the audience is led to the fact that the terminally ill daughter inadvertently has to die, and the lonely mother has to live, no matter what. In the end, I agreed that indeed the daughter has to die, and felt deeply saddened for the mother who has to be living alone for the rest of her life. That night, it was as if the mother had died as well. The helplessness one feels towards the vicissitudes of life is deeply agonizing.

 The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht has never been to Szechwan. But he is writing about Szechwan. Is he trying to have a distance in his writing intentionally? It really manifests so. The script also distances the readers with its interesting characters – The deities, a virtuous woman Shen Te, a rogue Shui Da (whom the lady transforms into when she is in a state of crisis), a romantic Yang Sun, and a group of greedy and insatiable townsfolk. The script oscillates between dramatic action and breaking the fourth wall to explain the story; it is poetic, but never emotional. In the end, as a reader, I was also very clear-headed during the process of reading, not very much invested, but instead, full of questions for the work and life itsel – How can things be as such?

 The Seagull by Anton Chekov

Previously, when I was a teacher, I had taught a work of Chekov’s, and have always admired Chekov’s style of humour, hence I chose to read his 4-act comedy, The Seagull. Actually, the image one has of a seagull would hardly convince the audience it would be a comedy, am I right? This is especially when the protagonist also killed the beautiful seagull in the play, and subsequently brutally shot himself to death.  Where is the humour? I think this is where the brilliance of black humour is! The complicated human relationships – the you-love-me-but-I-can’t, the you-loved-me-but-no-longer-do-so, the will-you-love-me scenes and dialogue all seemed very old-school but yet thoroughly relevant, seemed very hilarious but yet not at all funny as well.  In the end, the seagull became a specimen, and no one had possession over it. This seemingly complicated script gave me a revelation. In simplicity we find complexity, and vice versa.  

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 2 / May 2014:Opening The Door To The Arts