I thought I might start a new, informal series tagged "stream of consciousness" for my immediate (and raw) responses to plays after I've seen them.
I caught Jean Tay's new play, The Shape of a Bird, at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival on January 16. It's a blend of actual history and fable in the vein of her recent work, Sisters – The Untold Stories of the Sisters Islands (2013), which revisits the infamous Sunny Ang murder case that took place at Sisters Islands; and Senang (2014), which draws parallels between Milton's Paradise Lost, the Chinese classic The Water Margin, and the fatal prison riots on Pulau Senang. Tay's recent fascination with how we reinterpret history through myth and metaphor is apparent, and she's also demonstrated a strong pull towards the use of puppetry; in Sisters, the actresses transformed simple lengths of printed fabric into living, breathing characters.
Bird is a spiritual sequel of sorts to the previous two plays, except this time Tay moves away from Singapore history to a story inspired by repression under China's Cultural Revolution, in a play blending censorship, oppression, familial bonds, fable and plenty of puppetry and object work. It's a tall order, and she has confessed in interviews that she believed the play to be her "impossible play", one incredibly difficult to stage. Essentially, a woman (Tan Kheng Hua) has been imprisoned due to her incendiary writings (which we find out later are children's books with a darker undercurrent), and she is separated from her 18-year-old daughter Ann (Jean Toh), who is learning to live without her. They live under the rule of a legion of Cicadas where there is only one official narrative and the rest are deemed subversive. There is also a mysterious prison warden-interrogator (Brendon Fernandez) and a possible love interest for Ann (Thomas Pang), both of whom are aligned with the Cicadas. The production is set against three white fabric screens, on which bursts of shadow puppetry are projected, and newspaper puppets flit across the stage.
This is an intriguing premise in a country where words are often denied due to the power they wield, but one sadly squandered. Tay seems to be more interested in poetics than politics, and her characters move about in a haze of repetitive moral dilemmas. Should they... Sign a false confession? Sleep with the enemy? Stop writing? Any propulsive action that takes the narrative forward is shoehorned in-between these repeated dilemmas, which means that any sort of emotional revelation is played on fast-forward and over in an instant, rid of all its potential impact. Director Mei Ann Teo curiously lengthens some heavy, repetitive scenes but skips over other emotional pivots (e.g. key revelations about Ann's family and a mysterious newspaper puppet that has been following her around), and young actors Jean Toh and Thomas Pang also falter in these emotionally charged moments, often reacting too quickly to what should have been a slow burn. Tay's stylised, lyrical prose works during some monologues but comes off as stilted and clumsy in other quick exchanges of dialogue.
Tay also takes a simplistic view of the power of the written word; her characters might very well have been yelling "the pen is mightier than the sword!" throughout the play. Instead of demonstrating the power of said words, she instead chooses for her characters to repeat the slogan "your words are powerful!" or "write your stories!" or "only you can tell your stories!", ironically depriving the slogan of any power whatsoever, because we have no idea what these words are, and why they would move the people to such an extent. It sometimes feels like a (unfortunately) diluted version of The Necessary Stage's Gemuk Girls (2008), which dealt with a similar context with great poignancy and precision – a photographer is detained by the Internal Security Department who try to force him to sign a false confession about his links with communism; it spans three generations within the same family and lays bare their struggles as they react to his incarceration. Gemuk Girls had a gutting specificity and political impulse that Bird lacks.
The problem with fantasy and myth is often how it can make itself relevant to reality. Audiences will quickly pick out metaphors that feel heavy-handed and obvious, but can also be alienated by metaphors that are too abstract to connect to everyday life. When I think of a cicada, I don't really think of much else. It's an insect a little like a cricket, that much I know, and at a stretch I would ponder how it only surfaces after many years underground. But the symbol of the cicada feels incongruent with the play. There's a missing anchor in here somewhere, and the play drifts around untethered the way its characters are forced fold invisible cicada origami, their fingers moving nimbly across empty air. Because we cannot witness what they are creating, we feel less for what is being destroyed.