"I'm afraid to live, am I?—and even more afraid to die! So I sit here, with my pride drowned on the bottom of a bottle, keeping drunk so I won't see myself shaking in my britches with fright, or hear myself whining and praying: Beloved Christ, let me live a little longer at any price! If it's only for a few days more, or a few hours even, have mercy, Almighty God, and let me still clutch greedily to my yellow heart this sweet treasure, this jewel beyond price, the dirty, stinking bit of withered old flesh which is my beautiful little life! "
– Larry in The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill
In The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill keeps his characters trapped in a bar. Not physically trapped, of course, but they've been there so long it is the only existence they know. We'll leave tomorrow, they say, we'll do this and that tomorrow. We'll change. But they never leave. They cling to their miserable lives not because they want to, but because it is the only thing they know – it's familiar, almost comforting. It's an opiate.
In Joel Tan's Cafe at the inaugural Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, his Singaporean characters share something of a similar fate, even if what keeps them there isn't quite the same. Three baristas/wait staff and two customers linger inside the confines of what is presumably one of the hipster outposts that have mushroomed all over the country. But outside the cafe, and then eventually within it, strange pre-apocalyptic rumblings begin to happen. Furniture vanishes. There is soil all over the floor that never goes away. Milk turns sour, water turns bright blue. El (Ellison Tan), one of the baristas, realises through the fog of her memory that she hasn't seen her mother in some time – but when? She wonders - why can't she remember how she got here? Shireen (Jasmine Xie) can't reach her partner, and then realises she doesn't know where he is. They yearn to leave the cafe, but their colleagues/friends somehow coax them into staying.
It's a play where nothing seems to happen, but everything is happening. Joel has always had a fine ear for dialogue and his talky script serves him well here, gradually painting in a portrait of an all-too-familiar Singaporean inertia and passivity, where no one knows quite what they are doing but they go through the motions anyway. The world might be crumbling around us, he suggests, but still we cling to our own sanitised version of reality, inoculating ourselves with our cups of coffee laced with perfect swirls of latte art. Zee Wong's passive-aggressive, queasily banal Jaeclyn (did I spell that right?) proves that our greatest enemy is in fact ourselves, and that our greatest weapon is our painful water cooler talk (literally – she tells her pained acquaintance Shireen how her co-workers come to drink at the water cooler on their level because it tastes better. God help us). It's a scathing portrayal of how the well-meaning and well-intentioned, too, get worn down by an insidiously banal system. How can one rage against the machine when the machine is powered by a deep and all-powerful ennui?
I've often wondered at the stasis in some of Joel's earlier plays – some used to good effect, others that made me feel restless – but Cafe comes with a latent message that is powerful enough to buoy the play through most of its slower moments while also making narrative sense, in that the audience is tested by the characters' ramblings but comes out the wiser for it and is rewarded for their patience. But one thing I wanted more of was the characters to fill the room, to be certain of their convictions (and what makes them leave, when some eventually manage to do so). There is plenty of agitation on the surface, but less of that much-needed weight of bitterness and desperation that might propel a character to leave his mediocre existence. It takes a great deal of force, whether external or internal, to make someone leave a place of familiarity, even if that familiarity is dull, and I wasn't entirely convinced by some departures. In some cases, it felt as though the characters hadn't quite reached a breaking point where to leave becomes a more viable and palatable option than to stay.
I'm sad that I missed quite a few shows at the festival; it seems that many productions were well-received and wrestled with important issues, be they the tuition industry in Singapore (Tuition by Euginia Tan) or the futility of public discourse here (Trees... A Crowd by Irfan Kasban). But I'm glad that I managed to catch Cafe, at least – it's a revealing play about a deep-rooted ugliness that curls around all of us and that we often ignore.
- Chekhov's steak knife. I really thought ex-convict-turned-barista Kim (Joshua Lim) would use it at some point, but alas my hopes were dashed.
- Shireen and Jaeclyn's mind-numbingly awkward coffee sesh/reunion reminded me, slightly traumatically, of some of the 'catch-ups' over coffee that I never should have agreed to.
- Jaeclyn, sitting alone in that darkened cafe space with her endless supply of anecdotes, reminds of the way Larry clings to the greasy bar in The Iceman Cometh in the quote above: "Let me still clutch greedily to my yellow heart this sweet treasure..."