Breaking Through The Present Dark Clouds (Part 1/2)

A 2-Part Reflection on the Dramaturgical Journey of The Moon Is Less Bright
Written by Nah Dominic

1 | Dr. Robin Loon’s Challenge

It was inside the Manulife Centre Starbucks one December afternoon where Dr. Robin Loon casually threw down the gauntlet to us: make your mark on this play. I challenge you to make it your own. We knew that he had researched on and taught The Moon Is Less Bright by Goh Poh Seng before. Now that day we learnt he had been looking forward to see a young theatre company take up the challenge of staging this play. We shared with Dr. Loon that the themes of class conflict really spoke to us (this was before both the IPS Survey on Social Capital and Professor Teo You Yenn’s “This Is What Inequality Looks Like” were published) and how we felt this was going to be the next centre of public debate in Singapore.

But we had one question about the language of the play for him. See, it was written in the Queen’s English and set on a farm in 1942 Singapore, yes? Talk about incongruity of language and setting. How would we be able to suspend a 2018 audience’s disbelief that a farmer’s family spoke perfect and heightened British English?

But it was as if Dr. Loon anticipated this query of ours. He quickly established the context of the writing of the play and its first performance in 1964 by the Lotus Club. Who else would watch English-language theatre in 1964 Singapore when you had popular cinema, and few people really spoke English at all? We learned the play then intended to appeal to the local English-educated individuals studying and/or gathering at the University of Singapore (where it was staged), who felt alienated at home amongst their majority non-English educated counterparts. The play was largely a plea for them to stay behind and rally around nation-building instead of fleeing for greener pastures due to a sense of feeling out of place.

Goh’s vision was a union of sorts across both worlds, set apart by barriers of class (though the way class differences were conceived then would differ from present-day 2018). The higher register of English given to the farmers was meant to endow them with the dignity and respectability Goh believed they deserved. I later realised if you translated their speech back into Mandarin, it would not sound out of place at all. In fact it would make perfect sense for their stirring speeches to be delivered as such. The fact that it was delivered in perfect English by ‘low-status’ persons in a Singapore context created the conundrums and hesitation.

Our task now was indeed to find a way to make this play our own and relevant to a present-day audience. At this point, we thought our main point of contention would be with the language of the play and much of my headspace was spent fretting over this.

2 | Our Initial Unease with Goh’s Language in Moon

During our auditions, I prepared the excerpts for the different characters with an additional caveat at the end of every extract. I signalled our intention to reconsider the original use of language by Goh later in the rehearsal process by inserting questions to the actors to ask how they may consider reworking the language of the characters. (When you have characters use words and phrases ‘blasphemy’, ‘nay, crumbled to dust’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘proletariat’, ‘not for want of trying’, you do wonder how present-day audiences will believe this manner of speech). The way the actors tended towards playing up the heightened nature of the language made me feel incredibly mixed. Yet I still was not sure if we could completely change the language of the play. Something did not feel quite right about that either.

I would realise much later that this hesitation stems from a core assumption of wanting to present this play in a naturalistic mode of performance. Why this illusion of reality was important to me? If we wanted audience members to pick up instinctively upon class divides, one of the ways in which we already intuitively do this in real life is to pay attention to how both ourselves and others use language, especially the use of English.
We do judge people’s standing in relation to ourselves based on the vocabularies and words they employ, the ease or struggle with which they speak English, we might pick up on mispronunciations and inflexions.

However, returning to Goh’s script, we knew we could not resort to introducing Singlish on stage either. That could cheapen the performance and also be historically inaccurate in terms of patterns of speech. EngMalChin would have been the closest cousin to Singlish back then, but even so that search for an idiosyncratic rojak language was post-WWII, set way after the play’s time.

Just how were we going to figure out our compromise with the language of the original writing when clearly I had been developing a bias and unease with it? And was the language of the play really the main thing we should be worrying about?

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