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

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

Part 2

3 | First Month of Rehearsals, or Early Experiments on Goh’s Text

Entering into our first month of rehearsals, the directors and I still had not made a decision on the extent we were going to intervene and edit the language of the original play. During the 4-5 weeks of rehearsals between February and March, we were keen to establish the cast as fellow collaborators to have a stake in developing the interpretation of their characters.

At this point however, I also had concerns about the believability of the characters’ motivations and arcs. In an earlier blog post, Ivan a.k.a. Smeagol remarked on how in the first month of rehearsals he was slightly sceptical of my being a “staunch believer of exploring the “edgy” sides of Moons’ characters” as I pursued several divergent ideas of what I thought were missing backstories and insufficient character motivations in the original.

On hindsight, I admit I underestimated the original text and assumed there were plot holes that needed plugging, which I believed necessary to bring out the grittier sides of class differences in speech, mannerisms and character choices. I was beginning to show signs of emotional attachment to the thematic strands of portraying the conflicts of privilege and resentment between classes.

With all the various ideas, concerns and suggestions coming forth, it became crucial that we needed to establish a set of guiding dramaturgical principles in approaching how we interpreted and intervened with the original text. I started drafting a Vision Statement document, in which I articulated the key thematic questions and also a framework for how we would go about making changes, if any. I wrote that there were two categories of edits to be made: ones that affected the logic of the play (any inclusion of new scenes or subplots), ones that affected the language of the play (word choice, register of speech).

Eventually, I made a couple of attempts to rewrite the register of the language in some of the earlier scenes, seeking to create varying registers of English for the different characters to reflect their backgrounds and biases. But everything continued to feel tentative.

4 | Preserving the Recording of TheatreWorks’ 1990 Staging

Between the second half of March and 10th April, we had about 2-3 weeks of a break from rehearsals, during which I was to make the final cut of the script. I borrowed the DVD recording of TheatreWorks’ 1990 staging of Moon and invited the cast to visit the National Library where we could take turns to watch the recording in the AV Room at Level 11. I was most intrigued and troubled by their decision to stay faithful to the original writing.

During the cast members’ emerging reflections on the 1990 staging, there was a growing consensus that any plans to radically overhaul the language of the play to cater to the (perceived) sensitivities of a present-day audience would mean that we would no longer be presenting a Goh Poh Seng play. It was clear that the team was keen on finding ways to preserve the original writing and make it our own in performance and these views were to be respected and carefully considered. Admittedly, I took some time to come round to this idea.

5 | Script Deadlines & A Dramaturg’s Ego Abates

I still harboured an instinctive desire to rewrite the play’s language in a bid to more realistically depict the differences in class backgrounds of the characters. In short, I had a longstanding quarrel with the original text which culminated in my trying to “re-translate” scene by scene into what I believed would be a more “authentic register”.

There was noticeable friction brewing between my presumptuous desire to rewrite the play and the calls from various segments in the cast and team to preserve the original writing. A meeting was called amongst the Creative Team (Adeeb, Mark and Smeagol) where we sought to make a decision on how to decide on language revisions in the script.

I would eventually submit the final version of the script where the only main changes made were to write the character of Old Lim out of the only scene he appears in, to cut lines where it did not forward the story, and to take several charged words that were class-centric and substitute them with more ambiguous, open-ended words (e.g. changing ‘bourgeoisie’ with ‘middle-class’, ‘proletariat’ with ‘common people’). We would end up staying even more faithful text-wise to the original than the 1990 staging which had cut more lines and made more re-arrangements under Ong Keng Sen’s direction.

What undergirded my staunch desire to rewrite the original was a lack of faith in the original writing to meet audience expectations of believability. To be honest, I had felt embarrassed by the writing as I imagined sceptical minds under the cover of dark in the audience rows thinking “What is this? Where got farm people speak such proper English!”

Around the same time of this meeting, we chanced upon two paragraphs of his personal reflections on Moon (page xli-xlii) in the Preface to the republication of his novel If We Dream Too Long by NUS Press. He wrote that “[l]ooking back I found the language [of Moon] to be stilted and dogmatic” and that through writing Moon, he realised that “to have authenticity, the language must reflect the life around [him]”. This realisation would lead to the writing of When Smiles Are Done, his second play and the first play credited with putting Singaporean English on stage. Somehow learning this quietened my quarrel with his language in Moon.

Finally, the team was right in arguing that the burden need not fall entirely on the language. Not only had I looked down on the original and an imagined audience, it also betrayed a lack of confidence in the team. It was agreed that we would give the original writing the best shot we could, making our mark on the play with a consistency in direction and performance.

EPILOGUE

It is my hope that audiences will break through the present dark clouds of any scepticism toward his writing style, because once I looked past that I could enter a world where I was confronted with my own psychological attachments to class differences. In the weeks leading up to the show, I have since been rewarded with the confidence that Goh’s original text has a lot more to offer when I cared to read deeply than when I first assumed.

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