There we all were, on Row E, sitting proud and pretty: the unofficial Malaysian delegation to the 11th and final performance of Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children at the Singapore Drama Center.
A few seats away sat the playwright. And beside her was Chin San Sooi, the man who initiated her into the mysterious allures of playacting and playwriting; and who midwifed her brilliant entry into the forefront of Malaysian theater with Emily of Emerald Hill.
In July 1988, 3 Children was premiered in Kuala Lumpur, with San Sooi directing. It came across well enough for TheatreWorks, a leading company in Singapore, to take it on as their first major co-production with a Malaysian group, Five Arts Centre.
The experiment entailed more than a change of cast and venue: Five Arts Centre co-founder, noted academician, theater critic and drama doyen Krishen Jit was engaged to direct TheatreWorks’ production of 3 Children.
He spent every weekend over a 3-month period commuting to rehearsals by plane (despite an inherent fear of flying).
In his absence Ong Keng Sen, TheatreWorks’ artistic director, functioned as co-director, getting the performers in shape by putting them through a rigorous regimen of improvisations – accompanied by training sessions in Chinese opera, voice, and tai-chi.
“I filled in the details,” Keng Sen told me later, “Krishen executed the bold strokes.”
Meanwhile, the playwright had reworked the material, though not to an unrecognizable extent. Sequences were reshuffled, a few expanded, additional scenes written – with the result that we witnessed what San Sooi described as “an entirely different play.”
He was right, in a manner of speaking – but I prefer to think of it as the same play, radically transformed by a different energy and vision.
In the course of being transplanted from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, 3 Children had evolved and matured with the same miraculous swiftness that very young children exhibit in their development. Those who had seen the KL production four months ago could only shake their heads in wonder and exclaim: “My, my, my, but how you’ve grown!”
More than once I found myself fighting back tears. Not tears of vicarious grief as one engrossed in a soap opera might shed – but tears of poignant rediscovery and revelation, brought on by emotions and insights seeping from subterranean sources of sudden remembrance.
Only very sincere and very great art has the power to stir the ancestral memory; to reawaken cellular experience long encrusted with routine and trivia.
With 3 Children, Puay Tin dug deep into her own psyche and struck the motherlode of collective dream consciousness. The further in one looks, the farther out one expands. The personal becomes universal, becomes transpersonal.
To call Puay Tin’s work “Joycean” is perhaps too easy and the most obvious thing to do. But I can’t think of anyone else offhand who succeeded as well as James Joyce in fulfilling the role of shaman-poet for a entire civilization. The heavy-but-nourishing Irish stew Joyce concocted from disparate thought-clusters floating through the minds of assorted Dubliners can be said to contain an entire Cosmos.
Similarly, Puay Tin has cooked up for us a tasty Teochew porridge, if you like, of human experience drawn from a tiny puddle of life called Kappan Road in Malacca.
Her three children – two girls and a boy – undergo multiple permutations as two sisters and a brother; mother, father, daughter; husband, wife, mother-in-law; sister, brother, mother; old man, young woman, matriarch. And so on.
Their interactions are so intense and dynamic that Krishen Jit felt a more neutral party was needed, if only to take some of the strain off both audience and performers. Hence the introduction of a narrator – sort of an animated academic footnote-cum-Greek chorus ably played by Neo Swee Lin. In any case the narrator also came in handy moving the occasional prop about; still, I can foresee her role expanding, should the production be exported farther abroad (as it fully deserves to be). Audiences in, say, New York would surely appreciate having a few localisms like “jamban” and “ang tau chooi” explained.
Staged against a muted shadow-play-within-the-play enacted on huge staggered screens (how could Krishen resist this tribute to that most ancient of theater forms, wayang kulit?), 3 Children was an inspired synthesis of poetry, drama, dance, opera, and group therapy.
Never have I seen a more intelligent and effective blend of avant-garde and traditional elements; nor a happier combination of words, movement, music, and visual environment. (Justin Hill designed the quietly expressive set; Mark Chan created the sparing, tasteful musical augmentations; William Teo and Sebastian Zeng designed the versatile costumes; and Dora Tan did the superb lighting.)
Three metaphorical children ride imafinary horses through a symbolic jungle. They are played by Lim Kay Tong, Lok Meng Chue, and Claire Wong (Chui Ling) with extraordinary ability, agility, and skill. More need not (and, indeed, cannot) be said: their tight, disciplined, pull-out-all-the-stops performance (after such a protracted run) left me breathless.
Sometimes it seems the children are searching for something… a temple on a hill, spiritual truth, succor, enlightenment. Sometimes they appear to be running from something… an unseen persecutor, inevitable punishment, damnation, death, demons. At one point they find themselves horseless; at another, barefoot.
Perhaps they are trapped forever in hell. Quite possibly they are at the very gates of heaven. The sparse, suggestive dialogue resonates with significance.
“Look! We are free at last! The walls are gone, the gate is open, we are free to come and go as we please!” says the optimist.
“The fire is dying swiftly, soon it will be dead!” says the realist.
“It is dead, everything is dead, even the ghosts bare dead!” says the pessimist. “But what can we do?” They find themselves in a house, hunting for a key.
They find themselves in a theater, acting in a play.
Interspersed throughout their dream/nightmare ride deep into the jungle, fragments of childhood memories from Kappan Road: And my grandmother said… pass water and the bad dream will go away… grandmother is old, she is full of feelings…
The Famous Five went on an outing to the Green Pool: naughty dog Timmy, he ran off with Anne’s sausage… Ang Tau Mooi sold ang tau chooi every day after school in the alley.
Tragicomic tales spun from working-class lives. From the banal and the inconsequential to cruel twists of horrible fate. Altogether forming an organic mass that spills over into different dimensions of time and space.
Aunt Ah Kim was given away as a baby; she grew up, married a taxi driver, and gambled her life away. Is she remembered with fondness, guilt, regret, shame? Does the softhearted porter in Limbo keep the gate open for her so she can linger longer, a restless ghost, among the living?
Within this writhing, seething morass of human experience – of laughter, pain, and madness – like a river the life-pulse courses. This river is Time and it receives the dead, as well as offerings for the deceased.
The ride through the jungle begins when the brother crosses the river (with the aid of his “yin-tuition”) to join his two sisters. It ends when they finally reach the temple on the hill, the court of last resort – only to find no Judge present, no one at all. But what difference does it make?
The history of Kappan Road remains a mystery – to the three children as well as to the 3,000 or so theatergoers in Singapore who came… and were bewildered, impressed, amazed, delighted, excited and very nearly enlightened by this epoch-making prodigy of a co-production. It was an experiment founded on solid theater experience culled from both sides of the Causeway, and presented with consummate attention to detail.
Obviously, the right spirit (bold, adventurous, exploratory) had found the right form (polished, precise, professional) to produce a perfect union.
[First published in the New Straits Times, 28 November 1988]
POSTSCRIPT: I’m happy to report that Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children has been produced in various countries by a variety of theater companies since this review was written.