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'Quarters' has plenty of heart, but could've used some major script editing and trimming of characters to make it a tighter play and a better study of people living in close quarters.

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Quarters’ by Arivazagan Thirugnanam at Avant Theatre

Avant Theatre’s Quarters ran at the Victoria Theatre on the 19th and 20th of June 2015.

Quarters, directed by G. Selva and set in a communal residence made up of six Indian families, one Chinese family and one Malay family, tells the story of how these families intermingle and interact on the eve of National Day in 1975, when such living situations were common in Singapore.

The opening scene sent many in the audience into a chorus of “wah”s and “wow”s at the stunning set (by Lim Eng Siang of Onstaging P L) made up of the two-storey quarters as well as a makeshift hawker stall and grocery store on the left and a courtyard in the middle. The residents’ shared kitchen and bathroom were imagined offstage.

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As the play opened with a morning scene, we saw the routines amongst the residents as they prepared to shower, cook, clean, tend to the children and do their chores, each resident going about his or her duties in a sort of choreographed dance as you’d expect from communal living. It was fascinating to watch and very much exhibited the ‘kampung spirit’ (village spirit) of our past.

Unfortunately, from that superb opening scene the play faltered as it betrayed many flaws including some technical glitches. The surtitle generator couldn’t keep pace with the fast verbal exchanges on stage, and there were many occasions large excerpts of dialogue were simply not translated for the non-Tamil speaking in the audience. Hence some good jokes were missed.

At various times, the microphones on some of the actors didn’t level to the right volume and so chunks of dialogue couldn’t be heard or were heard as if from a distance.

Storywise, there were simply too many characters to keep track of, and to develop, and most of the characters ended up being clichés or caricatures, with no fleshed-out personality. Some actors seemed to also be miscast, as with Pakkiam’s husband looking more like a teenager than someone’s spouse.

Scriptwriter Arivazagan Thirugnanam piled on the melodrama and at times it worked, as in the scene where Pakkiam’s (Vinatha V) mum dies and Pakkiam practically goes full-blown Kollywood on stage with her hysterical cries to great comedic effect. However, many times the melodrama felt cheesy and overdone, as in the story where jewelery goes missing and everyone suspects everyone else.

Some of the stories, such as friends fighting with each other over a soccer match and the never-fully-delved-into romantic plot of two youngsters, were tedious and uninteresting.

But above all, one of the biggest flaws of the writing rests in its unattractive preachy quality. Thirugnanam should’ve let the characters’ actions and mise-en-scene portray the theme of ‘kampung spirit’ and how the residents see each other as ‘family’ in the end. Instead, we got character after character repeating ad nauseam that they were family, so that by the time the saintly Ayup (R. Sommasundram) gave us his Yoda-like monologue encompassing the same sentiment as the rest, many in the audience were heard cringing. This critic is sure she heard the violins out in full blast at this point!

Quarters could’ve used some major script editing (the themes explored didn’t need an almost three-hour duration), and trimming of characters, which could’ve made this a tighter play and a better study of people living in close quarters.

Still, the play did have funny moments that gave the audience huge laughs, such as the funny retorts between teenage frenemies Neela (Thrishanthini G) and Devi (Sobana Rachael A) who squabbled often throughout the play.

In conclusion, Quarters is essentially a play with plenty of heart, and it was nostalgic to be transported to a time when Singaporeans didn’t even have a common language and spoke to each other in their own tongues, yet unity and happiness existed in the most organic way.

And at the end when G. Selva garlanded four of Singapore’s Tamil media veterans who also had parts in this production – Sithirathevi S, Anchalai, R Sommasundram and S Muthulakshmi – it was certainly a poignant moment and maybe even a reminder that we should elevate our Tamil productions to meet international standards each and every time. We owe it to our ancestors who came to this island, to our present cohort of Tamil-speaking thespians, and to the future Neelas and Devis to do so.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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