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Unfortunately, this critic wanted to love this play, but was left asking what was the purpose of it all?

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The Way We Go’ by Checkpoint Theatre

The Way We Go is the latest play from Checkpoint Theatre and playwright Joel Tan. It will be performed at School of the Arts’ Studio from November 20-29, 2014, with matinees added on the weekends.

Agatha Mao (Lydia Look) and Violet Chan (Neo Swee Lin)
Agatha Mao (Lydia Look) and Violet Chan (Neo Swee Lin)

The Way We Go examines the life and loves of Agatha Mao (Lydia Look) from the time we meet her as a 50 something year old principal of convent school Lady of Lourdes to her death from cancer. In between we see Mao’s interactions with best friend and fellow teacher Violet (Neo Swee Lin), Mao’s boyfriend Edmund (Patrick Teoh), who is also Violet’s cousin, and students in the form of lesbian couple Li-Yeng (Julie Wee) and Gillian (Chng Xin Xuan).

There is no doubt that Joel Tan has the gift of putting together words to make beautiful meaning. At one point, Violet declares that she is both overjoyed and devasted to have been loved by Mao. Isn’t that just what love is? It fills you with absolute happiness and yet also with pure grief when death removes the person from your life forever. Tan certainly thinks about life. He thinks about how to put it across. And he knows how to use words to create an imagined movie in our heads. He is also witty, funny, and apropos. The Way We Go is all of these things too.

Hence, it is quite disappointing that this play doesn’t have enough of a story to be compelling theatre, and neither does it have enough development to be seen as a strong character study piece. If only Tan, with his strong language skills, was able to engage these other elements into this production, it would have made for some sterling theatre.

It is to Tan’s credit that he is able to touch on things beyond the realm of most young men – the topic of people getting married in their 50s. In Singapore where increasingly both men and women are putting marriage off till later ages, marrying in one’s 50s could be a normal thing very soon, if not already. So, it’s extremely timely for Tan to explore this phenomenon.

However, touching and skimming doesn’t make for enticing theatre, and one wonders why Tan didn’t think of delving even deeper into the subject. All we know is that Violet gets married at 56, seems worried if she’s making the right decision, goes through with it, and it’s implied she’s happy because we don’t hear anything further about her marriage. Agatha Mao, on the other hand, starts dating Edmund, more or less at Violet’s prompting in a way, but they move in together without wedlock at first. Surely there is great material right there to examine, with the two late-bloomers who get attached to romantic partners at an older age – one with a traditional marriage and another in a more modern de-facto attachment. But alas, Tan doesn’t go there.

Then Mao gets sick and we learn that Edmund and she broke up shortly before this, but he does return to her when she is diagnosed. However, when Mao gets better we once again learn Edmund has left. And when Mao relapses, she begs Violet not to tell Edmund about her condition. In between, we see that Edmund is selfish with a temper, whilst Mao makes important decisions like she’s still single, and their relationship is not a good one. Once again Tan skims the surface without venturing further into what makes these potentially fascinating characters tick.

Why does Mao want to be with the insufferable Edmund in the first place? Why doesn’t she think she deserves better than Edmund? Violet seems so oblivious to the couple’s problems and, rather taken at Edmund’s one good gesture of cooking for Mao, isn’t the friend who pushes you to date a bad choice equally accountable for your unhappiness? There are tons of issues that could have been explored for the sake of a richer story or character development. However, all we get is a passing observance of the featured moments of Mao’s life, prettied up with words and connotations no doubt. But something more was sorely lacking.

As for the Li and Gillian part of the tale, the story here isn’t one that hasn’t been told before. Whether a couple is gay or straight, we’ve all seen and heard stories of one partner being structured/organised and the other one flying by the seat of his/her pants or being arty-farty/uncentred – and how chaotic such a coupling is. Li and Gillian are no different and them breaking apart is rather predictable. Violet advising them as now 24 year olds to give love another shot seems unexciting and honestly rather cliched.

Having said that, the acting is good, and aside from Chng who comes across as raw and limited in her expressions, the one who stands out is Look. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to established local thespian Nora Samosir, in look, vocal tone, and delivery style, Look is convincing as the strong willed principal whose body is later ravaged by cancer.

The set is simple and effective. However the flooring is a bit unnerving as it has parts in trampoline-like stretchy material that doesn’t look safe to walk on with heels. Is it to signify the ups and downs of life? Is it to connote the “bad choices” the characters made? The flooring, whilst interesting, seems unnecessary as one can’t define its need to be in this form.

Unfortunately, this critic wanted to love this play, but was left asking what was the purpose of it all? If you love the English language you will love The Way We Go. However, if you’re also looking for a strong story and/or characters that are unique and interesting, unfortunately this play falls short on that front.


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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

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

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