My play Machine was recently restaged for the Arts Festival as a double-bill with Kuo Paokun’s Little White Sailing Boat under the title “Full Frontal”. It was directed by Peter Sau. The review by Flying Inkpot is here. The review by Ng Yi-sheng in the Straits Times is below. So is the review and preview by Suhaila Sulaiman in Life! in 2002, when Machine was first staged and when it won the Life! Theatre Awards for Best Script. I have also included some pages from the programme notes for Full Frontal. The play was also made into a one-hour TV drama for the Arts Central by award-winning director Sun Koh.
[Apologies that it is hard to navigate, I am not good at this uploading stuff!]
Excerpts of programme Notes for Full Frontal (click on the images to enlarge):
Review in The Straits Times:
The review by Suhaila Sulaiman in Straits Times, 2002:
March 16, 2002 Saturday
HEADLINE: His ultimate Machine?
BYLINE: Suhaila Sulaiman
NOTHING is sacred.
Not the body, not the mind and certainly not the heart – at least that is what playwright-journalist Tan Tarn How asserts in his latest play, Machine, which opened at The Black Box on Wednesday.
A bleak pronouncement, yes, but one so exquisitely articulated, it effects a sting of truth that you will carry with you long after the 90-minute play has ended.
A one-act drama about love and relationship in the modern age, Machine unfolds in the home of two friends, Lina (played by Janice Koh) and Kim (Karen Tan). The women are set to begin their day, but certain electrical appliances – the computer and the washing machine – have broken down and are in need of fixing.
Enter Rex (Low Kee Hong) and Heng (Casey Lim), who, claiming to be repairmen, proceed to fix the faulty washing machine.
Conversations are struck and before you know it, dinner dates are set.
There’s no high drama or action in Machine. Its brutality does not stream in naked through rapes and murders, but comes sheathed in the mating games – the civilised conversations and repartees – that men and women play.
Tan’s sensitivity and genius is obvious throughout: The dialogue is light but loaded. In the exchanges, there are just the right doses of surprise to compliment, of feigned ignorance to encourage and of coyness to intrigue, as both the man and woman manoeuvre expertly towards their ultimate goal – the bed, after which the relationship ceases to be.
It is a dark emotionless world that Tan creates, one in which the manipulative, consumerist culture pervades and reigns, even in the traditionally-sacred realm of the heart.
For the four individuals, only the excitement of the hunt matters. And even then the thrill is wearing off as they chug through another use-abuse-and-throw cycle.
For some, the only way to survive such a barren wasteland of emotions is by indulging in aberrant sexual behaviour such as sadism and masochism.
Truly, Tan has achieved what he has set out to do – offer glimpses of ‘the postmodern love’, for not only do his characters reject love, they also use it to habitually mock themselves.
Machine is one of the very few Singapore plays to benefit from a set design with a strong concept and more importantly, one that contributes to the play’s themes.
Predominantly blue with white flooring, the set immediately conveys an air of unfeeling coldness. A dining table placed centrestage is the main playing area and also acts as the fulcrum on which a piece of the wall, on tiny wheels, swings across to partition the set in different ways during scene changes.
The idea of it as part of a machine perhaps would be brought out more if it were the actors who wheel it across as part of the performance instead of the backstage crew in the dark. The walls also deserve attention, for their current flimsiness makes them look amateurish.
A cast of strong performers, under the direction of ex-lawyer Jeremiah Choy, were able to bring out the complexities of the script and hold the attention of the audience almost effortlessly. Koh, in particular, shone with confidence and the quirky chemistry between her and Low is something to be relished.
Tan Tarn How’s Machine is on at the Black Box, Fort Canning Park, till March 31. Nightly performances (Wed – Sat) at 8 pm and matinees (Sun only) at 3 pm. Tickets at $30 and $25 are available via Sistic. Call 6348-5555.
The preview by Suhaila Sulaiman in Straits Times, 2002:
HEADLINE: Play-boy’s Machine;
Journalist-playwright Tan Tarn How looks at games unmarried people play in his latest work
BYLINE: Suhaila Sulaiman
JUGGLING two lovers is no easy task. Particularly when both are equally demanding.
But journalist-playwright Tan Tarn How manages. He says: ‘Journalism is my wife and playwriting, my mistress.
‘While newspaper writing is as good a job as I wish to do, creative writing keeps me alive. I am very passionate about both.’
Where his days are spent with his ‘wife’, nights are reserved for his ‘mistress’, he says, with a smile.
But with his latest play, Machine, scheduled to open at the Black Box on Wednesday, you would guess that The Straits Times political correspondent has been showering the latter with a wee bit more attention than usual.
After all, the one-act play which centres on love and relationships in modern times is quite an anomaly for the political satirist. It is only his second non-political play after Home, written 12 years ago.
Between then and now, political dramas took up his time. Among them were 1992’s The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine, which stirred a storm because of its explicit sexuality; 1996’s Six Of The Best, which explored racism using the caning of an American teen vandal as a backdrop; and The First Emperor’s Last Days, a 1998 Singapore Festival Of The Arts play which looked into the fabrication of history.
The idea for Machine came to him two years ago, he says.
‘That’s how I work – I take a long time between having the idea in my head and the actual writing.’
A work commissioned by TheatreWorks for about $8,000, Machine took him about four weeks to write. It had its first reading last March when the theatre company celebrated its 10th year of the SPH Writers’ Lab, called Charging Up Memory Lane: 30 Plays In 30 Days.
Considering he had submitted only the first half of it, the reception to the reading was surprisingly good, he says.
The first complete draft was passed to lawyer-turned-director Jeremiah Choy in February for him to start working with the ensemble of actors – Karen Tan, Janice Koh, Casey Lim and Low Kee Hong.
Since then, three other drafts have been written as Tan, who is also the associate artistic director of TheatreWorks, continued to work with actors through their process.
With the play, he had wanted to understand how relationships work in this postmodern age, he says.
Non-specific to Singapore, Machine unfolds with two men, Rex and Heng, claiming to be appliance repairmen, turning up at the home of women pals, Lina and Kim, to fix their washing machine.
Attraction sets in and ‘suddenly, relationships are forming, coalescing and breaking up’, says Tan.
‘The play is actually a study of a group of people – specifically, unmarried men and women in their 30s – who have developed a certain pattern of engaging in relationships and working them out.
‘I am particularly interested in the putting on of masks and the games people play when they are in relationships. It’s actually very much like play-acting and drama.
‘It is real and surreal at the same time: They are real people who live on an emotional plane that is unreal.’
Most of Machine had come from general observations of his life as well as those of his friends, he says.
He suggests this ‘disjointedness between what people say and what they do’ is the result of today’s consumerist society, which makes the individual – hard-pressed to find permanent emotional attachments – take comfort in emotionless games instead.
The title Machine plays up the idea of the industrial and the mechanical logic that the four characters are unable to escape from.
He says: ‘I hope to show that the richness of this life – while it creates an abundance of opportunities and possibilities for young men and women – also closes some doors.
‘And that when these are closed, life can be quite tragic.’
Tan Tarn How’s Machine will be on at the Black Box, Fort Canning Centre from Wednesday till March 31. Nightly performances (Wed – Sat) at 8 pm and matinees (Sun only) at 3 pm. Tickets at $30 and $25 are available at TheatreWorks. Call 6338-4077.