Review: Those Who Can’t, Teach by The Necessary Stage

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Over the last 30 years, The Necessary Stage has established itself as one of the foremost Singaporean theatre companies, producing seminal works that send across a strong social message, thanks to the work of Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma. Of their productions, Those Who Can’t, Teach stands out as one of their classics.

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Originally staged in 1990 before receiving a restaging in 2010, Those Who Can’t, Teach celebrates our local school system with all its ups and downs, be it the growing pains as a student or the daily struggles a teacher goes through. Haresh Sharma’s script may be over 20 years old, yet it still manages to hit all the right notes and remains relevant to society. Representing the various views of education, Those Who Can’t, Teach never minces its words, going straight for the jugular when teachers or students express their frustration at the system, but though harsh, is always deadly accurate and resonated deeply with the audience. Never one to shy away from difficult social subjects, Haresh’s script even points out the stark contrast between the treatment of neighbourhood schools and elite schools, and how despite what the government says, not every school is a good school in many Singaporeans’ eyes. The script is also very relatable, mentioning distinctly Singapore traits from the S-league to the culture and heritage of Malay weddings, to incorporating local bands’ music such as The Sam Willows’ ‘Ordinary’, which reflected the play’s themes surprisingly well and how much the local music scene has grown over the years.

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Siti K started off with her humourous pre-show announcements that brought us back to our school days, and the audience was launched straight into the fray and heart of the school – the staff room. Discussing the various problem students (and parents) they had and swearing support for each other, the meeting was interrupted by Ghafir Akbar as the canteen uncle, hilariously referencing the ‘salt bae’ meme when demonstrating how he prepares Roti John, much to the audience’s amusement and their peals of laughter. Despite the humour in the scene, the teachers showcased a strong sense of camaraderie, and despite never having been teachers ourselves, really painted a sincere portrait of life as an educator in Singapore.

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Similarly for the students, the cast managed to bring Haresh’s vision to life, and their portrayal evoked nods of approval from the students in the audience. Whether it’s about love or friendship, there was a genuine connection between the audience and the cast, leaving us with warm fuzzy feelings inside. In particular, the bond between teachers Hana (Siti K) and Sulin (Karen Tan) was pitched just right, and both actreses possessed a keen chemistry onstage. Though tenuous, it was obvious the two cared for each other deeply even when they both stubbornly insisted on their views and put on a strong front. The teachers of Those Who Can’t, Teach remind us that there’s always that one teacher who put their entire life on the line for students, and will stop at nothing but the best for them, forging an emotional bond as a key figure in their lives.

Haresh’s script also allows exploration of Singapore’s culture and heritage. At one point, Sulin conversed with her ailing mother over the phone and had to speak loudly in the staff room, and at some point even spoke in Peranakan (translated by Baba Richard Tan). Karen Tan’s portrayal of the Peranakan speech pattern was well researched by TNS, and executed to perfection. It is to the credit of the cast that they also managed to play their numerous roles and juggle their characters well, seamlessly switching between them and well executed. Later on, towards the end of Act 1, the students intrude upon Hana’s Malay wedding, held at the National Museum. The set was transformed and the audience members were in awe of how elaborate it looked with the Malay wedding decor. Hana is in shock, and Act 1 ends off with the impression that a teacher’s life is never private, and is often interrupted by their students at every turn.

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Haresh also doesn’t skim over the dread of having to deal with Singaporean parents. Siti K and Lian Sutton acted as mother and father to student Teck Liang (Joshua Lim), and it was exhilarating to watch them converse in Hokkien onstage, revealing the hard work that the actors do. The cast should be proud of themselves and how well this was executed.

Even when both the parents and the school system give up on the student, it’s the passionate teachers who hang on and ensure that those students don’t end up on the wrong side of the tracks and to keep going in spite of everyone being against them. Haresh doesn’t give the impression that life will turn out perfectly for the student; this isn’t a Ministry of Education promotional video, and the student doesn’t come back a big success in life. Although Mrs Phua (Karen Tan) feels guilty about her former student’s failure, Teck Liang is left only with a smile, reassured in the fact that despite everyone having given up on him, Mrs Phua still has faith and gives him hope for the future.

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Wong Chee Wai cleverly utilises a revolving set in the production. Those Who Can’t, Teach had a grand total of three backdrops throughout the performance, and the revolving set allowed set changes to occur swiftly, as if by magic. This was supported by Yo Shao Ann’s well executed lighting, which was very well designed, transporting us to a completely different environment in a snap with each scene change, and helped to highlight key moments.

Max Tan and Yuan Zhiying’s (MAX.TAN) costumes allowed for the actors to do a 180 degree transformation, changing from teachers to students, and back again.Of course, this was also to the credit of the actors seamlessly switching roles and physicality and deftly juggled their various roles, and the stellar cast’s embodiment of their roles to the absolute best of their abilities. The school uniform was particularly well designed, looking clean and neat.

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As the students gather for their final prom night and the disco ball spins on, a reflection of life, there’s an emotional moment when they decide to honour Mrs Phua for her lifework. At the end of it all, Those Who Can’t, Teach is a reminder that teachers are human too, and certainly people who’ll have left a huge impact on our lives, always putting themselves first and making many sacrifices in their time spent with family and pursuing their own interests to make us better people. The play’s title comes from a George Bernard Shaw quote, suggesting that ‘those who can, do while those who can’t, teach’, but the truth is, the teaching profession is a truly respectable one, and this restaging proves Shaw wrong: those who CAN, teach.

Those Who Can’t, Teach plays at the National Library Drama Centre till 19 March 2017. Tickets available from SISTIC.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

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