Review: This Chord and Others [The Studios 2017]

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For the first time since 2000, Haresh Sharma’s This Chord and Others returns to the stage! Directed by Timothy Nga, the play stars Thomas Pang, Pavan J Singh and Neo Hai Bin as three friends and colleagues as their friendship is put to the test in the face of a potential job promotion.

This Chord is of course, a pun on the word ‘discord’, and this theme was brought out from the very set itself. As the play began, the many old school television sets on the stage began to display scenes of conflict, from 2000’s disastrous SQ006, to the more recent Little India Riots.

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The play’s premise is simple: as an office executive leaves his position, a new man is required to fill in for him, and a promotion is up for grabs, Seeing the opportunity, the three friends/colleagues begin a battle for said position. As the play goes on, we’re given a glimpse into all three of their vastly different lives, and see the discord present in each one. New Christian Gerald (Neo Hai Bin) lives independently and alone, and returning home for reunion dinner during Chinese New Year, is chastised by his staunchly Buddhist father (played by Pavan J Singh) for only returning on occasion, and chides him for converting to Christianity, a gold cross on his neck instead of a Buddhist charm. But Gerald is really a good man, and there’s a moment of reminiscence of better days as he returns home with a cloth for his father, a temporary reconciliation between the two, and Hai Bin played the role well.

Sukdev, on the other hand, comes from a traditional Sikh family, and seems to be in a constant argument over the tensions between modern and traditional ways Sikhs should behave, such as whether one should be allowed to cut one’s hair. Thomas Pang played Sukdev’s mother, and his Indian accent was thick and strong, showcasing his flexibility in juggling multiple roles and playing them well. Finally, Eurasian Thomas (played by Thomas Pang) is not seen with his family, but his girlfriend (Neo Hai Bin), and their relationship is on the rocks as he doesn’t seem to probe deeper into their relationship. Thomas also constantly brings up the idea that he wants to migrate away from Singapore.

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All three of them at various points, perform caricatures of their inner selves that they often don’t show others, a tableaux where Gerald comes out arms stretched as if laid across a crucifix, Sukdev wearing a gigantic turban on his head, and Thomas in a paint splattered black bodysuit to represent his love for painting nudes. These become an escape for when things get out of hand, and perhaps the fundamental cores of their identities that they retreat to in order to find some semblance of stability in their lives.

Although the various tensions are initially restricted towards the home life, the pressure they face begins to seep into their work life as well, as the office talent time approaches and ends up becoming the metaphorical battleground to show who might end up the best candidate for the open position. In the days leading up to it, the three friends trash talk and throw jibes at each other, accusing the other of being seen to ‘angkat bola’ the boss in a jovial tone, but hiding antagonism underneath. Each one begins to stop committing to rehearsals for their number, and they orbit between their friendship and own selfish wants. Each one is afraid that once one of them gets the promotion, everything will fall apart, and all the underlying tensions will come to light. Sukdev in particular, is concerned that the last time a Sikh was in the office, the highest position he got promoted to was assistant manager, and the odds seem racist and stacked against him already. And for Thomas, as a Eurasian, or rather ‘others’, is there really a case of Chinese privilege prevalent in Singapore?

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Ultimately, when one of them does get the promotion, all their worst fears are proven true –  their friendship is ripped to shreds. Yet, there’s hope yet that their friendship may still survive. As Gerald’s father prepares to move some items out of the house, he’s assisted by Sukdev and Thomas, and laments that he wishes his son were better. But the two friends rush to his defence, and vouches for Gerald being a good person. Towards the end, the three of them appeared as their caricatures, or inner selves once again, and perhaps, it was to show that this is who they really are inside, and even, the obstacles towards preventing a happy ending. Perhaps time does heal all wounds, as the final scenes of the play show the three bouncing off each other, high fiving each other, smiling and laughing in a ‘could have been’ scenario if they were bereft of the office politics, race and religious issues.

This Chord and Others shows that Haresh Sharma has never been one to shy away from the difficult topics, and is a worthy revival of a play that brings across life’s complications and frictions, told in a subtle, intelligent manner. Although it runs the risk of being dated being set in the 90s, Timothy Nga does a remarkable job of teasing out the play’s messages still relevant today, and makes for a relatable, enjoyable piece that continues to show why The Necessary Stage remains necessary thirty years on.

Performance attended on 30/3/17.

This Chord and Others plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio till 2 April. Tickets available here

Photo Credit: Esplanade and Tuckys Photography

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