National Service in Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, making it a perfect time to churn out army-themed plays that reflect on its history. Checkpoint Theatre has started the ball rolling with FRAGO, which may use the image of the Armed Forces, but is an altogether quite different kettle of fish.
FRAGO centres on an armoured infantry platoon returning for reservist as they prepare and go through the last high-key event slated for their unit – ATEC. Each of these NS men is on the cusp of turning 30 – a milestone age where they’re expected to start ‘adulting’ and face the responsibilities of family as full grown men.
FRAGO has a staggeringly simple plot. The only thing driving the action forward is the looming H-hour for ATEC to begin, and the ensuing missions. Yet, FRAGO skips past dramatizing the action itself, instead choosing to zoom in on the quiet moments in between. The digging of shellscrapes and firefights are relegated to stylized sequences amidst the conversations, which take centrestage and provide far more drama than the actual ‘chiongsua-ing’.
Playwright Lucas Ho has a keen eye and ear for the normalities and relatable moments in everyday conversation, and each scene feels so natural that they could well have been directly lifted from an actual moment during reservist, equal parts humorous and realistic. As the men discuss, reforge bonds and reflect on the state of their life, whether it’s joining a church for the sake of getting their child into kindergarten or debating over the process of purchasing an HDB apartment, there’s a strange sense of loss in the air.
Against a backdrop of sombre music, including a bittersweet cover of ‘Purple Light’ by local band [.gif], FRAGO transforms these innocent conversations about daily life into a swansong of youth, a slow march towards the inevitability of age. FRAGO is a sobering snapshot of men realizing that gone are the simplicities of simply waking up and following orders as an NSF, waiting to book out every weekend just to ‘see [my] girlfriend’. Instead, the thirties bring with them further complications and new routes to navigate, different battles to fight, and some surprising changes of heart and character.
In an interesting reversal of roles, platoon playboy LCP (NS) Yun Tian De (Derrick Tay) gives the reliable LCP (NS) Sam Phua (Chong Woon Yong) a lecture on faithfulness while sitting in a shellscrape. LTA (NS) Lawrence Tan (Adib Kosnan) is convinced by LTC Bobby Wong (Timothy Nga, in a role that’s humourous insofar that it’s such a pitch perfect portrayal) that he could well have signed on after his NSF days, leading him to wonder how differently his life could have turned out.
Besides the reservist men, Ho doesn’t forget his women, and Jo Tan is perhaps given the juiciest and most sympathetic role of all as 1WO Winnie Low, who ‘signs on for the money’. In what is perhaps the most memorable conversation in the play, 3SG (NS) David Chua (Alfred Loh) and Winnie share a moment reminiscing the unit’s NSF days, and Chua indicates that she could have had a life outside the army. Jo (as Winnie) can only express a face that displayed a lethal combination of regret and acceptance of this fact, knowing that she signed on out of necessity and the realization that even the army won’t take care of her forever.
FRAGO ultimately captures a crucial moment in every man’s life, a time where change is the only constant, and is a rare play that dares to dive deep into the condition of the Singaporean male. Lucas Ho has cleverly identified in-camp training as a kind of liminal space distant enough from the real world to serve as fertile ground for reflection during the brief respites, and through FRAGO, amplifies the uncertainties of growing up and moving into a new phase of life. The reassuring thing of course, is that one is never alone in all of this – it’s the shared fate of just about every Singaporean son as they mature and truly become adult men.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre
Performance attended on 13/7/17.
FRAGO (Advisory 16) plays at the Drama Centre Black Box from 13th – 23rd July in English and Mandarin with English surtitles. Tickets available from SISTIC