Review: Grandmother Tongue by W!ld Rice

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We’ve got bad news for readers who haven’t secured a ticket to Grandmother Tongue: it’s completely sold out!

Having missed out on the first run of the show at last year’s Singapore Theatre Festival, we were ecstatic and brimming with excitement to check out the show that will be seeing full houses for 3 straight weeks. And we weren’t disappointed at all.

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Writer/director Thomas Lim possesses a rare gift of teasing out the extraordinary from the ordinary, a skill that displays itself in spades in Grandmother Tongue. Its characters are familiar, and if you’re a Singaporean of Chinese descent, likely people you’ve come into contact with at some point in your life. At the heart of Grandmother Tongue lies a simple story of a grandson attempting to take care of his grandmother. And for once, the main conflict in such a narrative lies not in the intergenerational gap, but in pitting a monolingual generation against an entire society that seems determined to wipe out a culture and leave them behind.

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This conflict comes out right from the start, as the show innocently opens with our three cast members translating basic words from Teochew to Mandarin to English. These eventually turn into basic phrases, and helpfully enough, the twin well-positioned walls on either side of the characters display surtitles in both English and Mandarin as necessary. At the same time, when the situation calls for it, the production playfully makes use of the surtitles as well to subvert their use as simple visual translations. When the eponymous grandmother declares that she is a Teochew person, the surtitles cheekily read instead that she is an uneducated woman who cannot speak Mandarin. Conversely, when her grandson declares the same, the surtitles instead qualify this statement by reading that he is instead an educated man of Chinese descent who speaks Singlish, as well as English and Mandarin, setting the tone for the play’s central message to show how efforts and campaigns to erode dialect have left those that speak only it marginalized and condemned.

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The use of surtitles is put to clever use again later on; halfway through a conversation between grandmother and grandson, they break the fourth wall and are made aware that there may be government officials’ eyes everywhere. They turn off the surtitles temporarily and launch into an exclusively Teochew dialogue, leaving the ‘potato eaters’ completely at a loss while those that understood Teochew laughing at each line, as they poked fun at the politics of language and the government’s hand in it all, highlighting the divisiveness of language and its power to exclude those who cannot comprehend it. With such political overtones in the script, it’s safe to say that Thomas Lim has cemented his place as a true blue W!ld Rice resident playwright.

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Clever theatre tricks aren’t the only thing that Grandmother Tongue has going for it. At its core, Grandmother Tongue is anchored by impeccable performances from its cast, and a deeply resonant story. Jalyn Han and Tan Shou Chen are a formidable onstage duo as grandmother and grandson Boon, their closeness evident not only in language but in performance and chemistry. As the audience’s entry point and de facto ‘protagonist’, Shou Chen’s portrayal of Boon is both cheeky and likeable in his earnest performance as he explains his grandmother’s habits and idiosyncrasies to the audience, including an amusing back and forth game of outwitting each other over the simple matter of keeping or throwing away leftover food. One feels an immense outpouring of familial love as he listens to her stories and helps her around with her day to day life, from finding Teochew songs for her to listen to and dance alongside with, to bringing her home after a fall. Even as CK Chia’s minimalist set highlights the gap between the two with half a vintage, marbled table and half a white, modern plastic table forming the entire dining table, there is a genuine connection between the two that manages to bridge boundaries and generational gaps.

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As for Jalyn Han, the middle aged veteran actress was completely transformed by Ashley Lim’s hair design and the Make Up Room’s make up to become the very image of an octogenarian grandmother, even donning a jade bangle on her arm and wearing a purple-printed, baggy blouse and pant set. Jalyn’s careful, deliberate movements, combined with a raspy voice and commitment to the belief that every scheme is a plot from higher powers to take more money from the public completed the look, performing the part to perfection. There is a natural sympathy that grandmother-type figures in plays evoke, and in her character’s increasing alienation from society, our heart went out completely to her, fearful that something would happen to her in her frailty. Petrina Dawn Tan’s lighting in particular helps contribute to this, whether it’s slowing down the dimming of the lights to simulate falling unconscious, or a faint glow in the distance Jalyn makes slow, measured steps across the stage to reach. At the same time, Jalyn spices her character up with a fiesty edge, a grandmother determined to get what she wants, whatever the cost, elevating her from more than just an endearing, sympathetic senior to one that we are actively rooting for in all her endeavours.

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Making up the final member of the trio is Rei Poh, who plays every single minor role in the play, from an MP who barely knows Mandarin promoting the Speak Mandarin Campaign, to Boon’s old discipline master in his SAP secondary school days, tying together each and every storyline. Despite only embodying each character briefly onstage, incredibly enough, Rei manages to flesh out and differentiate each and every one of them, bringing depth to his performances and infusing his performance with a life that takes these roles beyond simple stock characters. Appearing in flashbacks as Boon’s deceased grandfather for example, Rei displays visible distress and an inimitable sense of loss as he and Boon’s grandmother watch mysterious men in black set their old house ablaze, while he does a complete 180 degree turn as Boon’s overzealous uncle, who tries week upon week to (unsuccessfully) convert his mother to Christianity.

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Through Grandmother Tongue, Thomas Lim has crafted a simple story that unravels far deeper issues that lie beneath the surface of growing old and being left behind in the name of progress. Witty and endearing while quietly affecting in its depiction of familial bonds, Grandmother Tongue feels familiar, yet fresh and urgent at the same time, and even possesses the magic factor that manages to draw in audiences beyond the usual theatre going crowd. Grandmother Tongue sensitively and effectively mourns the loss of an entire culture and language, begging the question of why haven’t more efforts been made to preserve it, and audience members who managed to get tickets to this show can be assured that Grandmother Tongue is just as good as they say, and heralds a bright, promising future ahead for Thomas Lim. He’s slated to premiere a new play at the upcoming 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival by W!ld Rice, and we can’t wait to see how he follows up the success of his first play.

Photo Credit: W!ld Rice

Performance Attended 30/9/17 (Evening)

Grandmother Tongue will play at the SOTA Studio Theatre from 28th September – 21st October at the SOTA Studio Theatre, and will be performed in Teochew, Mandarin and English, with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets are completely SOLD OUT.

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