The Studios 2018: A Good Death (Review)

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The hard truths of Faith Ng’s latest play handles mortality firmly and frankly, while still ending on an emotional sting. 

As much as we all know that death will come for us one day, it remains an immensely difficult and taboo topic to talk about. Imagine going through that everyday, as a palliative care doctor delicately navigating both the emotional and practical aspects that a passing brings with it. Playwright Faith Ng has boldly decided to tackle this heavy topic in her latest play A Good Death, kickstarting the Esplanade’s 2018 season of The Studios as Karen Tan takes to the stage as a palliative care doctor, her patients, and even her own family.

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Karen Tan is no stranger to monologues, and over the years, the veteran actress has become a master of the form, slipping in and out of various genders, ages and professions in a single movement. As the mostly stoic Dr Leong, she initially comes across as a good, neutral narrator, taking the audience through a day in her life at St Michael’s Hospice as she meets all manners of people facing the inevitable. Her mausoleum of stories allow us to meet characters from a talkative Hokkien-speaking man to a cheery ukulele-toting caregiver leading a group singing session. Karen has a presence that fills the entire space with her performance, and director Chen Yingxuan has managed to choreograph her movements such that one’s focus is constantly on Karen, with due attention given to audience members on any of the three sides at any time.

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From a glimpse into Dr Leong’s professional life, the play quickly reveals the more personal side of Dr Leong, as she struggles with her own home situation, with a dementia-ridden father and a frustrated brother. Here, perhaps Faith and Karen’s best work in the entire play is when we watch Dr Leong begin to doubt herself over the simple matter of buying dinner for her father. Breaking under the stress, she goes into a painfully relatable downward spiral as she babbles about feeling completely unready to handle her own parents’ deaths when they come, and the irony of that as a palliative care doctor. A Good Death isn’t without its share of gallows humour either though, and Faith does a fantastic job of writing Dr Leong’s overzealous, no-filter Peranakan mother, as she openly discusses her intended attire in the coffin.

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There are times one feels as if the professional and the personal lives of Dr Leong feel like separate and different plays, but perhaps this is reflective of the different masks and identities we put on depending on our environment, very rarely allowing our domestic storms to affect us at work. It is a disjoint that later on patches itself up nicely as Karen brings it all together in the hospice scenes towards the end, learning to find comfort in the shared grief between herself and her patients in frank, unpretentious conversations that deliver emotional gut punches with their sober discussion.

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Design-wise, Eucien Chia’s set is a monument in itself, its marble flooring reminiscent of a beautiful columbarium that brings to mind both the serenity of the place and weight of its function, complementing Karen’s performance for dramatic effect. Adrian Tan’s lighting allows scenes to shift between impressions of sun-dappled natural light and clinical white, giving Karen enough illumination to perform without being overshadowed by the set. Anthony Tan’s choice to dress Karen in a black, short sleeved pinstripe suit evokes the image of the funereal and professionalism with its colour and form, while also being functional and unobtrusive.

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Though visibly emotionally worn out by the end, Dr Leong still manages to put a smile on her face, determined to confidently carry on with life. A Good Death ends, surprisingly enough, with a birthday celebration. It’s plays like these that remind us how perhaps, in order to die a good death, what truly matters is that we live a good life the way we’d want it, marching boldly forward and with no fear, celebrating what joys we can while we still have time.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 29/3/18

A Good Death plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 29th March – 1st April. Tickets available from the Esplanade

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