Review: Fourteen by SPLIT Theatrical Productions

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An absurd look at the perils of being a teenager today. 

Adolescence can be a trying time. Fourteen director Darryl Lim knows best – he’s an educator, and faces teenagers on a daily basis, going through a roller coaster of emotions as he observes them interact during recess, or the way the staff approach and address them.

In Fourteen, these observations are brought to light in absurd extremes. We follow Fadhil Daud as he plays a fourteen year old – that awkward, no man’s land age on the last edges of childhood but nowhere close to adulthood. As he goes through school, we bear witness to the way he treats those around him, and the way the school structure imposes rules, morality and mindsets upon the student body.

Besides Fadhil, the ensemble cast (comprising Theresa Chen, Mabel Yeo, Ng Xue Ying and Elizabeth Samosir) wear a uniform set of clothes, all bearing and wielding long red rulers, perhaps used as a yardstick to represent how adults measure up students today. Familiar sights are given a humorous twist, such as how school bullying is set to Pokemon battle themes and students worship the principal like a Chinese Empress dowager. But even amidst these twisted elements, Fourteen also highlights and exposes the absurdities of existing rituals, from how students corrupt the school song during assembly, to how teachers treat ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ like a mantra, while spewing other Bible verses that lose their meaning when used with the wrong intent, highlighting (Christian) schools’ emphasis on rigid morality and imposing hard and fast mindsets into its student body.

While one does get a general sense of how Fourteen attempts to question the structures we have put in place in schools and around us, this is a work that still requires further development to become more cohesive and engaging. There is a wealth of interesting interactions seen here, from the way perversions and sexual desire is infantilised through teenage lingo, to repressed teachers using childhood games and their imagination in an attempt to escape from the bureaucratic system however momentarily, bringing up the general sense of an overarching frustration of being trapped in these structures and systems, and how students growing up into the system naturally become indoctrinated into it. Other ideas, such as when audience members join in a game of Pepsi Cola 123 onstage, show potential, but ultimately still need a stronger tie in to the performance’s main themes and a clearer structure.

One wishes that the ensemble had focused on developing stronger chemistry with each other, which might have allowed us to better believe the inter-student relationships or teacher-student hierarchy. But more importantly, one wonders about the significance behind creating Fourteen, beyond an extreme, dramatic interpretation at the secondary school landscape today, and is left unclear of its intentions and stance on how or what it aims to add to the ongoing conversation about education and adolescence today. Perhaps if given more time, Darryl could have pushed it to even greater limits with a stronger focus on tying these images and scenes together to broadcast a more convincing intent and stronger message. For now though, Fourteen remains a fun alternative look at the gripes of school and the daily challenges, both from students and adults, of how to navigate the minefield of adolescence.

Performance attended 9/6/18

Fourteen played at Centre 42 from 8th – 10th June.

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