All choked up over The Haque Collective’s debut production.
2019 has very much been a year of theatre that’s been about highlighting women and women’s issues, from the #MeToo movement and showcasing more female voices on stage. With The Haque Collective’s debut production, the new theatre group heralds yet another facet of the female psyche: the irredeemable mean girl.
Directed by Kamil Haque and written by James Thoo, The Jugular Vein follows 35 year old Grace (Stephanie Bovis), celebrating her bachelorette party with best friends Melissa (Aiswarya Nair) and Kat (Nadia Dayan) just before her umpteenth marriage. When uninvited friend Ginger (Jolene Wong) arrives on the scene unexpectedly, they learn that their spouses may or may not have died in a freak natural disaster, prompting the four to sit, wait, and wonder what their lives might be like as potential widows. It’s not long before all four begin to niggle at each other however, and old wounds and pre-existing cracks began to split wide open, as each of these ladies go at each other’s throats and discover they may not like each other so much after all.
James Thoo’s script is a valiant attempt for a first time playwright, but feels as if it requires far more thought and development to truly find success. As written in his playwright’s message, one of Thoo’s primary aims with his script was to examine the polite masks we put on in public and the repressed monsters hidden behind them in private. With The Jugular Vein, the problem lies in the fact that pretty much this entire dark side is revealed right from the get go, with Grace clearly establishing herself as a sociopathic, stone cold bitch with little care for anyone else but herself.
Stephanie Bovis plays this role of a queen bee rather well, using just the right aloof, snide-filled tone when beating down her companions, every smile she flashes armed with a dagger within. Unfortunately, this ends up being essentially her entire character, with little to no development afforded to her throughout the play. There is almost nothing to redeem her actions and devil may care attitude at all, often expressing a death wish for her husband and no backstory that can justify a sympathetic response to any of her actions, be it a tragic past or logical reason for her acting out.
As for the rest of her coven, second-in-charge Melissa is filled with an undeniable acidity while Kat, the most tolerable of the bunch, simply tags along for the ride. While both Aiswarya Nair and Nadia Dayan try their best to work with each character, the primary pitfall they both fall into is being defined either by their role as a wife, or by their anger at their husbands and friends. Essentially, neither of them are given compelling characters, and even in their respective ‘crises’, we cannot feel an ounce of respect or sympathy for them. Outsider Ginger is meant to be a foil to all of this toxicity and in-fighting, but ends up the most weakly written character of all, thinly reduced to a simpering nerd with a love for obscure references, and not much else.
The thing about The Jugular Vein is that it feels as if it should be funny, with a few choice one-liners and unique metaphors and references that by all means should lead to a guffaw or two. But in the play’s own words, it has a ‘comic timing like leprosy’, and it consistently misses the beat on finding just the right moment of each potentially devastating line. Not only does this result in a loss of humour – there are key moments such as Ginger’s eventual snap not having enough fizzle in its delivery, or a skirmish between Melissa and Kat that is obviously choreographed, neither woman showing any thrust in their body or intent to actually attack the other, that cause these scenes to lose their impact entirely.
Problematic portrayal of women and weak characterisation aside, The Jugular Vein lacks sufficient stakes to consider itself even vaguely ‘dark’. These are women dealing with cheating, alcoholic husbands, which can be a distressing topic. But these are reduced to offhand remarks, depriving them of emotional importance to these women. In fact, the women even end up fantasising about superstar widows they would model themselves after should they end up bereaved. All four of them, who we should care about over the course of the play, never face any immediate danger, be it physical or reputation-wise, as their only circle of friends seems to be themselves – and god knows they’re already well aware of how screwed over each one of them are with nothing to lose. There is no reason we should feel any tension whatsoever over the course of the play.
As a new theatre company attempting to break into the local scene, it’s nice to see that The Haque Collective is trying to introduce new actors and new scripts into the ecosystem. There certainly is potential in their work as a new collective, and as their theatrical debut, there are plenty of lessons to be learnt from The Jugular Vein, requiring more development both as a script and in terms of its direction. Hopefully in their sophomore production and beyond, these problems right themselves, and stronger work from them is still to come.
Performance attended 19/9/19
The Jugular Vein played from 19th to 22nd September 2019 at Centre 42.