★☆☆☆☆ (Performance attended 16/11/19, 6pm)
An interesting site-specific concept gone awry with flat script, unintentional camp, and its inability to fully incorporate the site organically into the production.
When one thinks of a theatre, Punggol Beach isn’t exactly the first venue that comes to mind. With unstable, sandy ground, the sound of waves crashing over nearby rocks and limited lighting when night falls, the prospect of putting on a show there is almost a self-imposed challenge on the part of the production company to battle the elements.
In spite of these challenges though, Desert Wine Productions’ had the right idea in mind in conceptualising their new production Beach Burden Bliss. Written, produced and directed by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, the double bill comprises of two short plays – Burden and Bliss, with the former ringing particularly poignant as a play about the Sook Ching massacre of World War II, performed on the actual massacre site itself on Punggol Beach.
The set-up for Beach Burden Bliss is decidedly guerrilla in nature, performed in a makeshift space demarcated by a selection of mismatched sheets and lengths of cloth hung up on clotheslines. The backstage area is literally under a convenient tree behind the audience, who are seated on IKEA chairs and stools on the sand, facing a view of the oil rigs out on the sea, the tides breaking into waves over the protruding rocks just beyond the sand. It’s an interesting, atmospheric set-up, and one that might have made for a good backdrop if the elements were better incorporated into the play itself, rather than simply utilised for its historic significance.
Burden starts off on a promising note as it opens with a ukulele performance from a young girl, her voice confident, sad and smooth. What follows then, is a dramatic re-presentation of real life World War II survivor Chan Cheng Yean, who miraculously escaped a Sook Ching shooting with only a bullet to the knee. While the subject matter has potential to be mined for deeper themes and issues, the play itself is rather weakly scripted and flat, following Chan as he finds solace in an Indian family who takes him in for a night, but leaving little opportunity to find emotional resonance in the audience.
There are flashes of what the play could have been, with moments where Chan and the various family members connect over their shared losses and suffering during the war. Because these moments are not given enough time to develop, the connection is gained and broken quickly as the play progresses, with the family eventually releases him once again for their own safety. After he leaves, he meets a Japanese soldier, who is presented as feeling guilt over his involvement in the massacre, and having helped Chan escape. While this ties into Burden’s primary message of how war brings universal pain to all involved, neither the scene with the family nor the scene with the Japanese soldier are impactful or clear enough to get that point across, leaving Burden feeling unsatisfactory in its presentation of loss despite its potential being played at such a symbolic space.
In Bliss, the entire mood shifts from war drama to contemporary family comedy, as an extensive family gathers at a restaurant on Punggol Beach. Arranging the tables and chairs Last Supper style, we’re introduced to a medley of characters conforming to typical sitcom archetypes, from the a successful businessman glued to his phone, a struggling musician, a couple on the verge of a divorce and more. Each character is represented by a personality quirk, and the ironically titled Bliss quickly reveals that almost every one of these characters are inherently unhappy.
While Bliss does attempt to mine its characters for humour, much of these are lost in the overreliance on the same character traits to produce comedy time and time again, making it feel tired when the ditzy mother forgets something yet again, and not given much more to work with beyond that. One can see the shape of an idea in Bliss, with characters that could be more interesting if they had stronger backstories, but dividing our attention across so many of them in such a short time only serves to dilute their endearment to us. Being so reliant on familiar stereotypes leaves Bliss as a mishmash of characters from other sitcoms, ultimately giving us a play that doesn’t offer anything new or exciting in its presentation.
Even with a makeshift, guerrilla theatre space, in all honesty, Beach Burden Bliss has the right idea in mind, and was a show that could have been so much more. It’s always encouraging to see new talent onstage performing new work, but one imagines that this goal would have been better achieved if Desert Wine had chosen to dedicate more time to development instead. Splitting the runtime between both stories left neither one feeling complete, and leaves Beach Burden Bliss as a production that seems like it was left beached in its development.
Beach Burden Bliss played on 16th November 2019 at Punggol Beach.