Strong direction can’t patch the pre-existing holes in this dated look at lesbian relationships.
It’s June, Pride Month for most other countries, and the month of Pink Dot in Singapore, an event where the nation continues to push for ‘the freedom to love’. Existing as a queer person in Singapore remains unusual and generally undiscussed in public, and positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ people media generally remain rated R21 for homosexual content.
Considering all of that still happens in 2022, one can only imagine what it was like to exist as a queer adult in the 2000s, and the sheer amount of progress and unspoken issues those in support of the movement pushed to publicise over a decade ago. Such is the case for Ovidia Yu’s 2007 play Hitting (On) Women, which received a restaging by new theatre company A Mirage, and is chock full of anxiety to cram as many issues about existing as a queer person in Singapore as possible.
Directed by Victoria Chen, Hitting (On) Women is strung along by a plot where an unnamed queer Woman (Shannen Tan) grapples with the memory of her first girlfriend Karen (Elisha Beston) after learning of her death, 20 years after their breakup.
Over the brief course of the one hour play, Yu attempts not only to cover the the perils of women dating women (leading to some awkward comedy), a haphazard protest against the legal restrictions of being gay (oddly, covering Section 377A, which only applies to gay men), pass commentary on familial and societal discrimination (including a would-be monster-in-law), and to top it all off – grapple with abuse (both physical and emotional) in a queer relationship.
It’s a lot to handle, and though Hitting (On) Women wants to do so much, it is constantly dragged down by the weight of its own ambition, leading to what is essentially a messy script where characters are mere vehicles for issues and lack proper development and writing to truly feel for their plight. There remain far too many loose ends and sudden shifts in the writing that drag the entire performance down. These include logical flaws even the very premise itself, which sees Karen’s mother (in a voiceover) calling up Woman to attend Karen’s funeral in America – why even ask an ex from 20 years ago to do this, when Woman was never even close to Karen’s mother to begin with?
It is to director Victoria Chen and her cast’s credit then that they make the most of such a dated script that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do with itself. Playing at Projector X: Riverside as a form of pub theatre, there is a stripped down quality to this production, utilising only the pre-existing features of the space as part of the set. With the audience in the ‘middle’, Victoria tags various segments of the space to specific people and places in Woman’s memory – the bar is associated with her parents, while a photo booth reveals a past fling involved in rope play.
Throughout Hitting (On) Women, trauma seems to be the name of the game, as Woman attempts to make sense of all the aforementioned issues of being a lesbian in Singapore, as her imagined version of Karen taunts her, teases her, and above all, tries to keep her hold on Woman from beyond the grave. One of the biggest problems performers Shannen Tan and Elisha Beston have is a complete lack of chemistry between them, with little warmth or even the hint of having a romantic or sexual history with each other. Even when discussing their past, they behave like complete strangers, caught up in their own worlds when saying their lines rather than actually performing with each other.
Individually however, both leading women do fine. Shannen takes a while to find her footing, but eventually, establishes herself as a woman who is left a shell of her former self, more or less detached from reality or being able to really feel emotion any longer after the damage Karen has left on her, with nothing quite able to excite or move her any longer. There are several moments one sees a flash of fear across her eyes, almost giving in to a completely defeated spirit, and the temptation to end it once and for all.
Elisha Beston on the other hand, gives off the impression of a yoga teacher type, her lithe body and saccharine voice belying a more sinister, almost evil being, an exaggerated, monstrous version that exists in Woman’s memory. There is an almost threatening aura she gives off, though Elisha could also afford to work on her facial expressions, as well as committing more to showcasing a greater contrast when displaying the 180 degree change in physicality required of her character.
Of the three cast members, it is Kimberley Ng who emerges as a welcome surprise. Playing every single additional side character, from a vapid ex-schoolmate to a concerned professor, a simpering teenage date to a ditzy church counselor, Kimberley impresses with how she maintains her energy throughout the performance. Every character she plays feels distinct, not only in their costumes, but even in their physicality and voice, making each new role she appears in a refreshing, welcome addition to every scene.
As a whole, while it’s a respectable enough revival of Ovidia Yu’s script, there really are too many issues this play wants to cover that never gets the airtime it needs to really develop, beyond a cursory mention taking angry potshots at society (such as a clumsy metaphor comparing the queer community to the culling of crows). The abuse storyline, while important, also feels hastily shoved into the final quarter of the script for the sake of it, making Hitting (On) Women feel like a Frankenstein’s monster, forcing in the violent imagery without any other purpose than to beat down Woman even more.
shannen’s face after egtting boobs cupped, didnt understand what was happening? might be a personal thing –
Ultimately, what this results in is a play that wants audiences to root for its main character to escape the tentacles of abuse that haunt her well into her adulthood, but winds up more frustrating in its lack of focus, that does not allow us to feel any particular way towards any of these shallow characters designed only to push forth personal agendas, rather than fully fleshing them out. Sometimes, it’s just better to move on, forget about the past, and make space for new queer narratives to fill the space left behind.
Hitting (On) Women ran from 9th to 12th June 2022 at Projector X: Riverside. More information here