Arts Review Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Kwa Geok Choo by Toy Factory Productions

The history of Singapore as seen through the eyes of Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.

Everyone knows Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore who steered the nation from British colony to independent first world nation. But few know the story of his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, often shying away from the limelight, yet always by his side as an integral part of his life and career.

To shed light on Madam Kwa, local theatre company Toy Factory celebrates her life and times with a new play by Ovidia Yu, simply titled Kwa Geok Choo. Directed by Goh Boon Teck, the story of Madam Kwa begins from her school years at Raffles College, the tumultuous times spent bringing Singapore from third world to first with Lee Kuan Yew, and finally, her twilight years watching her grown children flourish.

Madam Kwa may be a mystery to most, but by the time one has finished watching this play, audience members will walk away with a fully-realised idea of the woman she was and the undeniable impact she had on Singapore society. While the Singapore Story has been told countless times in history books and social studies lessons, what makes this play stand out is Madam Kwa’s female perspective. As a woman who was there to witness the same integral eras as Lee Kuan Yew, her story becomes an equally worthy subject matter to view Singapore’s history through, while also offering additional commentary by way of her being a wife, mother, and woman in conservative Singaporean society.

The play opens with actress Tan Rui Shan entering as herself in white, as Madam Kwa’s speech encouraging women to vote for the PAP plays overhead. As we hear of how ‘our society is still built on the assumption that women are the social, political and economic inferiors of men’, we consider her position in the shadow of her husband, always behind-the-scenes, as Rui Shan dons a cheongsam, Madam Kwa’s dress of choice for most of her public appearances, finally bringing her to the forefront. The transformation continues with a wig styled in Madam Kwa’s signature hairstyle, as well as sharp, cat eye-shaped spectacles. On the physical side of things, Rui Shan looks the part, and gives off an air of youth and femininity in the pink and purple-checked cheongsam.

But beyond her appearance, there is a power that Rui Shan brings to the role, commanding the stage when she begins speaking as Madam Kwa, capturing her uniquely accented English, typical of the era, and suggesting an educated woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and gives the impression of a whip-smart modern woman for her time. She channels the essence and class of a well-brought up lady in her speech and mannerisms, resulting in a total transformation and full embodiment of the venerated Madam Kwa. As she tells her tale, all eyes are on Rui Shan, as she shares her version of Singapore history, with a tight script focused on keeping the momentum going.

We are left entranced by Rui Shan’s performance, as she takes us through the ever-evolving life of Madam Kwa. Beyond pure narration, Rui Shan taps into her emotions and bring out the very human reactions to the events surrounding Madam Kwa. In the early stages, her meet-cute with Lee Kuan Yew feels straight out of a rom-com, and over time, develops into an epic romance, with Rui Shan’s giddy smile projecting pure joy. There is genuine fear in her eyes and a quavering voice when she prays for the safety of her son walking home from school in the middle of a riot, while a flood of frustration is held back when she speaks to her husband about being in an ‘unequal partnership’ with him, sadness and anger and uncertainty ready to burst. These complicated emotions about her struggles are felt throughout the play, fuelled by witnessing the unfair treatment Madam Kwa experiences on account of her gender, such as almost unable to enter Cambridge, or being left out of the PAP’s secret meetings at Oxley Road, instead gathered with the other wives outside.

Viewing Madam Kwa as an underdog, embracing everything life throws at her with gusto then, makes rooting for her the default option. Spunky, intelligent and ever-supportive, Madam Kwa has essentially been immortalised by this script as a near-perfect figure who has made countless sacrifices for the betterment of her husband, family and nation. From giving up a potential high-flying career in the UK to return to Singapore, to juggling being a mother to her three children with the demands of being a lawyer and assisting her husband in his political ambitions, Madam Kwa is a wonder woman who can do it all.

With all the hard work, blood and tears shed in her youth, there is nothing but the utmost respect for Madam Kwa by the time we reach her final years, where Rui Shan has changed to a black floral cheongsam befitting her advanced age, the mood, and the reverence she has on the country. Even then, she cannot rest easy, with the play covering difficult subjects such as the death of Lee Hsien Loong’s first wife, to her regret over not being able to give her children a ‘normal’ life. It is only when she is forced to take a breather while recovering from a devastating stroke that she finally can appreciate the everything that the family has been building up, with trips to the art gallery or Botanic Gardens together with her husband, and him personally tending to her every need, repaying her for the long years of ‘unequal partnership’ with his love. When she eventually passes, it is a tragic moment, and it feels as if she has been honoured to her full capacity, in all the elegance and poise Rui Shan carries in her performance. It is in this moment that we can properly mourn Madam Kwa’s death, through the portrayal of her life well-lived and devoted to her husband, her children and the nation onstage.

Over the years, Rui Shan has played various roles, but to play Madam Kwa is by far the most challenging and daunting one she’s taken on yet. To play a historical figure, especially one as revered as Madam Kwa, can be nerve-wracking and all too easy to mess up. But coming into this role, Rui Shan has shown how prepared she was, and delivers on all fronts, not only capturing the very essence of Madam Kwa, but bringing her own energy to it as well, through Goh Boon Teck’s direction and Ovidia Yu’s script. In this performance, she imbues this stage version of Madam Kwa with life through poetic language and a can-do spirit that gives Madam Kwa a fire within that makes it plain to see how she has overcome the many obstacles thrown at her in life, and is testament to Rui Shan’s growth and emergence as a fully-formed actress in her own right.

While, a monologue-style show is best when all attention is focused on the speaker and her performance, Rui Shan is also supported by an ensemble (Edric Hsu, Wan Ahmad and Mitchell Fang) who play various supporting roles over the course of the show, from Madam Kwa’s children, to politicians both Singaporean and Malaysian. Of the three, it is Mitchell Fang who is given the biggest and most consistent role, occasionally playing Lee Kuan Yew himself and performing opposite Rui Shan as Madam Kwa. No matter how short his lines are, Mitchell manages to capture the essence and gravitas of the man each time he opens his mouth, getting the accent right from the first word and walking with an aura of authority and assertion. Even if he is not constantly interacting with Rui Shan, there is good onstage chemistry between them that makes their romance and eventual partnership as husband and wife believable.

However, the play is not without its flaws. Take for example the staging, where it seems there was pressure on Toy Factory’s part to ‘do justice’ to the Lee family and add on as much as they could, arranging onstage vintage items such as rotary telephones and typewriters as props. To add on to this callback to ‘simpler times’, the ensemble members are also tasked to operate OHPs that serve as the backdrop to the action, from using red liquid to showcase ‘blood’ from riots, to depicting Cambridge’s Bridge of Sighs on plastic film. The overall effect of these however, distracts from rather than enhances the play, often drawing our attention away from the words of Madam Kwa, and almost cheapens the entire production. There are also times the light from the OHPs shine directly into audience members’ eyes, temporarily blinding them for up to a few minutes.

The most glaring issue with the show is how the script ends on a meta-theatrical note that adds little to the story of Madam Kwa. In the final scene, Rui Shan removes her wig and glasses, and introduces herself by her real name, saying that we are ‘all Kwa Geok Choo’. In doing so, it is perhaps an attempt to make Madam Kwa more relatable and down-to-earth, and supposedly universalise her story, but this is honestly unnecessary after having already presented a powerful enough account of her life, and does more to destroy the good work that has been built up than add to it.

These flaws aside, no matter how much you knew about Madam Kwa prior to the show, by its end, the script has provided such a strong emotional angle to her that she becomes a three-dimensional character of her own right, out of the shadows of her husband to live and breathe as embodied by Tan Rui Shan onstage. From her role in creating the Women’s Charter, to drafting Lee Kuan Yew’s letters and the water agreement with Malaysia, to the tireless, unsung role she plays as a wife and mother, it is impossible to deny her importance in the shaping of the Singapore story. There is a humanity to the Lee family that Toy Factory highlights, containing the story of the PAP as underdogs fighting an oppressive British regime, a woman struggling against the odds and the cards fate has dealt her, and what it takes to build a family. Poetic, powerful and poignant, this is a worthy tribute and memorial to the late Madam Kwa, and a work that will leave you with newfound reverence for the Lee family.

Photo Credit: CRISPI

Kwa Geok Choo runs from 8th to 31st July 2022 at Victoria Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC

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