It’s morality versus materialism in this debut production by Singapore’s first eco-theatre company.
Raising a child is hard – not only does it incur tremendous financial strain, but children are also incredibly vulnerable and susceptible to the elements, where one wrong move could result in infant death. With so much stress incurred, it’s no wonder that a child’s birth also has immense effects on a couple’s relationship, and makes for a prime candidate for drama.
This is explored in German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 1974 play The Nest, which receives a new staging this August by new theatre company Rainshadow Studios. Directed by Yale-NUS Lecturer of Theatre Jonathan Vandenberg, The Nest follows couple Kurt (Te Hao Boon) and Martha (Ethel Yap) who’re expecting their first child. Both Kurt and Martha want to give him only the best, and all the comforts and joys within their power. But amidst a bad economy, blue collar worker Kurt forces himself to work overtime and extra shifts to meet the exorbitant costs. When an opportunity to do some shady business and earn a little extra money from shady business, little does Kurt know that it’s about to put his entire family at risk.
Playing at 42 Waterloo Street’s black box space, the show is pared down and minimalist, with Rainshadow Studios artistic director Elizabeth Mak on lighting and set design. Lighting for the most part is naturalistic and gives the space a sense of the domestic, while the couple’s home itself is represented by select furniture demarcating parts of the apartment – a plant for the garden, chairs for the living room, and a blue blanket for the bedroom, and later doubles as a watering hole. There is an intimacy to how close audience members are to the two actors, and we feel as if we are taking a peek into the personal lives of two individuals. Slightly scratchy Chinese songs from the 60s and 70s play over the sound system, and place us firmly in an earlier era, even if the language of the script feels more Western than Singaporean.
The Nest features a relatively simple storyline that has a forward momentum that keeps us interested in seeing what happens next. Right from the beginning, the fact that there’s a baby on the way is contrasted with a degree of insecurity from Kurt as he questions how Martha could love a man like him, foreshadowing the marital problems they’ll face later on in the play. The hairline cracks of impending disaster also begin to form when the two of them discuss the financial strain of having a baby, with Martha systematically listing out one expensive item after another they’ll need, to which Kurt apprehensively agrees to, knowing that he’ll be bearing the brunt of breadwinning. When Kurt is overworked and even begins to have nightmares of it, Martha unsympathetically tells him to go back to sleep.
Of course, these initial fractures eventually give way to full blown disaster, when capitalism and the need to earn more just to survive causes Kurt to forget logic and no longer question the hidden intents of others around him. When he unwittingly harms the environment for a little extra income (this is heavily emphasised, with a particularly repetitive, long-drawn out scene), the newborn baby is placed in critical condition, and his relationship with Martha completely falls apart.
Both Ethel and Hao Boon’s performances feel sincere and genuine, making us feel invested in the eventual outcome of this couple. Ethel is confident and assured in her performance, and is especially terrifying with a complete 180 degree change in character. When she goes from sweet-natured, loving wife to a voice dripping with pure, toxic hatred for her once ‘Kurty-Wurty’, she is filled with both malice and unimaginable pain. Te Hao Boon on the other hand, feels hapless and pitiful as Kurt accedes to his wife’s every demand, cowering from her yelling and accused of being a ‘dancing monkey’, agreeing on the outside but almost defeated and constantly worried on the inside. Hao Boon is also given an especially harrowing scene as Kurt attempts suicide from guilt and despair, their face a picture of devastation as they dip a foot into polluted waters, completely vulnerable and afraid when stripped down to just their underwear, and shivering with cold after pouring a literal basin of water over them. Director Jonathan Vandenberg shows his attention to detail with how both Ethel and Hao Boon are always in character both while onstage and even when moving offstage, carrying themselves with a certain gravity and seriousness that adds weight to the thematically heavy work.
With all of this build-up though, the ending of The Nest feels somewhat muted, as the couple ‘resolve’ their issues and reluctantly decide to do the moral thing by reporting Kurt’s boss to the police. It’s a narratively-heavy segment of the show that feels especially long given it’s the denouement, and the sluggish nature dragged out an already slow-paced show with a relatively straightforward plot.
Still, The Nest gets its point across of the ever-present conflict between doing the right thing and calling out wrongs, or forgoing it for the promise of a better life and the stability of the status quo. This is a play that shows how it is all too easy to turn a blind eye to the problems of the world, and with Rainshadow Studios’ mission of creating art that confronts our relationship to the climate crisis, gets its audiences to think about how their own actions may have a ripple effect, and to open their eyes and change before it comes back to bite you.
The Nest plays from 4th to 21st August 2022 at 42 Waterloo Street. Tickets available from Peatix
Find out more about Rainshadow Studios’ upcoming project, Scarce City on their website here