Arts Review Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Old Gaze by The Necessary Stage

Camp take on finding one’s place in a fast-changing world loses the plot.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Haresh Sharma)5
Script (Haresh Sharma)5
Performance (Hossan Leong, Kumar, Rody Vera, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Liow Shi Suen, Azura Farid and Medli Dorothea Loo)6
Lighting Design (Yo Shao Ann)6
Multimedia Design (Brian Gothong Tan)5
Set Design (Vincent Lim)5
Total32/60 (53%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Age is one of the most terrifying realities any queer person has to face. Growing old, one is forced to reflect on one’s own existence, unsure if they are still relevant, as they struggle to keep up with new terminology and stave off ghosts of the past. All while wondering: “what have I done with my life?”

In The Necessary Stage’s latest play, writer/director Haresh Sharma brings all the fears and skeletons out of the closet, with Old Gaze. A sequel to Mardi Gras (2003) and Top or Bottom? (2004), Old Gaze marks the closure to this queer trilogy, as it follows Faith (Hossan Leong) and Hope (Kumar) 20 years on, now an odd couple in an open relationship, living together in a dilapidated flat. Domestic bliss doesn’t last for long however, as an old friend sashays back into their lives, and chaos ensues.

Writing a sequel to a play 20 years on was never going to be an easy task. Owing to the temporal nature of theatre, and how the original two works have yet to receive recent restagings, the majority of Singaporeans are unlikely to have seen them, and Haresh has an uphill task of writing a play with characters he knows inside out, yet remain understandable and palatable to new audience members. To that end, Old Gaze doesn’t punish audience members with inside jokes or information – the characters and their relationship histories are very quickly established the moment they arrive onstage.

However, where Old Gaze falters most is direction – both literally, and in terms of its script being able to find a clear purpose. In many ways, Old Gaze feels like a blast from the past, in that it reads like a play from the ’90s uncertain of its place in the 2020s. For the most part, it seems intended to be done in an almost surreal sitcom style, with tongue-in-cheek innuendo and almost constant playful insults traded by the three protagonists. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it often feels like a chaotic mishmash of shallow queer humour and cheap puns for the heck of it, interchangeable and generic, rather than character-specific or cutting especially deep. There are only so many laughs one can milk out of inserting a double entendre before it gets old, along with awkward pauses and strange comic timing from almost all the actors, except Kumar and Siti K.

This problem also extends to the plot as well, a fever dream of dramaturgically messy events that follow one after the other. The play primarily focuses on Faith, and his increasing sense of alienation. This is triggered in multiple ways: his ex-lover Clement (Roddy Vera) suddenly coming back from the dead and asking him to come to Europe to escape the conservative hell of Singapore; Carina (Medli Dorothea Loo), an old friend’s transgender daughter and her non-binary partner Izz (Azura Farid) accusing him of not being sensitive enough with his language; and his own mother swooping back into his life, dredging up childhood trauma and re-opening old wounds. In all honesty, there is a good story brimming with potential here, if only Haresh was more willing to play it up when the time called for it.

Instead, this main plot is marred by a myriad of competing side stories, and Old Gaze is weighed down by all of them vying for attention and weight, desperately in need of a dramaturg to trim the fat and get to the point. Characters appear in drag and perform lip syncs to gay icons Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga, but with no actual purpose beyond drag for drag’s sake. A paranormal investigator becomes a spy working for the government, while Carina is upset with Izz for wanting to go overseas to study. That’s not all – Faith’s ex-lover is in a relationship with a married, high profile politician, while his old friend lies in an everlasting coma, uncertain when she’ll wake up. Suffice to say, it’s a lot, and having this many over the top ideas in one play creates an overload of hyperbole, making it difficult to shock or surprise with this desensitisation to camp.

One of the fundamental issues with Old Gaze is also the venue. Everything about the play itself seems to set itself up for a grungier, smaller venue, where the shorter distance between audience and actor creates greater intimacy, and the jokes are more likely to land. Vincent Lim’s simple set, as a result, seems to be dwarfed by the space, as much as it tries to build elements such as an elevated platform to create the illusion of size. Certainly, the sparseness of the set can be explained by the ramshackle state of Faith and Hope’s apartment, but seemingly basic things like arrangement of furniture somehow block Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia projected onto the walls. Even the multimedia itself features some odd choices, often videos recorded in black and white, sometimes repeated across both walls for no discernible reason.

When all is said and done, Old Gaze isn’t entirely flawed. Once again, TNS’ attempt at creative captioning, from playing with font and effects and size, gives the surtitles a life of their own, and should be the standard going forward. Given the high profile of the cast, and given what seems like the direction to deliberately overact, the actors work well to create a sense of unease and discomfort from the surreal nature of the play. The drag lip sync performances, though unnecessary, are done well, and are genuinely fun, if questionable. And most of all, a single standout scene sees Faith and Hope with Carina and Izz in matching pullovers, imagining what a ‘perfect’ modern queer family might look like, a fantasy that might well never happen in Singapore, or a form of escapism away from the hard truth.

If one probes hard enough, one could interpret Old Gaze’s reliance on humour as showing how all of Faith’s problems are ‘easily’ dismissed with humour or a catty comeback, as if afraid to address them head-on, at least until it becomes too much. In short – the older generation feels left behind as they watch the Zoomers settle in so comfortably to their identity, while nursing their own corrupted youth. They are confused over whether an orgy in a dark alley counts as pleasure or trauma, ultimately feeling as if they no longer belong, and desperately holding on to their past while they can, as evidenced from Faith’s insistence on wearing tight singlets and tiny shorts, even in his late 50s. As such, beneath all its flaws, Old Gaze has a poignant message about displacement and a search for somewhere to belong, in a country that pretends to accept you, but in fact, its policies seem to thwart your happiness at every turn, hitting especially hard for a generation that seems to have been abandoned by all.

Beyond the messy script and problematic direction, behind the lewd jokes and blue humour, there is a deep-seated sadness. Whether it’s a difficult breakup, or the realisation that one has achieved nothing of note in one’s life, what does the lonely old gay do when the illusions and delusions come crashing down, and they have to face harsh reality? At the end of Old Gaze, the answer seems to be to simply accept the truth, and learn to move on. And although what we have often doesn’t seem like enough, sometimes, we don’t need perfection – we just need a little love from the ones closest to us, and everything seems a little less terrible.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Old Gaze runs from 8th to 12th March 2023 at the Victoria Theatre. Tickets available here

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