The first of two plays staged under Drama Box’s Blanc Space playwriting incubation series this year (and presented under their New Play Season 2011), the story behind The Jade Bangle is epic, spanning three generations of women; stretching across China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore; while touching on hard-hitting issues like gambling, opium addiction, class division, and the diaspora. The play itself, however, doesn’t quite get there.
It’s playwright Ng Sin Yue comeback of sorts, written after 1992’s My Mother’s Chest, which, according to some, was a whopper of a monologue. While I’m not in a position to compare, I wouldn’t discount the fact that after nearly two decades of inactivity, Ng was surely bursting at the seams with stuff to say.
A senile mother continuously bugs her two daughters about recovering a certain jade bangle heirloom that was apparently kept by her recently deceased sister-in-law.
And so begins a tale in the vein of The Little Nyonya. As the three protagonists grapple with daily life, we’re also introduced to a back story of the family’s tragic roots. The mother, a poor immigrant from China, finding herself in a women’s shelter in Singapore. And by extension, the two daughters have had to live less-than-comfortable lives. Realism is interspersed with some fine Cantonese opera courtesy of Cultural Medallion recipient Lou Mee Wah’s piercingly clear voice.
Theatre vet Lok Meng Chue makes her Chinese theatre debut as the irascible mother, imbuing her character with a painful helplessness. Ling Poh Foong livens up the room as the inquisitive, spunky, book-loving younger daughter, a nurse with grand plans involving laksa. It’s in sharp contrast (perhaps way too much) to the elder daughter, played by Sia Ee Mien, whose miserable life is, to sum it up, perfect Channel 8 drama fodder (married to a gambler/wifebeater with a mentally challenged child).
But there’s just way too much going on that at some point, it was somewhat confusing. Like its skeletal flat of a set, the play’s structure dangerously buckling under the weight of everything. Like the squeaking floors that sounded like the characters were walking on bubble wrap, it also distracted.
It would perhaps have served the piece better had director Danny Yeo shaped it more compactly. The most poignant moments for me, in fact, were ones soaked in silence – such as when one of the daughters drags/carries her mother across the room after the latter collapses. The excruciating slowness of the scene was heartbreaking, a burden in this mother-daughter relationship literally coming to life.
All these aside, I must point out that I watched it on the first night. But more than that, I must insist that it is an important piece. For all its flaws, its occasionally preachy tone and turn for the melodramatic, it is a sensitive work that highlights history’s nameless women, the unsung heroes, and becomes even more significant in a time when there is a palpable need to humanise the immigrant.
(The Jade Bangle runs until Sunday. Details here.)