Grandmother Tongue speaks from the heart

Tan Shou Chen (left) and Jalyn Han are convincing in their roles of grandson and grandmother.
Tan Shou Chen (left) and Jalyn Han are convincing in their roles of grandson and grandmother.PHOTO: 36 FRAMES, COURTESY OF WILD RICE

Grandmother Tongue, about an old woman who understands only Teochew, is a powerful story about alienation

REVIEW / THEATRE

GRANDMOTHER TONGUE

Wild Rice

Creative Cube, Lasalle College Of The Arts/ Last Saturday

Playwright and director Thomas Lim drew on his own experiences of reconnecting with his Teochew roots in Grandmother Tongue, presented by Wild Rice at its Singapore Theatre Festival.

A young man moves in with his 84-year-old grandmother, who speaks only Teochew, and realises the extent to which she is isolated from the world.

There are no movies or TV programmes the grandmother can understand on free-to-air channels. These broadcast mostly in English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin because of the official language policy.

Her English- or Mandarin- educated children and grandchildren find it difficult to communicate with her, as do community centre staff or service providers in hospitals.

In one powerful scene, she fails to get an MRT card top-up that senior citizens are entitled to, as the official letter was in English and translated for her too late.

The sold-out success of the play is based on its content and cast. Sets by CK Chia are minimal - an altar in the background, two chairs and a table - with scene changes effectively indicated by rearrangement of props and lighting design by Petrina Dawn Tan. An HDB flat becomes the exterior of a house ravaged by fire, a classroom or a hospital.

Rei Poh is brilliant in multiple turns as the late grandfather, a schoolmaster who cannot explain why a Teochew-speaking boy must learn Mandarin as his "mother tongue" and even a Filipino nurse who tends to the grandmother after a fall.

Tan Shou Chen is strong in his low-key role as the grandson. His job is to be the narrator and a foil to Jalyn Han's superb enactment of the grandmother.

Han never loses character, walking with splayed knees and feet turned out, stooping with the aid of a table. Her trembling legs - and The Make Up Room's make-up - are so convincing that there are head-turns when the actress, at least 30 years younger than the character she plays, bounds back into the performance space for a curtain call.

The grandmother is a type familiar to everyone in the audience. Giggles are audible as she fusses over her grandson or feeds him or battles him over wasting food.

There are sniffles when she prays to the family gods for the life and health of children who rarely visit; there are sobs when she quietly deteriorates into death.

Appropriate for a play decrying alienation through language, Grandmother Tongue is quite accessible.

Part of this is because the subtitles are in English and Chinese, but it is mostly because the play is not just the story of a linguistic minority.

It is the story of anyone lucky enough to grow old and therefore unlucky enough to no longer fit into the boxes a society requires to build its future.

It is commonly accepted that sacrifices were made by the pioneer generation to make Singapore what it is today. Grandmother Tongue shows one of those sacrificed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Speaking from the heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe