REVIEW / THEATRE
The Arts House Play Den
Wife #11 is a disconcertingly endearing portrayal of a family structure that thankfully no longer endures.
The two-man play, written by Desmond Sim and directed by him in this restaging, presents the evolving relationship between an old-school Chinese businessman (Sonny Lim) and his much younger, convent-educated wife (Amy Cheng), through the letters they exchange every six months. When they marry just after World War II, the husband holds much more financial and emotional power, but by the time the Women's Charter comes into effect in 1960, making polygamy illegal, their relationship is that of affectionate equals.
Wife #11 was first staged as a joint project between Action Theatre and the National Heritage Board in 2009. Tan Kheng Hua won a Life Theatre Award for the female role.
The female role is indeed the better half of the script. Cheng immediately wins sympathy as a woman with aspirations who is forced to accept less than ideal marital circumstances - an extravagance of "older sisters" or co-wives - and becomes the dominant force in her household.
Lim's character, however, is weakened by the plot's insistence that his every vice must be balanced by virtue. If he has many wives, it is because he has Messianic impulses to save unhappy women or is seeking new business partnerships to strengthen the family.
It would have been more powerful to see the relationship between a strong-minded, well-educated woman and an ordinary man who takes full advantage of the law and his own wealth to add to his harem.
Other adjustments that might have made for a stronger narrative: making more of throw-away lines that allude to the wife's illegitimate child as well as expanding on the influence of the eldest co-wife in transforming Cheng's character from headstrong, self-absorbed young woman to asset to the marital household.
The staging sets the actors in separate corners, each surrounded by personal objects. While one actor acts out the contents of a letter, it is fascinating to watch the opposite party reading and reacting. The time lag between marital communications adds poignancy to the interaction between actors and reminds the viewers that relationships take time to grow.
It is odd, though, that the dark space separating the couple remains even as they seemingly grow closer over the years. It is only bridged in the final scenes, when they seem most at odds.
Still, such dissatisfying notes are secondary to the charm of the back-and-forth, which plays out nicely in the intimate space of the Play Den.
Sim is good at bringing out the significance of seemingly unimportant everyday actions such as a child's refusal to eat what her father does in Drunken Prawns (1994) or a father's failure to teach his motherless son how to cook a dish in Perfecting Pratas (2010).
In Wife #11, household gossip and news eventually create a structure of trust between an oddly matched couple. It reminds the audience that once upon a time, we believed love began with two parties simply fulfilling their duties to each other.
And that it also ended there.