Death and loss have been strongly recurring themes at this year's M1 Chinese Theatre Festival, beginning with Koh Choon Eiow's Chronology On Death, where two brothers must decide how and where to bury their father's body, and concluding with the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's The Last Supper, a blackly and bleakly comic sparring session between a mother and son who have, separately, decided to commit suicide.
They meet for dinner at the mother's home, formerly her father's, a cluttered, lived-in wedge of an apartment as trapped in the past as its inhabitants and full of tiny details that transport the viewer back 20 years: the Doraemon stickers pasted on the side of a grimy shelf, capturing remnants of a childhood lost; the chunky computer that has not been replaced beyond its lease of life.
Guo Xiong (Lau Shau Ching) is visiting for dinner. He is recently unemployed, freshly dumped by his girlfriend, and restless and uncomfortable. His fussing, doting mother (Lui Si Lan, touchingly naive) does what Cantonese mothers do best - whip out the pork-and-carrot soup for the soul. Their interactions are overly cordial, almost terse, with the don't-nag-me dynamic of a mother and son long estranged but deeply fond of each other. As they talk of girlfriends, home renovations and jobs, deeper and darker secrets from their personal histories begin to emerge - revealing two victims of abuse trapped in a system they never asked for, and hemmed in by picking the wrong relationships and the wrong people to admire and love.
With subject matter as rock-bottom gloomy as a double suicide, this award-winning naturalist production, written by Hong Kong playwright Matthew Cheng in 2011, often dangles on the edge of becoming a full-blown Cantonese soap, but is redeemed by some truly excellent performances and its undercurrent of dark, dry and self-deprecating humour.
The play suffers somewhat from compressing dozens of personal problems and lengthy back stories into two hours. Their circumstances, while believable and true to life, sometimes feel exaggerated from the sheer and unceasing quantity of what is revealed.
At the same time, there is something particularly affecting about their circuitous, repetitious arguments. Both mother and son bicker and pick at each other the way people who know each other extraordinarily well fall into the same emotional traps. They know which buttons to push and how to accept blame such that self-loathing and self-righteousness become one - they blame themselves for their poor life choices, but gain some sort of masochistic personal satisfaction from doing so.
Singapore has often been compared with urban, tightly packed Hong Kong, and in one poetic tangent, Guo Xiong contemplates Hong Kong's night-time cityscape, aglow with lights and beautiful to behold. "Hong Kong wouldn't change with one less lamp," he says quietly. In driven, dynamic Singapore, full of pin-pricks of light, those deprived of upward mobility and straitjacketed by socio-economic circumstance will identify with his sentiments and the the swirl of similar problems: domestic abuse, a crushing mortgage, gambling debt.
Cheng parts with the audience on an ambiguous note, but leaves us clues that life is worth living. The mother, almost willing to let her life go, can't stand to see a photograph of a her son ripped in half, revealing a fierce attachment to what is real and what is alive.
At the heart of the play are a mother and son trying to make peace with each other, and over a long, exhausting dinner, it seems that they might just be able to build a bridge over their past.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
THE LAST SUPPER
Where: Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
When: Fri (Jul 31) and Sat (Aug 1) at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 3pm
Admission: $38 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
Info: Advisory 16 for some mature content and coarse language. Performed in Cantonese with Chinese and English surtitles