Play: Mergers And Accusations (first staged in July 1993)
Playwright: Eleanor Wong
What it is about:Lawyer Ellen Toh is in a bit of a bind - she is a closeted lesbian, attracted to women, but forced to put on a heterosexual front in her high-powered workplace. She marries her best friend and colleague, Jonathan, only to have her marriage unravel when she meets Lesley, a rising young lawyer who is startlingly candid about her sexuality. This play, which became the first part of Wong's Invitation To Treat trilogy, picks apart the knotty affairs of the heart.
Actress Tan Kheng Hua is a straight woman, married to a straight man - fellow theatre practitioner Lim Yu Beng.
But Tan, 51, has defined one of the most iconic characters in Singapore theatre history - the incisive and intelligent lawyer Ellen Toh. E.T. (as her loved ones call her) is arguably lawyer-playwright Eleanor Wong's finest creation, a complex character who has continued to grow over 20 years, shedding lovers and gaining layers along the way.
Tan, who originated the role in 1993, tells Life! there was something magical about the play's first cold read, in which actors read out their parts with little or no preparation. Director Ong Keng Sen swept into TheatreWorks' former premises at Fort Canning Centre where several actors, including Tan, had been rehearsing for another play.
"It was all very sudden," she recalls, "Keng Sen already knew who should read what - he was obviously quite excited... We had never seen this play before, we did not even know what it was about. That was when the magic hit me. It was one of those love-at-first-sight sort of feeling."
She adds that "all of us were bawling so hard" by the end of the read.
Wong, 52, an associate professor of law at the National University of Singapore, felt she had been "rehearsing to write Mergers for a long time". She had entered TheatreWorks' Writers Lab in the early 1990s with another script in mind.
"But there was this other piece that just needed to come out," she recalls. She sat down and wrote Mergers, almost breathlessly, over two weekends.
The 1990s were some of the most fertile years for original Singaporean writing for the stage, with the emergence of the likes of Wong, Ovidia Yu, Desmond Sim, Tan Tarn How and Haresh Sharma. Through their varied interests - be it sexual, political or social identity - they interrogated the Singapore soul.
Theatre companies such as The Necessary Stage and TheatreWorks, set up in the 1980s, were starting to come of age and cultivating and producing home- grown works.
Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong said in a 1993 interview with The Straits Times, a month after Mergers' premiere: "Only five years ago, we were lucky if we had two locally written plays a year. Now, we have 10, 12 plays a year... The blossoming of local playwriting manifested itself in Eleanor Wong's Mergers And Accusations. The theme was handled with a lot of sophistication and maturity. The writer also showed a greater awareness of craft than I'd ever seen in local plays."
For Wong, then working in a New York-based law firm, that period was also a time of reckoning.
"The play had been knocking for a long time, but perhaps I didn't see it or couldn't understand it," she says. "That whole idea of being true to oneself in terms of gender identity was in the back of my mind but hadn't come out in a piece. Maybe I had been wanting to talk about this but in the context of that time, perhaps I was cowardly or not sure how it would be accepted if one were to talk about this sort of issue openly."
Just a year before Mergers was staged, 12 men were arrested in a police raid on a gay cruising area. Homosexuality was largely a taboo subject. The Straits Times' review of Mergers applauded the "courage" of the playwright and directors (the now Britain-based Rani Moorthy co-directed with Ong) for their "full- frontal treatment of lesbianism".
Reviewer Ng Sek Chow wrote: "One must salute Eleanor Wong for addressing an issue which has been locked up long enough. Thanks for burning down part of the closet door, Eleanor."
But what also stands out about Mergers and the trilogy - the other two plays would be written and staged over the next decade - is how matter-of- factly they deal with matters of the heart. They are at once sensitive to the minority gay community, but also transcend that marginalisation by tackling these relationships on the same plane as any other. The characters deal with commitment, heartbreak, stubbornness, extended families and differences in beliefs as they would in any relationship.
Director Ong calls Mergers "transcendental", a play he feels would have resonance anywhere in the world, leavened by the authenticity of the legal environment in which it is set. He adds: "For me, it's not just a play about a gay woman, but it's a play about friendships and what happens when it comes to a certain crisis. And in this particular situation, it was a crisis specific to Ellen's sexuality."
While there is no specific story that inspired her to create Ellen Toh, Wong had observed closely the people around her and the work environment she was in.
"There are persons that I have in mind," she says with a laugh, "but in a funny kind of way, every one of these characters is me. And I suppose that's where the truth of it comes in - I do live these characters in some way or another.
"Ellen is, in many parts, me. And Jonathan is, in many parts, me as well. There's something strange going on when we write. For characters to genuinely resonate with me, I have to deposit some part of myself in the character."
Tan's real-life husband, Lim, played Ellen's husband Jonathan in the original production of Mergers. The chemistry between the two actors was so palpable, Wong says, it made her hair stand.
The next instalment in the trilogy, Wills & Secession (1995), revolves around Ellen's fraught relationship with her sister. Claire Wong, who acted in it, later became the first director to tackle the entire trilogy. It was first presented as a whole by Wild Rice in 2003, with Mergers and Wills as a double-bill and the newly written Jointly & Severably as its conclusion.
Claire Wong, who incidentally also comes from a legal background, tells Life!: "These were characters we hadn't seen before and it was nice to have such an in-depth opportunity to look at how this woman is dealing with her life and the realities of community, moving from her personal-professional life in the first play to family life (in the second) and then the larger sense of her network.
"It was nice in the third piece to see that she had support among the gay community who are also in different stages of love and committed relationships."
Lead actress Tan echoes her collaborators' sentiments about the plays' universal reach: "I understood the fears E.T. had, the ways in which she lied to herself, in which she couldn't lie to herself anymore, wanting to conform and yet being different - I think those were all very beautifully expressed."
She adds with a grin: "I was then, and today, a very straight woman. I connected then, as I did with the second and third play, with E.T.'s humanity."
Toy Factory Productions staged a Mandarin version of Mergers and Wills in 2004, featuring actresses Leanne Ong and Karen Tan.
Next year, the trilogy will be part of the Esplanade's bumper Studios season from April to May, in which 50 Singapore plays will either be revived as full productions or excerpts presented through dramatised readings. And Tan will be stepping into Ellen Toh's shoes once again.
She says: "I've grown up and grown old with her, and until today, she's never left me... My heart still flutters with excitement knowing that she's going to be alive again and that I'm going to be right there with her."
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
Invitation To Treat: The Eleanor Wong Trilogy, which includes Mergers And Accusations, is available at public libraries and from First Fruits Publications for $25.
The next instalment of this 15-part series will be published at the end of next month.