No real winners in power game

The cast includes (from far left) Shu Yi Ching, Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee (seated), Hang Qian Chou (foreground) and Timothy Wan.
The cast includes (from far left) Shu Yi Ching, Neo Hai Bin, Mia Chee (seated), Hang Qian Chou (foreground) and Timothy Wan.PHOTO: THE POND PHOTOGRAPHY

Four high school students surprise their lonely teacher Elena (Mia Chee) on her birthday. Armed with champagne, flowers and a liberal dose of sycophancy, they charm their way into her house with one goal - get her to hand over the key to the safe where their mathematics examination scripts are stored, so they can cheat. She refuses and what ensues is a cruel, long-drawn attempt to coerce her into changing her mind.

Dear Elena, Nine Years Theatre's Mandarin adaptation of Soviet writer Lyudmila Razumovskaya's Dear Elena Sergeevna, is a self-assured piece of work, benefiting from Nelson Chia's sharp direction and a generally strong cast.

Razumovskaya wrote the play in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was starting to crumble. This production, based on a translation by Tong Ning, reflects the cynicism of late Soviet society but remains relevant in today's materialistic world.

Elena, an idealist, represents the intelligensia of the 1960s. Through Chee's impresively controlled acting, her one outburst, so distinct from her mildness, makes you wonder what else she has repressed.

Elena's students despise the older generation's espousal of morals. Lyalya (Shu Yi Ching), whose mother is a librarian, wants a more comfortable life and would dump her boyfriend Pasha (Neo Hai Bin) if someone better came along. Also among the party are the alcoholic Vitya (Hang Qian Chou), and ringleader Volodya (Timothy Wan), an aspiring diplomat who shifts convincingly from charming schoolboy to depraved sociopath.

The script has always had a slight ring of implausibility to it. Under Chia's thoughtful direction, it sidesteps melodrama and is not performed in a wholly realistic or naturalistic manner. Characters occasionally burst into "epic" monologues - strange, intense moments of illumination, which can give the sense that you are watching ideas and ideals, rather than full-blooded characters, in contestation.

This production does not try to coerce its audience into strong emotional responses or conclusions. Its power lies in its ambivalence and, for a moment, you might even be seduced by Volodya's arguments.

  • REVIEW / THEATRE

  • DEAR ELENA

    Nine Years Theatre

    Drama Centre Black Box/Thursday

  • BOOK IT /DEAR ELENA

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till Sunday. 8pm (today), 3pm (today and tomorrow) and 7.30pm (tomorrow)

    ADMISSION: $38 (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). The show

    is sold out, but a few seats may become available later

    INFO: Advisory 16 (mature content). Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles

In the end, Elena is shattered and the students get what they want: a pyrrhic victory. While all this may have been a power game, there are no real winners here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'No real winners in power game'. Print Edition | Subscribe