Reinvention a compelling brew



Drama Box and Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, featuring ARTivate

Esplanade Theatre Studio


Kopitiam was first staged in 1986, with a Mandarin script written by pioneer playwright Kuo Pao Kun.

Its plot is simple: A young man named Jiacai urges his grandfather to sell his kopitiam so the family can build a better life abroad.

This adaptation of the play catapults the story into the 21st century, but not by changing its original setting.

Instead, the story begins in the year 2030, with the theatre transformed into a museum commemorating the lost heritage of the kopitiam.

A young girl (Melody Chan) with futuristic white hair enters the space, searching for her grandfather's notebook. She is Jiacai's granddaughter, seeking to comprehend his life. As she studies the notebook, the museum display comes to life and the 1986 confrontation between her grandfather and great-great-grandfather plays out.

Toh Wee Peng is competent as Jiacai, conveying the young man's increasing exasperation and ultimate reconciliation with his grandfather.

Julius Foo has a harder time: The 49-year-old actor is not quite believable as a doddering patriarch in his 70s. His Hainanese is less than fluent and his portrayal of the stubborn coffee-shop owner a trifle one-note.

Truth be told, Kuo's script feels a little hackneyed, with its binary portrayal of the old, slow-paced way of life versus a new age of opportunism.

There are some beautiful lines though. At one point, the grandfather says: "Your university fees, your travel fares, all of them were brewed in this kopitiam, cup by cup."

However, the action is somewhat overshadowed by the barrage of audiovisuals in the play. At regular intervals, the backdrop fills up with garishly coloured videos illustrating modern materialism, while silent actors wearing white zentai suits perform expressionistic mime acts.

Only rarely do the videos add to the narrative. Some are depictions of Jiacai's childhood or illustrations of voiceovers of unseen characters.

One can understand director Han Xuemei's decision to modernise the play.

The production is a graduation show for Drama Box's youth wing ARTivate and is specifically created for secondary school audiences.

The programme booklet even includes an activity sheet, inviting students to consider issues of development in Singapore.

Still, Han's artistic choices are questionable. Why choose a two-person play to show off the talents of a dozen young theatre-makers? Why not let the girl from 2030 provide more 21st- century commentary?

Kopitiam is a play split awkwardly between past and present, yet it remains relevant and compelling. This reinvention may not be perfect, but it is unquestionably welcomed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Reinvention a compelling brew'. Print Edition | Subscribe