Singapore Theatre Festival: Exploring masculinity in double bill When The Cold Wind Blows and G.F.E.

Joshua Lim plays Xavier, a man who has recurring dreams about his National Service experience on Pulau Tekong, in When The Cold Wind Blows.
Joshua Lim plays Xavier, a man who has recurring dreams about his National Service experience on Pulau Tekong, in When The Cold Wind Blows.PHOTO: W!LD RICE

Review/Theatre

WHEN THE COLD WIND BLOWS & G.F.E.

Singapore Theatre Festival/ Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts/ Sunday (July 15)

This Mandarin double bill at the Singapore Theatre Festival explores facets of local masculinity.

The first work is titled When The Cold Wind Blows and is prefaced by the Chinese character meaning "conscript" or "summon". It stars Joshua Lim as Xavier, a man who has recurring dreams about his national service experience on Pulau Tekong a decade ago. The play is written by Neo Hai Bin and directed by Thong Pei Qin.

The second play G.F.E. stars its playwright Chong Woon Yong as a man in search of emotional intimacy in the red-light portion of Geylang. It is directed by Ric Liu.

Both playwrights did their NS on Pulau Tekong and the island's reputation for harbouring spirits infuses both their scripts with touches of horror.

When The Cold Wind Blows is a dark, lucid dream with Xavier trapped in it alongside a mysterious man in army fatigues (Joel Low). His inability to get out is familiar to anyone who has been similarly trapped in a nightmare.

In G.F.E., Chong's character is in search of the ideal sex-for-money experience - the Girlfriend Experience - in Geylang but his quest leads him back to a mysterious white snake he picked up on Pulau Tekong as a teen. The Madam White Snake legend is neatly updated to dark urban myth.

When The Cold Wind Blows is a simple story about coming to terms with the buried past. It is told simply - Xavier cowers as the past hammers on hidden doors - but the obvious metaphors work well in the dream-like setting. Lighting by Liu Yonghuay and sound by Daniel Wong create an appropriately nightmarish atmosphere. The two-tiered set co-ordinated by Deena Shaqinah adds to the tension as the characters tramp unseen around the audience and reappear in unexpected locations.

Like the 1992 film A Few Good Men, When The Cold Wind Blows explores how a rigid military setting stimulates and propagates a culture of bullying. The play could have been 10 minutes shorter, instead of lingering on the final redemption but the acters mostly hold audience attention. Lim is convincing as a man admitting that his past cruelty to a weaker man was wrong, even if legitimised by the system. Low impresses in the Singlish portions of the script, as he moves between various characters from Xavier's past.

When The Cold Wind Blows shows how lower-ranking men are dismissed as objects in the army ostensibly to build character. G.F.E. objectifies women, as Chong's character moves along the streets of Geylang in search of the best sex-for-hire experience.

The character and his foul-mouthed friend are really seeking a human connection, emphasised in regular flashbacks to early loves. One sympathises with the earlier avatars of the main character - a soft-hearted teen and a man in his 20s - but it gets confusing as Chong switches so rapidly between timelines that the audience can barely keep up.

Chong delivers an excellent array of performances, from lovelorn teen to pimp to happily attached taxi driver but the script is an overlong, one-sided litany of masculine complaint and woe.

His character seems to learn nothing as the story progresses, leading this reviewer to laugh when a man unable to satisfy his girlfriend sexually asks: "Is there something wrong with me?"

Yes, there is and it is easily fixed. All the men in this script have to do is engage the women in their lives in actual conversation rather than treating them like elusive sprites.

In this play, women are described only through the male gaze, or portrayed through a silent white dress hanging centre-stage. The dress is manipulated by Chong in character, sometimes beautifully, sometimes bawdily, but every one of his actions shrieks the absence of the authentic female presence.

There is something very wrong with that, which is very easily fixed.