The Struggle: Years Later is tentative and meandering - a struggle to watch

A scene from The Struggle: Years Later with actors Yong Ser Pin (right) and Kuo Jing Hong.
A scene from The Struggle: Years Later with actors Yong Ser Pin (right) and Kuo Jing Hong. PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE


The Theatre Practice

M1 Chinese Theatre Festival

Lasalle Creative Cube/Thursday

The late Kuo Pao Kun's The Struggle (1969) was a strident morality play, about a band of workers repeatedly exploited by their greedy capitalist employer, but are divided on what to do. It was banned and never performed.

This proletarian struggle has morphed into a different sort of personal struggle in Liu Xiaoyi's Years Later, his attempt to find handholds in a dated script. Where The Struggle was defiant and argumentative, with long conversations about hierarchies and fair wages, Years Later is tentative, almost uncertain, full of meandering musings about writing and creation, and a slow, often static meditation on the relationship between past and present.

The play is a patchwork of linked sketches. Parts of it are excerpts and short sentences from Kuo's 1969 play, performed by actors Doreen Toh, Felix Hung and Chong Woon Yong. Other parts are fragments and brief reminiscences from actors Yong Ser Pin and Kuo Jing Hong's lives, including talk of their families or the experiences of past practitioners.

Interspersed with all this are paragraphs of what I took to be Liu's own thoughts ("one generation deconstructs the next" or "I am disturbed by concepts like time, space and meaning"), which are projected on the walls of the black box as other scenes unfold.

But while this Mandarin piece felt painstakingly choreographed, there seemed something oddly lacking in its curation, as if Liu had simply bundled together a smattering of facts and personal contemplations and expected the audience to join the dots, even if the dots hardly existed.

One gets the sense that Liu is trying to find a path back to the past, but his tone of voice - at least, after being translated into English - can come across as alienating and pretentious even when he is trying to be exploratory and discursive.

It also takes the plodding play a long time to get to the meat of the titular struggle, of looking at the struggles of practitioners of the past - their detentions, the censorship - from a contemporary lens.

There have been many forays into meta theatre in Singapore in the past few years, where a practitioner uses the device of a play within a play, orprovides a commentary on an unfolding play by recounting personal experiences.

These methods can be powerful,or indulgent, leaving the audience to feel that a performer or practitioner is hogging the limelight instead of letting a work speak for itself.

Years Later contains the strengths and weaknesses of meta theatre. There are some wonderful moments of docudrama, such as when Yong plays a rare recording of Kuo Pao Kun's 1973 crosstalk performance with He Jingguang, Delivering Tickets, about taking along a Malay friend for a Mandarin production and what happens when performance transcends language. Yong also shares personal stories from his past, about planning a family and stopping at twoand his friendship with Kuo.

But these revelations often feel tangential, constantly interrupted by Liu's own mournful textual ponderances, as if he was not quite sure how to bring The Struggle and these struggles together into a unified whole, stopping short of asserting his own conclusion.

A climax could have come in a pivotal moment where Yong inserts himself into the older play, taking on the role of an agitated worker trying to stand up against exploitation, but because of the production's slow burn, the scene does not quite deliver an emotional punch.

The Struggle is a flawed, early play by Kuo before he came into his own. Perhaps one could say the same of Years Later, which shows the promise of things to come, but despite gorgeous design elements and a uniformly strong cast, ends up smaller than the sum of its parts.