By Catherine Zou (17A01B) and Sabariesh Ilankathir (17A13A)
The Goodman stage lights open to the image of a life concluded: a man, crushed under the weight of a collapsed car; spinning lights; horrified onlookers. Yet, Raffles Players’ Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) play “The Coffin Is Still Too Big For the Hole” (written by Lucas Ho and Cheryl Lee) unravels a life from its tail end. It starts with a conclusion: the coffin is still too big – but rather than being literally, physically too big for the hole (as in Kuo Pau Kun’s beloved 1984 play), it is, figuratively, too big for a life that has been confined and diminished by boundaries and restrictions.
This describes the life of “Matthew’s father” or Dad (Samuel Ho, 17A13A) in the play – a nameless Singaporean man whose fleeting scenes of childhood, youth, and adulthood reveal childhood dreams and tendencies long beaten into submission by the exacting standards of those around him. Though “The Coffin is Still Too Big For the Hole” addresses the issue of expectations to play by the book, its execution is anything but. Its potential to be melodramatic is kept in check by a cast that combines naturalistic acting with more abstract, interpretative physical theatre.
The scene at the funeral parlor immediately following the opening scene contradicts all expectations with its cheerful, commercialised presentation of the various standardised packages. Thus unfolds a whimsical but heartrending play detailing Matthew’s (Vasu Namdeo, 16S07D) discovery of Dad’s past, which shows how Dad develops from a boy with unique hopes to a man whose same dreams are stifled by dictatorial expectations of what he is supposed to do. Each scene follows the trajectory of a rather typical life in Singapore, surfacing the sundry struggles against societal restrictions in our daily lives.
From school to NS, youth to adulthood, Dad is constantly confronted with rigid, and often restrictions of who he is expected to be. In childhood, Dad is chastised by a teacher for having handwriting that is too big for the lines, and rebuked for questioning if it were the lines that were too small. This sets the cumulative process by which Dad learns to rein in his own dreams to “stay within the lines” and conform to the standard: In NS, he is deemed for being selfish and undutiful for not fitting into the standard-sized helmet offered him. At home, his parents deem his dream of writing one song implausible and tells him to get his head out of the clouds, to settle down, and to find a good, stable job.
Dad’s predicament thus reflects the exacting, uncompromising and often rigid expectations in our society. To be a good student is to write within the lines of a paper, and not to question if the lines are too small, or to question why this must be so. To be a dutiful recruit is to wear the standard helmet properly, never mind whether it properly fits or not. And to be happy is to “follow the rules”, as is put by his father (Izzul Irfan, 17A01E) in a particularly stunning monologue on how making an exception to bury a too-large coffin over two holes had cost him a lifetime of being stuck at the very bottom of the career ladder. Dad’s personal goals and attributes, however, diverge from these fixed goals and is “beaten at every corner” for it – “too big for life, too small for the lot assigned him in life” – as put by Samuel Ho, who portrays Dad in the play. He is driven to “[locking] himself away” as Matthew puts it, never speaking about these experiences. “At the end of a breathless retelling of Dad’s life, his son, Matthew, so stunned, can only utter: “Can’t life be bigger than this?” Dad’s story, ultimately, is one of an everyman that anyone should be able to see themselves in.
Portraying such a story, however, was not without its challenges – for Samuel, “[finding] a Dad in me” was one of the biggest challenges he faced. He added that compressing Dad’s life into a short time required a balance between “the energetic and naturalistic”, which all the characters, particularly his stage parents, Mahirah (17S03B) and Izzul (17A01E) managed wonderfully. In the scene changes in the play, the production crew managed the multitudes of role changes with the clever addition of one or two accessories to the all white attires of the cast.
The sets department, too, went through an “unbelievably intense” experience with the deceptively-minimalist but intensely demanding Mondrian-inspired flats. As Alison Tan (17A13A) cheekily put it, the month-long preparation was “a huge cycle of staying till unholy hours to get our set together, watching the set fall apart and then staying till unholier hours to fix everything again”. The flats, ultimately, set the tone of the play and represented the various requirements, standardizations and expectations that fetter individuals in society. Aside from that, there was a profound irony in how, given the play’s emphasis on the various restrictions in Singapore society, the piece was staged and put together in a month after the CCA’s initial draft was rejected. However, the extenuating processes were worth it for both crew and cast – Alison adds that “seeing our beautiful, wonderful, perfect sets loom majestically over our actors during each run was worth it,” and “our actors not getting concussions from falling flats was even better.” Similarly, cast member Grace Hu (17A13A) believes that it was “one of our best runs”, with “great energy and chemistry.”
Just as Dad was caged by expectations, the CCA too faced the restrictions of time, scheduling and set accidents throughout the production process. It has come to an end with the play’s final question: can’t life be bigger than this? – It surely can. In the meantime, Raffles Players celebrates its Distinction, and hopes that its piece can be the start to inspiring some contemplation about conformity for the audience.
Celine Ng (16A01A), Kaushik Kumar (17S06H)
Claire Devine (from Buds Theatre) Mohammad Sufyan (16S06F), Sabariesh Ilankathir (17A13A)
Vasu Namdeo (16S07D) as Matthew
Samuel Ho (17A13A) as Dad
Izzul Irfan (17A01E) as Grandfather
Mahirah bte Latiff (17S03B) as Grandmother
Caitlin O’Hara (16S03A) as Drill Sergeant
Isaiah Lee (16A01A) as Commander
Mahirah bte Latiff (17S03B), Izzul Irfan (17A01E), Cheang Ko Lyn (16A01B), Grace Hu (17A13A), Kavya Sundar (17S03D), Cai Hai Yun (16S03B), Tham Jia Yi (17A13A), Erika Poh (17S03P), Isaiah Lee (16A01A), Caitlin O’Hara (16S03A)
Jasdeep Singh Hundal (16S03N), Choo Ian Kang (17A13A), Ong Yan Chun (17S06A), Udayakumar Sruthi (17S07D), Lim Yi Hui (17A01D), Shirin Mehnaz Ansari (17S03C), Alison Clara Tan Yi Zen (17A13A), Catherine Zou Yi (17A01B)
Aishwarya D/O Manivannan (16S03A), Beatrice Ng (16S03C), Valerie Chua (16S07D), Sreshya Kamakshi Vishwanathan (16S06P), Hidayat B Malik (17S06B), Tan Xin Hwee (17A13A)
Lights and Sounds:
Choo Ian Kang (17A13A), Tan Xin Hwee (17A13A)