“A Nominal Fee For Nostalgic Lessons“
Reviewer: Cordelia Lee
Performance: 15 April 2017
One wonders why anyone would pay good money to watch an idealistic teacher’s futile battle against educational essentialism. Or why one would willingly spend two hours watching biases against Normal stream students materialise on stage.
After all, these are not shockingly interesting revelations.
For those schooled under Singapore’s educational system, the issues raised in Faith Ng’s Normal are almost par for the course.
Yet, it is precisely this “commonplace-ness” that gives Normal its local approval.
Ng’s social commentary is initially hidden beneath the bittersweet nostalgia that first hits her audience. But gradually, a critique of Singapore’s stifling system and the school culture it breeds is revealed. A primary school friendship disintegrates in secondary school, not because both parties mutually drift apart; it is instead stimulated by the social divide that comes with academic streaming. A teacher’s analogy describes Normal technical girls as unwanted Barbies – thrown into a box and sent to ITE. It incurs a brief, awkward laughter from the audience. But as the statement hangs in the air, it promptly becomes unsettling. Her words reveal a deeply ingrained prejudice against students in lower streams, portraying that even teachers are guilty of unconsciously propagating such stereotypes.
Claire Wong’s direction supports Ng’s text with a functional set design and a lively ensemble. By dividing the stage lengthwise with translucent screens, the set design brings the cinematographic technique of shallow focusing to the stage. Downstage, the main cast push the narrative forward during a classroom scene, alternating between heated teacher-student altercations and intimate disclosures. Meanwhile the ensemble – representing the remaining students in class – stay upstage. They gasp as a politically incorrect remark from Ms Hew’s (Julie Wee), and snigger as Ashley (Claire Chung) retaliates with a crude joke. This ensemble’s live reactions to the developing drama create an additional dimension to the mise-en-scene. This muted background action effectively underscores the stage action while installing the fictional reality and community, plunging the audience deeper into the narrative’s fictional realm.
However, this layering effect isn’t always successful.
There are moments where the ensemble’s background responses and vocalised soundscapes distracts. Their ambient chirping noises during an outdoor scene rudely disrupts the ongoing dialogue (when did mynah birds get so loud?). And as they clear into the vomitorium during the final monologues, faint whispers emerge from beneath the tiered seats. This persists through Chung’s lines, loud enough to be audible by the audience in the last row. Then someone hushes them, and the whispering stops. Whether this awful diversion tactic was intentional, we will never know.
Normal concludes, perhaps slightly disconcertingly, by maintaining the status quo – neither the suffocating school culture nor the structural flaws in the system gets resolved. Yet, this doesn’t render the production irrelevant.
By mirroring the mundane reality of school life, Normal highlights recurring problems that continue to prevail through generations of students. And more importantly, it provokes critical thought and initiates much needed public discourse about an otherwise overlooked topic in society.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Normal by Checkpoint Theatre
23 March – 16 April 2017
Drama Centre Black Box
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Cordelia is a second-year Theatre Studies and English Linguistics double major. She views the theatre as a liminal space providing far more than simply entertainment, and she especially appreciates avant-garde performances.