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男男自语 (A Language of Their Own)

May 24, 2012

Event: “男男自语” – Translated from “A Language of Their Own” (as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2012)
Venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio
Run: 18th – 20th May 2012

More Than Words

I thought long and hard about whether to post a review on this, because it was a Mandarin play with no English surtitles, and those who know me will know that my Mandarin isn’t exactly the best.

However, I’ve had quite a few thoughts on this play the past few days so I figured I’d better write about it, just to get it all off my chest.

“男男自语” – originally known as “A Language of Their Own” – was written in English by Singapore-born playwright Chay Yew (now based in the United States), and was first staged in New York in 1995, and then subsequently staged in Singapore by Checkpoint Theatre in 2006.

It has been translated into Mandarin by playwright and academic Robin Loon, and though the seed of the idea first appeared in 2006, it was only circa 2010 that the serious translation work actually began.

The importance of the concept of “language” in this play simply cannot be overstated, since it even features in the play’s title itself.

From the opening scene, which portrays a lengthy dialogue between Oscar (Nelson Chia) and Ming (Loo Zihan) with nary an overt gesture throughout the scene, we can see that this is to be a very dialogue-heavy play where the weight of the words are intended to take precedence over everything else.

Even stage directions such as a kiss and an embrace are merely depicted through words on a screen, and not physically acted out by the actors.

It might have seemed like an odd directorial decision, but all this was probably a deliberate effort to let the audience focus on the inherent lyricism and gravity in the text itself.

And if we were to bring in the whole notion of the entire script having been translated from English into Mandarin, and in the process unearthing fresh rhythms and nuances from the text, then the concept of language takes on yet another dimension in this production.

Truth be told, I was able to largely follow the play, even though I might have been unable to grasp some of the intricacies of the translated text, either because they just flew by too quickly, or because they were just simply beyond my grasp.

“男男自语” tells the story of a pair of gay lovers Oscar and Ming, and how they are torn apart because of Oscar’s HIV virus, and how they continue to be tormented by the memories of this former relationship even while moving on to new partners.

Oscar goes on to meet Daniel (Robin Goh), while Ming goes on to meet Robert (Timothy Nga), although neither Oscar nor Ming seem to find eventual comfort or fulfillment in their new partners.

Most people would probably single out Nelson Chia and Robin Goh as the two standout performers.

Nelson Chia was the “emotional anchor”, as Adeline Chia so eloquently put it, while Robin Goh plays the campy and free-spirited new boyfriend of Oscar.

It also didn’t hurt that both of them seemed to be the two who were most comfortable articulating in Mandarin.

I’ve heard from various sources that many who had witnessed “男男自语” were moved to tears by this production, although personally, I did not find myself coming close to tears for some strange reason or other.

It could perhaps be attributed slightly to my relative unfamiliarity with Mandarin.

I did, however, feel most sympathy for Daniel, whom I believed would have made a fantastic partner for Oscar, had it not been for the fact that Ming had already come before him and had left an indelible mark in the life of Oscar.

Right man, wrong time perhaps?

The moment at the end, when it was revealed that Daniel himself had also contracted HIV, was heart-wrenching to say the least.

The overall script was as eloquent, lyrical, profound and evocative as the best of Brahms’s symphonies, although one might stop short of comparing the collective performance to a well-played string quartet, due to the uneven acting amongst the four actors.

I’ve never seen the English version of this play, so I am unable to delve into the differences in nuances between the two versions.

And although the idea of language is of the utmost importance in this play, ultimately “男男自语” or “A Language of Their Own” isn’t so much necessarily about the language of the written word, or of racial background, or of sexual orientation.

It is, for all intents and purposes, about the language of love.

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