By Cheryl Tan
I left Pangdemonium’s Late Company feeling nothing. There were people bawling so hard to my left and right, I wondered why Pangdemonium hadn’t reached out to Kleenex as a sponsor. I wondered if I was heartless for feeling nothing. I wondered why it was that what surprised me was not the heartwrenching, brilliant production that had been staged, but the sheer force with which it had shaken the audience.
So I am going to start by being honest with you, dear reader. And I am going to start by saying I do not know how to write this review. I don’t know how to write this review not because I felt too much, but because I felt next to nothing at all. I realise that conversations about death, suicide, and grief have become so normalised in my personal life that seeing it on stage was nothing enlightening — if anything, I felt an almost immediate overwhelm of exhaustion at having to sit through these conversations again. But while I sat unflinching, halfway through the show I heard sniffs and looked around me. Other audience members were shooketh, simply put. And I realised that a normalisation of thoughts on death and loss is probably, well, not normal.
Written by Jordan Tannahill and directed in Singapore by Tracie Pang, Late Company is the story of two families coming together for dinner a year after the devastating suicide of Joel, a teenage boy who took his life in high school. The play was written after the real-life suicide of Jamie Hubley, a teenager believed to have been bullied for coming out as gay in his high school in Canada in 2011.
Can you host the family whose son you believed has played the biggest part in driving your son to his own death? In one of her finest performances in recent years, Janice Koh plays Joel’s mother Deborah, whose struggle to come to terms with her son’s suicide prevails even a year after his death. At a dinner atmospherically charged with tension and pain, Koh carries the full weight of Deborah’s grief in a poignant monologue as she reads aloud a letter she wrote to her son’s bully, Curtis (Xander Pang). She has spent the past year in the worst throes of grief imaginable, believing that Curtis has bullied Joel to his death. The entire audience sat, frozen, as she described the horror of finding her son’s lifeless body in the bathroom, until her grief overwhelms her to wordlessness.
In a bid to initiate a semblance of reconciliation, Curtis’ mother Tamara (Karen Tan) brought both her son and husband Bill and son to dine at Deborah’s. She then finds out that reconciliation is not as simple as she thought it would be, and sometimes forgiveness does not come easy. Even before dinner begins, as what starts out as casual conversations around politics and school all eventually lead to fingers pointed at Joel’s parents, and the way they raised their son and subsequent lack of involvement in the news in the aftermath of his suicide.
This takes a toll especially on Joel’s father Michael (Edward Choy), whose involvement in politics as an MP saw his party releasing a video campaign about his son’s suicide. The video, together with various press reports, held accusations against Curtis as being the main (or sole, even) reason for Joel’s suicide. In a heated debate with Curtis’ father Bill (Adrian Pang) about the video, Michael finds himself defending his party’s intentions, and the conversation shifted to politics. This conversation was way too believable, and I found myself cringing in my seat. Is this what the world has come to? Must everything be politicised and defended on the basis of self-interest — even a young boy’s suicide?
When there is so much confusion and so many questions left unanswered, it is easy for us to place blame on something or someone — and often we find the fingers we point directed at ourselves, even if we do not immediately know it yet. Bill calls Joel’s parents out on this, telling them they have to forgive themselves for their lack of awareness of what was going on in their son’s life, and for failing to keep up with the news that surrounded his suicide. In an atmosphere of such deep, indescribably grief, it is easy to label Bill as rather antagonistic in this play. Some audience members gasped at the tactlessness with which he spoke his mind. However, I found myself not reacting as strongly as I thought I would have, simply because there was so much truth in the way Pang had delivered his character that I could draw parallels to certain real-life people who have approached and spoken about suicide without emotion but practicality.
Late Company reminded me that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no right or wrong when it comes to the anger we feel in the wake of a loved one’s suicide, or how we choose to deal with that grief (as long as we do not intentionally hurt others, of course. There are griefs that come with the death of a loved one — an elderly relative, a parent, a friend. And then there is a grief that comes with a suicide. Dealing with the aftermath of suicide is vastly different from dealing with grief of an elderly relative who has passed by ‘natural means’, like old age.
As someone who’s lived to see family members deal with loss and grief in the aftermath of suicide my whole life, and then subsequently experiencing the suicide of a friend and death of my grandfather happening just days apart, I am not able to write about how revolutionary these ideas and conversations are simply because they are not revolutionary to me. All I can say is that while we can portray the grief that follows a suicide on stage, we never truly feel the full force of that pain unless it happens to us. And even then, that pain stays with us. Even then, we will never know how to express it.
I do not know how to write this review. I do not know how to tell you about death or grief or suicide or a mother’s grief, because I have been there caught in the middle of everything, and I have been there to experience it. But I do know that we can do better. For those of us who do not have first-hand experiences with suicide or grieving a suicide, we can listen better, and try to understand better. And for those of us who know that pain, it teaches us how fragile life is. We learn to love and live another day, tasting all the colours of a life left behind by the ones we have loved.
Date: 22nd February – 10th March 2019
Venue: Victoria Theatre
Time: Tuesday – Saturday, 8pm / Saturday & Sunday, 3pm / Sunday, 10th March, 8pm
Admission: From $40 (Concessions available. Get your tickets here.)
Photography credit: Crispian Chan