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The Studios x Feed Your Imagination (F.Y.I)
An Esplanade Commission and Production

29 Mar – 1 Apr 2018

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Playwright Faith Ng
Performer Karen Tan

Lighting Designer Adrian Tan
Sound Designer Ryann Othniel Seng
Set Designer Eucien Chia
Set Designer Assistant Grace Lin
Costume Stylist Anthony Tan
Movement Coach Lim Chin Huat

Producer Lynn Yang, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Production Manager Evelyn Chia, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Assistant Production Manager Cristabel Ng, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Stage Manager Sheri Hogan
Assistant Stage Manager Joyce Gan

Captioner Chong Gua Khee
Surtitlist Chua Ying Ni

A Good Death follows Dr Leong, a palliative care doctor, as she journeys with her patients through their final days. As they open up to her about their hopes and fears, her own family begins to argue over what is best for their ageing parents. 

Faced with an increasingly blurred line between her professional and personal life, Dr Leong finds herself asking: What truly makes life worth living? What is a good and dignified death? And on whose terms? 

Poignant and insightful, A Good Death is a tender meditation on what it means to lean on one another, even on those you least expect.

A Good Death: Text
Production Image. Doctor Leong is  miming holding a cup to feed her father coffee.
A Good Death: Image

A Good Death has 17 different characters, performed by a single (excellent) actor. What makes it more exciting is that it doesn't behave like a monologue - at times there are up to five characters in the same room, talking, interrupting -normal people in dialogue. We spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room making this imagined world full, the characters discrete, and the staging clear. The process was also heavily collaborative, with Faith Ng (playwright), Karen Tan (performer), and I sharing stories, images, and snatches of speech, much of which made it to the stage.

The idea of putting the play on a thrust stage was suggested by Set Designer, Eucien Chia. Wrapping the audience around the stage created a more intimate environment, all of us gathered around the "hospice" compound. The large marble slab in the middle is reminiscent of a large tombstone, but also exudes a kind of elegance and calm. We situated different spaces in the hospice on the same slab - multiple stories from people confined in the hospice (by illness, relation, or occupation) echoing off the same block, before they fall silent.

A Good Death: Text
Production Image. A patient, Miss Tan, is curled up on a raised platform in pain. All characters in the show are played by the same actress, Karen Tan.
A Good Death: Image
A Good Death: Text

Another reason that I put the play on a thrust stage was that it would give the audience a different perspective depending on where they were seated. This resonates with my own worldview that we always see in part and not in full, and how we perceive something or someone sometimes has more to do with us and our vantage point than with them - the issues, the people themselves. Our experience of the play echoes this. It's as arbitrary as: I was seated here so I saw more of this character's face and the agony on it, so I feel more for him/her. None of the stories in the play are more important than another; we just tend to privilege what we connect with. And for everything that I see, I'm still missing something. The idea of human subjectiveness/limitations runs through the play. One of the first things Dr Leong tells us is that there are some patients she likes more; one of the pivotal moments in the play is where she becomes almost cruel to Ms Tan, whom she's always struggled to like. The fact that she tries makes her quite beautiful, and we aren't surprised when she fails. Like most people, she is a beautiful, complicated being, and fucks up.

I love that the play pushes against the monologue form, insisting on multiple voices that speak for themselves, and that the narrator is dragged into the narrative with everyone else. (In fact, she kind of gives up halfway and comes back to the role of narrator at the end.) We start the play with a large marble slab, a monolith taking up most of the space on stage, and Dr Leong as narrator shaping whom and what we can see. Then it cracks, splits open quite literally. Dr Leong is now at home, tending, with more strain, to her own father, who has dementia. The breaking of the monolith is when she becomes a fuller/richer character - rupturing is productive, as with the party popper exploding into confetti - etc. The other, more exciting, thing about this shift from being the narrator to only being a participant in the narrative is that it's never quite clear whether we're supposed to be seeing this. It feels like we're trespassing into her personal life. One of the things that struck me when I was talking to palliative care doctor Jamie Zhou, who was with us throughout the journey, was how deeply intimate, almost transgressive, the job is. It's not so much calibrating the treatment sometimes as it is convincing that estranged son to come see the patient for the last time. And she bears witness to the final moments of patients, standing where only family and close friends would stand. In a way, the play enacts a similar process - a benign trespassing, intruding in order to help. Exposing Dr Leong's private moments and interactions allow us to relate to her more, as a daughter learning how to relate to her father with dementia, a sibling trying to convince another about the care-giving arrangement for their father. We watch her running round and round the marble block, her own story echoing off it too, a single person tending to the needs of her patients and loved ones, running herself into the ground.

Production image. Doctor Leong's father is sitting on a platform. In his right hand, he holds a shaver, with the sharp part taped over.
A Good Death: Image

How do you communicate connection, and how do you let go of someone you've come to connect deeply with? That was the final part of the question for us. If this play were performed with multiple actors, I imagine touch would be the norm - to comfort, to assure, to remind someone of your presence. But with a one-hander, physical touch between the characters feels stark, which also gives it emphasis. We used touch sparingly, reserved it for the moments where pain, grief, or compassion seems to spill over, where words just aren't enough. I remember working with Karen on one of the final images, where Dr Leong says goodbye to Mr Chia, perhaps for the last time. They both know that she needs to live her own life, to leave the hospice at the end of each day even though her patients may not make it to the next. But it's still difficult to leave. This is one of my favourite moments in the play, and an incredibly delicate one, where we watch the two of them grasping each other's hands, and finally deciding to let go. 

Click here to view post-it notes posted by audience members about A Good Death.

A Good Death: Text
A Good Death: Selected Work

Photos by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay

A Good Death: Text
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