Are you normal?

Photo credit: scanned from Programme booklet

No one wants to be normal in Singapore. A ‘normal’ person takes 5 years to complete secondary education. That’s too slow. Not when ‘express’ only takes 4 years. If a person has to take an extra year to be schooled, they must be stupid and are an embarrassment to their parents who will never be able to hold their heads up again among their contemporaries, all of whom have ‘express’ children.

Faith Ng’s play, Normal, directed by Claire Wong, focuses on two students in their 5th and final year of secondary education. Daphne blanked out after studying too hard at her Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE), while Ashley obtained less-than-outstanding results at the same exam — which they took when they were 12 — thus qualifying them both as ‘normal’, and nothing more.

Like every other normal student, they bear the label as a stigma. They have little confidence in their own abilities. Their well-meaning teachers’ insistence on upbraiding them on their attire, punctuality and decorum at every slight infraction is simply focused on making the normals conform in outward appearance, but does little to challenge them intellectually where academic learning really counts. As such, with every school day feeling like prison, the normals feel increasingly convinced that they will end up not graduating and their lives will be over.

Unlike the other teachers they have encountered, the new literature teacher who runs the Drama Club takes a different approach with the normals. She believes in them and helps them work out their fears, anxieties and frustrations through theatre and convinces them that they can succeed in the end. But in a plot reminiscent of Dead Poets Society (1989), Ms Hue is alone in her efforts and the system beats down on everyone eventually.

The play is beautifully set. There is the main playing area in which all the action takes place, while a corridor runs behind it framed to look like school chalkboards when lit in front, but becomes transparent when lit from the back (the magic of sharkstooth scrim), revealing the ensemble engaged in a variety of school activities. In a genius piece of lighting design, this corridor-frame is uplit at both ends, casting a shadow that creates the illusion of an old school tower on the upper back wall of the stage.

A snappy script keeps moments of tension, bleak humour, and awkward tenderness flowing at a brisk pace. Scene transitions are done by the cast in low light while singing familiar girls’ school songs — efficient, entertaining and relevant. The dialogue is liberally peppered with colloquial vulgarities, which could be shocking — if we didn’t already know that schoolgirls actually do speak like that. However, in performance, because the dialogue is delivered in perfect English, the colloquialisms feel a little forced and incongruous to the lines. ‘Natural’ speech is still a paradox local theatre here has yet to figure out. Nevertheless, the few soliloquies at the end are vivid in their revelations of past history leading up to the decision the normals make when events that have transpired cause them believe that kindness has turned to betrayal.

For a play that turns a critical eye on the rigidity of the education system and how it adversely pigeonholes people seemingly for life, it is disappointing that the normals make the decision that they do. The characters of Daphne and Ashley are built strongly and sympathetically. As such, it seems a bit of a stretch that they would succumb to their circumstance rather than rise above it. Perhaps that is the point: that the system wastes much human potential. Like the Alpha, Beta castes of Huxley’s A Brave New World (1932), the system gives few opportunities for ‘late-bloomers’ to excel, or even bloom at all.

But it isn’t so much the system that finally drives Ashley’s decision as much as her own persecution complex which locks her in a vicious cycle, causing her to interpret every interaction with her teachers as hostile, and escalating that hostility with her own defensive reactions. If Ashley is the architect of her own fate while 22 of her classmates are able to move on from where they are, then the character of Ashley is only there to play the stereotype, pander to audience expectations, and raise sympathy rather than deal with the real flaws of inequality and injustice inherent in a system that is ironically supposed to support meritocracy.

Otherwise, Normal is an excellent and realistic view of school from both student and teacher perspectives. While teachers are well-meaning at heart, their personal biases and choices in responding to their students can be very cruel, indeed.

Normal: 23 March – 16 April 2017, Drama Centre Black Box, National Library Level 5

(Tickets from SISTIC are sold out)

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