By Ng Yi-Sheng
Folks don’t talk about this much, but Singaporean storytellers really like to imagine doomsday scenarios. You could build a whole syllabus out of our fictional Armageddons: check out the opening scenes of the Jack Neo’s Ah Boys to Men, Nicholas Yong’s zombie survival novel Land of the Meat Munchers, Zizi Azah’s dystopian play Paradise, Victor Ocampo’s sci-fi short story “Big Enough for the Entire Universe”, Ken Kwek’s Apocalypse Live… If you want to, you could even count Hussain Haniff’s portrayal of the fall of pre-colonial Singapura in his black and white film Dang Anom from 1962.
Yet none of these works is quite as harrowing as Joel Tan’s Café. I watched it last Saturday, 18 June, at the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, where it had a sold-out run. Over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes, I was gripping the edge of my seat, watching the actions five characters holed up in a hipster café while the world outside them goes to hell.
And the bizarre thing is, very little happens. Arguments erupt and tempers flare over trivial things, but no heroic deeds are wrought. We don’t even really know what’s happening outside: there’s rain, and rolling thunder, and traffic jams that disrupt suppliers’ deliveries of chicken and waffles; unreliable wifi and data, and an unexplained piling up of dirt all over the premises. Furniture disappears from our sight. At one point, someone’s water suddenly turns blue.
Whatever’s going on, it it’s clear that it’s the end of the world as we know it. The characters don’t fight this. They simply deny it: they ignore their doom as they wrestle with their own petty demons. But disaster slowly closes in, and we’re filled with dread as we witness its approach.
I’ve seen Tan do work like this before. Last year, his play Mosaic centred on four young people, sitting in an old playground till dawn, trying to protest its inevitable demolition. I was amazed by its ability to draw me in with its incredibly true-to-life dialogue—the Singlish here was instinctive, never comedic—in spite of its lack of action. It’s unlike anything I’ve witnessed in our theatre scene.
Café is an expansion on this project—one born out of a drawn-out process workshopping and redrafting with director Chen Yingxuan and the cast. Instead of a slightly absurd scenario, now we have a supernatural one. The sheer believability of the dialogue anchors us in reality, making the strange occurrences even more uncanny.
The characters are no longer of a uniform age and class: instead, they’re a cross-section of society. There are two middle-class, chi-chi diners, Jaeclyn (Zee Wong) and Shireen (Jasmine Xie); a “cool” café manager named Zat, (Erwin Shah Ismail); a struggling ex-convict male barista named Kim (Joshua Lim) and a uni girl barista named El (Ellison Tan Yuyang).
It’s therefore easy to see the café as a metaphor for Singapore itself. Zat’s the government, trying to keep everything running smoothly in a crisis, while his baristas are his labour force. And of course the diners are consumers: citizens whose blithe existence is made possible by the success of the nation.
And though the catastrophe is happening outside, it’s hinted that the inner tensions of the café are part and parcel of the crisis. Kim is scarred, underpaid, unable to feed his family, even resorting to selling toys on keychains to customers for extra cash. Zat gives preferential treatment not to him but to El, even though she’s well-off, educated and lousy at her job. And El herself suffers from an anxiety disorder so severe that she has to medicate herself with alcohol and marijuana just to function.
As for the customers—Shireen’s nice enough, but Jaeclyn gradually reveals herself to be Satan in a floral print frock. She relentlessly inundates the conversation with trivial gossip about babies and cubicle politics, even as her fellow diner grows frantic over the fact that her boyfriend is uncontactable. She casually admits that she spread rumours that got their ex-classmate thrown out of school; she straight-up abuses Kim by falsely claiming he got her order wrong, excoriating him for making all the wrong decisions in life and demanding others’ help, even as the world outside is crumbling into rubble. (Huge kudos to Wong for managing to convey a figure so utterly banal and so evil.)
In her Saturday review, “Apocalypse brewing in Cafe”, Straits Times journalist Akshita Nanda signs off by saying, “One comes away vowing to much nicer to waiters and maybe even start a collection of kitschy keychains.” She’s a friend and occasional colleague, but honestly, this is the shallowest possible lesson one could learn from the play.
The truth is, being a nice person won’t save you. Everyone in the café is doomed, because the institution is rotten at the core. This is why the characters abandon this little oasis, one by one, into the unknown mayhem of the night, leaving only the worst of them sitting at her table, waiting to be served.
Perhaps this is why so many of us craft stories about Singapore’s annihilation. Because we see all the warning signs that our success story may be a sham. We are filled with dread, and the only way we can deal with it is by scribbling Cassandra-esque novels and screenplays.
The end is coming. Everything must change. So we order coffee.
Café ran from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 June at the Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre. It was part of the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival.
Other reviews of shows in the festival may be found here: