Veiled digs at society and red tape

Veiled digs at society and red tape
Actress Neo Swee Lin plays the protagonist in this version of The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole by Kuo Pao Kun.


Life! picks the classics of Singapore's English- language theatre and tells you why they matter in this fourth of a monthly series

Play: The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (drafted in 1984, staged in English and Mandarin in 1985)

Playwright: Kuo Pao Kun

What it is about: A man recalls the bizarre happenings at his grandfather's funeral in this Kafkaesque play. The cortege arrives at the burial site only to realise that the coffin is too big for the hole. As he tangles with the authorities over what to do with the coffin, what ensues in this brief monodrama is a powerful allegory for Singapore's restrictive bureaucracy, its growing homogeneity and what it means to be of a "standard size".

As Emily of Emerald Hill sashayed off stage in 1985 in her sequinned kebaya, all colour and old world glamour, an unnamed man entered the Singapore theatre that same year.

He was dressed in a plain white shirt and black slacks, the colours of mourning - but also the office drone uniform of the working Singaporean male. Anonymous, blending in, like everyone else. Standard. His creator, however, was anything but. The late dramatist and theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun had decided to write his first play in English after years of working in the Chinese-language medium had established him as an incisive and socially conscious playwright, as well as a leader in the theatre community.

The idea for The Coffin first emerged during preparations for a production at the 1984 Singapore Arts Festival. Several writers had been asked to contribute to a showcase of home-grown plays, titled Bumboat. One of them was Kuo.

The play he wrote eventually became The Coffin. He said during a 2000 interview with The Straits Times: "It was written in about four or five hours. It just flowed out. I still remember that experience - it was wonderful."

Bumboat's American-Chinese director, Tzi Ma, tried but could not fit the piece into the framework of the production. Kuo called it a blessing in disguise, paving the way for a stand-alone production of The Coffin. That first draft was written in English and, as Kuo reworked it, he wrote a Chinese version as well, first performed by Zou Wenxue.

Actor Lim Kay Tong, 60, who originated the role in English, had been involved in Bumboat and had a taste of an early draft of The Coffin in rehearsal before it was removed. He tells Life!: "It felt like a very heavy piece compared with everything else; it definitely had a lot of gravitas with the whole ritual of the funeral and trying to create the right sounds and feeling of that. It was a whole group of us, chanting and dirge-ing."

Kuo approached Lim a year later for the lead role. The play was now stripped down to its bare bones as a one-man show. Lim says, "For me, that was panic stations. I had never done a long monologue. In drama school, we had to prepare monologues based on a Shakespearean character. Nothing like this, which was 30 to 35 minutes long. And he spent at least a couple of weeks just talking to me. I was worried. Because I thought, when is he going to get down to it?"

Among other things, they visited a coffin-maker and discussed the nature of funerals. Concerned, Lim secretly started memorising the script on his own. In retrospect, he believes Kuo had a very clear vision of how the work would take shape. He says, "I think it was probably the correct approach, because it somehow got under your skin - all the talking, the background."

One of the few directions Lim recalls Kuo giving him was to stand up at certain points in the play. "He seemed to focus on whenever the script came back to the coffin. Those were the moments of focus," Lim says. "The rest of the time he just said, 'Tell the story'. That was all."

The allegorical piece was a marked departure from Kuo's more strident earlier works about the exploitation of the working class (The Struggle, 1969) and tensions with capitalism (The Sparks Of Youth, 1970).

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