Burning down the closet door

Burning down the closet door
The plays in Invitation To Treat: The Eleanor Wong Trilogy by Wong deal with matters of the heart.

Play: Mergers And Accusations (first staged in July 1993)

Playwright: Eleanor Wong

What it is about: Lawyer Ellen Toh is in a bit of a bind - she is a closeted lesbian, attracted to women, but forced to put on a heterosexual front in her high-powered workplace. She marries her best friend and colleague, Jonathan, only to have her marriage unravel when she meets Lesley, a rising young lawyer who is startlingly candid about her sexuality. This play, which became the first part of Wong's Invitation To Treat trilogy, picks apart the knotty affairs of the heart.

Actress Tan Kheng Hua is a straight woman, married to a straight man - fellow theatre practitioner Lim Yu Beng.

But Tan, 51, has defined one of the most iconic characters in Singapore theatre history - the incisive and intelligent lawyer Ellen Toh.

E.T. (as her loved ones call her) is arguably lawyer-playwright Eleanor Wong's finest creation, a complex character who has continued to grow over 20 years, shedding lovers and gaining layers along the way.

Tan, who originated the role in 1993, tells Life! there was something magical about the play's first cold read, in which actors read out their parts with little or no preparation. Director Ong Keng Sen swept into TheatreWorks' former premises at Fort Canning Centre where several actors, including Tan, had been rehearsing for another play.

"It was all very sudden," she recalls, "Keng Sen already knew who should read what - he was obviously quite excited... We had never seen this play before, we did not even know what it was about. That was when the magic hit me. It was one of those love-at-first-sight sort of feeling."

She adds that "all of us were bawling so hard" by the end of the read.

Wong, 52, an associate professor of law at the National University of Singapore, felt she had been "rehearsing to write Mergers for a long time". She had entered TheatreWorks' Writers Lab in the early 1990s with another script in mind.

"But there was this other piece that just needed to come out," she recalls. She sat down and wrote Mergers, almost breathlessly, over two weekends.

The 1990s were some of the most fertile years for original Singaporean writing for the stage, with the emergence of the likes of Wong, Ovidia Yu, Desmond Sim, Tan Tarn How and Haresh Sharma. Through their varied interests - be it sexual, political or social identity - they interrogated the Singapore soul.

Theatre companies such as The Necessary Stage and TheatreWorks, set up in the 1980s, were starting to come of age and cultivating and producing home- grown works.

Veteran actor Lim Kay Tong said in a 1993 interview with The Straits Times, a month after Mergers' premiere: "Only five years ago, we were lucky if we had two locally written plays a year. Now, we have 10, 12 plays a year... The blossoming of local playwriting manifested itself in Eleanor Wong's Mergers And Accusations. The theme was handled with a lot of sophistication and maturity. The writer also showed a greater awareness of craft than I'd ever seen in local plays."

For Wong, then working in a New York-based law firm, that period was also a time of reckoning.

"The play had been knocking for a long time, but perhaps I didn't see it or couldn't understand it," she says. "That whole idea of being true to oneself in terms of gender identity was in the back of my mind but hadn't come out in a piece. Maybe I had been wanting to talk about this but in the context of that time, perhaps I was cowardly or not sure how it would be accepted if one were to talk about this sort of issue openly."

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