By: Rannald Sim
Family just is.
I absolutely loved _father.mother.dog/. It bedazzles. It is provocative, eccentric, disturbing and yet enthralling. Humour is blended with tension, angst and resent, strewn in with a dash of Freud and a pick of the future. Amongst the plays in the Fringe Festival that I watched, it was perhaps the only one which dared to portray a vision for a radically different notion of ‘family’, and boldly questioned human nature itself.
FMD is a male-oriented play.
Three men dominate – a renowned unmarried French professor with 4 daughters and 6 wives, an Italian manager representing the ‘classical’ notion of family, and the German researcher/protagonist who is obsessed about finding a solution to the problem of ‘the family’.
The beginning was abrupt and disturbing. I have no inkling whatsoever about German absurdist theatre (think Bertolt Brecht) apart from the groans from my Theatre-studies friends in NUS, but starting of with a power-point presentation titled ‘Research Project on the Prospect of New Family Structures by The Institute for the Studies on Marriage and Family Matters’ in a Seminar Room, clearly set my head wheeling, and I seriously thought that the Italian guy donning a beekeeper suit humming a strange Italian tune and playing with honey whilst walking around was going to seriously hamper my ability to write this review.
Nevertheless, it turned out to be a wonderful experience.
While the actors professed to have toned down the stereotyping for their first non-European audience, the characters nevertheless each represent a prototype of their nationality (together with friendly jibes that their stereotypes). Though the play leaves little room for real character development, it skilfully explores the question of human nature successfully.
Schneider is the gung-ho German social scientist whose ultimate aim in this project is to create a ‘new family structure’. This very aim and desire itself however suggests something of a darker nature, as he seems almost bent on freeing himself from the bonds of familial ties. Yet the painful dramatic irony is his susceptibility to it. In his lecture he argues that parenthood is delinquency and urges his audience against the ‘dumbmastification’ of humanity. Yet, he reminisces over a few baby toys (presumably his), lunges maniacally towards a ‘father-figure’ trying to shake him off, and writhes in angst, horror and ultimately pain as his creation refuses to acknowledge him as father.
French prof rips off shirt exclaiming: Schneider! Be a man! Run into me like a cannonball! I will hold you!
French prof: It’s ok Schneider. Papa’s got you. It’s ok… And now I will let you down. You can come down now. (German guy climbs onto him). Erm… Schneider?
Towards the end, the play even bordered along horror, continuing the tradition of Shelley in Frankenstein, Huxley in Brave New World and yes – even Hollywood (The Island). A blister is presented (uncannily similar to the ‘embryos’ in The Island really…) with a creature inside – a human without any notion of familial bonds. The offspring of Schneider, but hardly his son.
I couldn’t help but feel immensely disturbed when the blister was finally unwrapped at the end, revealing the voodoo doll-like robot thing which is supposedly the end-point and pinnacle of evolution and humanity. Sure – the thing is cute with his blue-pin eyes, its whirling heads and limbs, and it’s Bart impression of ‘eat my shorts’, but it shocks me at the same time. It really does. Ultimately, the play doesn’t explain why familial ties are the way they are – indeed they can’t. They just are, according to the Italian. But that becomes the strength of the play because it indirectly forces me to consider whether our notion of family is really inherent to us. A prerequisite to being human.
I shall not dive into a discussion of philosophy now, but it would be interesting to note John Locke’s theory of the Tabula Rasa – the blank slate (The actors themselves also did a crazy amount of research prior to the production and I’m sure that they would have come across it). Are all humans born a blank slate, waiting to be filled with knowledge via the senses, or are certain things inbred and born within us like our notion of family, love, ties and kinship? Even the promiscuous French professor has a very conservative notion of family – almost sobbing visibly upon hearing his son having done well in school. Having come from an incomplete family myself, it makes me wonder if this is an inevitable truth.
And then they were the bees.
Bees just are. They don’t ask why they exist or why they carry out that particular function. They just do it. Kinship, is merely a natural impulse and instinct. The instinct to produce honey for instance. At the moment of ‘revelation’ of the creature, the beekeeper guy runs in panicking. All the bees had left. No drones, no queen, no nothing. While the playwright had drawn inspiration from the recent news of the decreasing number of bees in America, it also served as a strong and resounding parallel to the action of the main plot. There, the scientists had found a new possibility of humanity – the abolishment of the family in itself. The bees similarly, seemed to have broken away from the very ties which kept them together in the first place. Two disturbing phenomena mirror and illuminate each other at the same time. No bees no honey. No family no love?
It would be impossible to cover all the issues brought up by the play in this article itself. You have to watch it yourself. I liked how the actors were inspired to do this play not only to bring awareness to the pressing issue of population decline in their homeland, but also their own personal journey to fatherhood as they all become fathers for the very first time. The fact that this performance was also the first time the actors did it in English instead of German to a non-European audience also heightens the universality of the issues discussed and presented. Ania, a German lady I spoke to, noted its pertinence to her being a German.
It’s relevance to Singaporeans? During the post-show dialogue, one of the actors noted chancing upon the ‘Romancing Singapore’ website while doing up research on Singapore – which was promptly noted by a member of the audience to be ‘a national embarrassment’. Nevertheless, it does clearly exemplify the difficulty of even breaking out of that ‘classical’ idea of a family – father.mother.child. The furthest we have come to, is perhaps only father.mother.dog.
Unfortunate? I leave that to you.
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This review is part of ArtZine’s Special Coverage of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Read our reviews of the other festival performances here.