More Than Words: A Review of A Language of Their Own

Ming (Jayson Phuah) and Oscar (Alfred Loh) in A Language of Their Own

A Language of Their Own

Written by Chay Yew
Directed by Woon Fook Sen
24 – 26 March 2017, DPAC


Review by Suraya Zainudin

“Unlike women, men never truly get over the grief of a breakup.” Such was the conclusion of multiple behavioral studies assessing how men and women cope after the dissolution of meaningful romantic relationships. It is harder for men to fully explore, express, and ultimately heal after emotional pain; they are expected to simply ‘move on.’

This is exactly what the play A Language of Their Own explores. The two hour show — broken into two acts — follows the lives of same-sex couple Oscar (Alfred Loh) and Ming (Jayson Phuah) after the end of their 4-year relationship. Both try to find love again: Oscar pursues Daniel (Dennis Yeap) and Ming moves in with Robert (Gregory Sze).

The play’s driving storyline is set off by Oscar’s ‘logical’ decision to break off his relationship with Ming, his live-in boyfriend, due to his newly-discovered HIV-positive diagnosis. Throughout the play, Oscar finds himself unwillingly missing Ming and the life they used to have. He makes one last, desperate attempt to get him back, but it comes too late as Ming decides to move on through a new relationship with Robert.

The play utilises soliloquies to expose to the audience the men’s innermost thoughts during various stages of love and lust. And what an intimate experience it was. Director Woon Fook Sen did a great job in stripping bare the emotions the men go through, from the clear and pure piano composition scoring the scenes to the minimal set design to Ming’s literal strip-down scene at the gay sauna.

The first act focuses on Oscar and Ming’s relationship, portrayed in a non-linear timeline. I enjoyed putting the pieces of their story together, from courtship to honeymoon period to comfortable cohabitation to breakup to post-breakup. The script touched on how the cultural diversity within the English-speaking Chinese community echoes in the differences between Oscar’s and Ming’s personalities, acting as an interesting analogy for the breakdown of communication between the two lovers. Chay Yew’s signature writing style transformed mere words into emotionally-charged responses which tugged heartstrings; a few sniffles were heard from the audience throughout the play.

Ming (Jayson Phuah) and Oscar (Alfred Loh) in A Language of Their Own

The bedroom scene between Oscar and Ming at the party — my favourite scene — was especially moving. After establishing the context of Oscar’s upbringing as being void of physical and verbalised love and affection, the lines “I’m still in love with you!” and “Hold me. Don’t let go.” were dense with raging internal and emotional conflict. It resonates with anyone who has ever tried a logical approach to solve an emotional problem before finding out the hard way that life simply doesn’t work like that. When the show ended, I realised that this was the final time both characters meet before going their separate ways, and I cried for them.

In the second act, Oscar and Ming are often shown side-by-side on-stage, but this time in their new relationships. Both want to love again but now carry baggage. Oscar accepts being HIV-positive and divulges it to romantic interest Daniel, who finds himself falling in love but is also overwhelmed with the actual responsibilities of a boyfriend cum carer. As Oscar’s health worsens, Daniel is forced to take the realist approach to love. While he laments the flaws of unconditional love, the audience could see just how much the experience ages him beyond his young years. One can’t help but feel protective over Daniel whose ‘first big love’ ends as his new HIV-positive life starts.

Daniel (Dennis Yeap) and Oscar (Alfred Loh) in A Language of Their Own

Ming’s new boyfriend Robert, on the other hand, experiences the pain of loving someone who is unable to return it back in full, perhaps from the fear of being rejected again. As much as Ming tries to put in the effort in his new relationship — he moves from Malaysia to Singapore for Robert — the ghost of Oscar keeps flashing back. Ming becomes self-sabotaging and rejects Robert’s ideal version of love and companionship; their relationship fizzles with each ultimatum. That Ming only starts to mend his relationship with Robert after learning of Oscar’s death was heartbreaking, but one can understand why — there are no more lingering ‘what ifs’ with Oscar, he can finally start fresh. This, too, is achingly human.

It was obvious that the writer knew gay culture and relationships well. Within the queer community, love and sex are not always exclusive to each other. Half the characters solicit sex outside of their relationships as part of their coping mechanism, yet it does not make their love and affection for their partners less meaningful. This was an interesting angle not commonly seen with heterosexual pairings.

The portrayal of depth in the relationships was further complimented by the strength of the play’s cast members. Body language between the male lovers was translated well and a joy to witness on-stage — a rarity in this region. We see intimacy through the characters’ feathery, affectionate touches and smouldering, lustful glances. The pacing and transitions between scenes were fluid. Some lines could have been delivered better, but on the whole, the play’s cast must be commended for their brilliant performance and on-stage chemistry.

The full cast of A Language of Their Own

While the play had a lot of great elements, there was one aspect that it could have improved on. As evidenced by its reference to PT Foundation — a notable local NGO known for their work with HIV prevention and support — and other modern-day references, the play was open to improvisation suiting the current context in which the play was staged. Taking into account that current advances and increased accessibility of medication have significantly lengthened the lifespan of HIV-positive individuals, I was not happy that having HIV was treated as a ‘death sentence’ in the play.

In having Oscar die this way, the play seemed dated; a more suitable production for the 1980s rather than the 2010s. While I understand that Oscar’s death is crucial to the storyline, it would have been more believable if he, in addition to being HIV-positive, had another underlying health issue which triggered his rapid decline and eventual passing. But no —  he was young (‘thirty-plus’), he worked out, he took his medications and regular CD4 tests, he was living a comfortable life with evident disposable income, he had emotional (and implied community) support. The disease was unnecessarily demonised in the play, and I thought it was a backwards step in HIV awareness and understanding.

However, all in all, A Language of Their Own exceeded expectations. In his script, Chay Yew rightfully pointed out that the ‘language’ lovers share through words and actions is unique to each relationship; it is not something that is replicable even with other lovers. The play was a wonderful exploration of emotions within gay relationships and the male psyche in general, made possible through the production’s strong cast members, music, lighting, set design and direction.

Photos by Wendy Wong, TheatreX Asia