Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 24 – Dec 4, 2021
Playwright: Ovidia Yu
Director: Tiffany Wong
Cast: Denise Chan, Sabrina Chan D’Angelo, Happy Feraren, Caroline George
Images by Clare Hawley
In Ovidia Yu’s 1992 play, characters are referred to as virgins, mostly because they have been stripped of their sexuality, conceptually de-sexed, in a Confucian society that sternly refuses individuals of their idiosyncratic potentialities. The stories of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled take place in Singapore where women, like those of the West, are divided into madonnas and whores, except in this Eastern colonial city, the notion of women being sexually permissive or simply sexually autonomous, is so unthinkable and preposterous, that they are almost always reduced and relegated to a singular celibate stereotype.
By inference therefore, Singaporean women can often be thought of as beings without agency. The same restrictions that curb sexual expression, are extended to all other aspects of identity. Socially, economically and politically, they can only ever place nation and family before self, becoming cogs in the machine that serve a larger purpose, with no space left for personal fulfilment. Deviations are stringently prohibited.
Yu calls these women fat, because their lives are bound to a certain mode of passivity, as a result of the tight limitations they face in virtually every moment of existence. They become versions of “ladies who lunch”, gorging on high tea and consumerism, always with their mouths stuffed with food that function not as nourishment, but as silencing devices. Like fetishistic “feeders”, Singapore systematically fattens up their women, so that they may lose agility, consequently unable to escape their master, and his instruments of oppression.
Directed by Tiffany Wong, this Sydney production preserves all the humour and poignancy of the 29 year-old original. Wong does wonderfully to bridge cultural and temporal distances, so that we may perceive the relative foreignness of a play that comes from another time and place, yet apply its ideas to contemporary Australian experiences. Also noteworthy is Esther Zhong’s costume designs, blending hard and soft aspects of femininity, for beautiful representations of modern Asian women. A set by Sarah Amin addresses effectively, the frequent scene transitions of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, as well as providing tongue-in-cheek visual cues to the “exotic” nature of staging such a work in colonised Australia.
Four very committed and charismatic actors play these fat virgins, and their antagonists, with splendid aplomb. Denise Chan, Sabrina Chan D’Angelo, Happy Feraren and Caroline George are all funny women, able to convey both comedic and tragic aspects of the storytelling. The gravity they bring to the stage, often with an undeniable sense of melancholy, emphasises the point being made, but the ubiquitous air of irony the team is able to harness, gives their show its subversive and very pleasurable theatricality.
Women everywhere, it seems, are all humans, united by a very particular form of oppression. So much of our lives exist in relation to patriarchies, that rob us of our agency, our desire, our sovereignty. Those patriarchies may on occasion appear to celebrate and elevate us, but what they are championing, are invariably only qualities of their determination. Moreover in their endorsement of particular females, it is clear that their habit of picking one above the rest, is a reinforcement of their modus operandi; through which we learn that we will forever feel comparatively inadequate, and that we are to be divided and separated, if we are to be properly handled.
Singaporean patriarchy is always shrouded in a deceptive benevolence. It talks about duty, framing its impositions in familial and communal terms, whether wistfully or staunchly, and it will deny any attempt to redefine the status quo; the powerful will never concede. One hopes that three decades on, conditions would have improved since the initial conception of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, but the work’s resonances remain, and everything still looks convincing, real and truthful.