Online Editor Arman Shah pens his thoughts on “Tender Submission”, the thought-provoking play that’s proudly staged by Checkpoint Theatre.

Till death do us part. That is the promise; a sacred vow binding a couple of the Christian faith in a union meant to last a lifetime. But what happens when a marriage dies prematurely in the privacy of one’s innermost thoughts, before mortality even claims husband or wife? 

What happens when two people find themselves drifting apart, and the space that once held affection and familiarity, now feels more like a void between strangers? This plausible reality is the crux in which playwright Lucas Ho sinks his teeth in Tender Submission.

The cry room

Tender Submission takes place in the seclusion of a toy-strewn cry room, a sound-proof area traditionally found in the back of a church. This is where parents take their crying children and attend to their needs to avoid disrupting a church service.

The metaphorical significance of the cry room comes into play the moment the two main characters – Catherine (played by Neo Swee Lin) and David (played by Lim Kay Siu) – are introduced to the audience.

Their first interaction comes in the form of a petty argument about the brightness of the cry room. Seems like a trivial, run-of-the-mill exchange between a married couple, but that is just a prelude to a verbal war of ideological differences.

Religion in secular Singapore

The catalyst for the unravelling of their 30-year marriage is an important vote that determines the fate of the church. As they anxiously await the outcome, Catherine finds herself bursting at the seams to tell David what she feels God has spurred her to do.

This newfound calling catches David completely off guard and clashes with his personal beliefs. Like a flame, it sparks an impassioned banter about the role of a church in secular Singapore, and what is gained or lost by tipping the balance during these changing times.

To grow is to grow apart

As much as this play questions the place of religious practice in Singapore, Tender Submission is about coming to terms with change. With the passing of time, a husband and wife naturally evolve and mature into different people.

And perhaps they didn’t change. Perhaps they’ve simply grown more into themselves, and the crashing wave of life compels them to confront this new reality. How does reconciliation take place in the wake of their individual evolution, even if it’s a hard pill to swallow?

A real-life partnership

The fact that veteran actors Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu are a real-life couple – married for 31 years, one might add! – adds a layer of depth and authenticity to their portrayal of Catherine and David.

From the tone of their voice to how they emote when they’re teasing, ridiculing, comforting and downright hurting or loving on one another, their on-stage chemistry leaves fairy dust traces of a lived experience, or so one can assume.

Even if they are delivering lines that were written by someone else, only two people with an intimate understanding of one another can know which buttons to push to get under the other’s skin. Their performance feels rooted in honesty. 

Two directors

Tender Submission also benefits from the dynamics of having two directors who – just like Catherine and David – are seemingly polar opposites.

You have the legendary Huzir Sulaiman, a married man of the Islamic faith with years of experience as a director and theatre maker. And you have Chen Yingxuan, a young adult who grew up in a church and is raved as one of the most exciting directors of her generation.

On paper, they seem to make up for potential gaps in experience or knowledge that the other might have. But more consequentially, two artists with different life experiences only add more richness to the staging of a play, and that was evident in Tender Submission.

All in all

The more you deconstruct and analyse Tender Submission, the more in awe you’ll be of Lucas’ writing prowess. This is a complexly-layered piece of writing that’s staged with great direction and brought to life by two masterful actors.

Even if you are not married or subscribed to the Christian faith, you can empathise with the universal struggle of questioning your greater purpose on earth, or struggling to make space for someone who doesn’t align with your personal growth and evolution.

In the case of Catherine and David, one can argue that their frustration to make each other accept and understand change is a by-product of love – or whatever incarnation of love that remains at this juncture of their marriage – because it sure doesn’t look like indifference.

And just like the unkempt cry room that’s spotless by the end of the play, their relationship restarts on a clean slate, one that doesn’t require total submission to each other, but compassion, empathy and compromise, like any time-tested, godly marriage. 

Review by Arman Shah