Time Out Singapore: What Theatre Taught Us About Singapore

What the local theatre scene taught Gwen Pew about Singapore.

What Theatre Taught Us

23 Jun 2014: Every few months or so, there always seems to be a local play that’s set in some ‘fictional’ dystopian state. It may or may not name names, but it’s always pretty obvious what they’re referring to.

It’s not too hard to guess, for example, what the city of ‘SingaCorp’ in the Singapore Lyric Opera’s 2013 production of Pursuant is inspired by. In that fictional – and unsubtle – god-forsaken city, dreaming is illegal; to hammer the point in, the play also features scenes of a bunch of kids doing the Nazi salute, until the group of them, led by a character called the ‘Sticker Lady’, decide to do something about it, and march on to confront the state’s ruler, the ‘Old Man’.

Likewise, Michelle Tan’s recent Stand Behind the Yellow Line, presented as part of the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) Made in Singapore series, takes place under multiple screens of the ‘Mayor Man’ and is centred on the relationship between an depressed pill-popping girl and a homeless woman, whose son was sent to prison for graffiti.

If a foreigner unfamiliar with local affairs watches these plays, they may well think: ‘why yes, they do portray what I’ve heard about this sterile, super-censored Disneyland – wasn’t Singapore listed as the most unhappy place on the planet, after all?’

But of course in the actual world, things aren’t so black and white, and happily, there are plenty of plays that don’t feel like they have to reimagine our island as a fictional authoritarian entity to get their points across. They’re set right here in real life, complete with all its contradictions and conflicts but without missing out the subtle quirks that make the city so endearing. And ultimately, it’s these plays that truly reflect the place we call home.

Depending on who you talk to, our fine city is many things. It is culturally-diverse (as next month’s Racial Harmony Day will no doubt remind us) or shockingly racist (with things like the ‘rental discrimination problem’ on house-hunting sites like Property Guru, which even received coverage on the BBC); it’s safe or suffocating, dynamic or down right boring.

One of the best plays to deal with such widly contrasting views head-on is Alfian Sa’at’s Cook a Pot of Curry, which premiered last year at Wild Rice’s festival dedicated to the work’s of the rabble-rouser. As he did in the play’s predecessor Cooling Off Day, Sa’at interviewed a whole spectrum of people, got their views about topical concerns here – the rising housing prices, foreign workers, the smell of someone’s neighbour’s cooking – and strung them together into a piece that’s brutally honest and sarcastic at the same time.

Another play showcased as part of SRT’s Made in Singapore, A Wedding, A Funeral and Lucky, the Fish by Dora Tan, similarly explored more sensitive or even taboo subjects that people rarely talk about in public: its three main characters each deal with their own relationship issues: a marriage that’s gone sour, an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock and relationship with a married man.

And then there’s The Necessary Stage’s production of Haresh Sharma’s Poor Thing earlier this year, which ends up being an electrifying, emotionally-charged rant about everything from road rage to racism, all buoyed up by a thesaurus of swear words in multiple languages.

All of these works are great because they don’t need to directly mention the controlling government, but are instead centred on the humanness of the people, who are all just trying to find a way to co-exist in this Little Red Dot. It’s even better that their truths are delivered with a great sense of humour and tied together with ribbons of wit.

In the end, nobody’s saying that Singapore is a perfect nation. It’s clear that we have a whole bunch of issues that will perhaps never be fully resolved. But that’s okay, because it’s precisely these problems that serve as catalysts for our stages.

In Sing’Theatre’s A Singaporean in Paris, the titular character has an adventure in France, meets a great group of people but misses the fragrant stink of durians too much. In the final scene, he decides to go back to his home country, bringing with him his new Iranian friend, Sophia, to start a cabaret club because there are so many opportunities here to contribute to the arts scene here.

And that’s the point: yes, things do get ugly sometimes, both in life and art, but there is always hope, and that despite it all, Singapore is a place that many do want to come back to, or try to start a new life in. Of course, you can immediately get started on the imported talents debate – but let’s save that for another day.

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