By Ana Ow
Even as the performing arts scene in Singapore continued to thrive for its circle of ardent fans, several productions from the past year also sparked conversations off-stage, not least because they tackled pertinent issues like race and the lack of a free press. We look at five plays that got the attention of both professional and armchair critics.
Press Gang (Wild Rice)
A satire from journalist-turned-playwright Tan Tarn How, Press Gang provided an insider’s perspective of newsroom drama, featuring such resident characters as the overworked reporter pursuing a hot tip, ambitious editors who cross swords, and the idealistic new hire. That the “Singapore Times” openly parodied recognisable characters from the national broadsheet and tackled the issue of a not-so-free press sparked discussions aplenty. Not surprisingly, the review from the real ST was somewhat restrained.
Tiger of Malaya (Teater Ekamatra)
Alfian Sa’at’s revisionist take on an iconic propaganda movie that featured Japanese actors in “brown-face” to play Malay natives, starts out with laughs but then swiftly tackles issues pertaining to Singapore’s colonial past and the colour-washing of history. The original film formed the backdrop of the onstage action and even the sound design, allowing audiences to get more deeply involved. The deliberately harum-scarum antics of the actors underscore genuinely provocative themes, including representation, accountability and history, which might explain why it sold-out over its 12-day run.
Underclass (The Necessary Stage and Drama Box)
Class differences dominated public discourse this year. But even before the documentary video by CNA went viral, this was explored in a politically-charged multilingual format in Haresh Sharma’s seminal play Underclass, co-directed by Alvin Tan (TNS) and Kok Heng Leun (Drama Box). Designed to a hit a nerve in its mostly middle-class audiences, it ends without a neat resolution to issues like social inequality and the fate of those who fall through the cracks, forcing the point that this imaginary tale is anything but.
Private Parts (Michael Chiang Playthings)
Even as its core theme “rings true even today”, this problematic restaging of Michael Chiang’s 1992 production last month sparked some fierce discussions for its “old-fashioned” and “dangerous” views, including on the mischaracterisation of gender dysphoria. These were not updated for its current run – and revived arguments against its portrayal.
A $ingapore Carol (Wild Rice)
The company’s traditional end-of-year pantomime, hailed as setting the standard for Singapore musicals, was particularly successful in going beyond traditional theatregoers to reach community groups. A remake of the Dickensian classic, it featured physical illusions and the clever use of technology, including large screen motion graphics and even the audience’s mobile phones. The subject matter was localised and well-timed for the festive season. This milestone production marked the end of an era for Wild Rice and the start of another – in their new home at Funan Mall.
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