This year’s annual Fringe Fest marathon watching begins. And what better production to start with than The Necessary Stage’s restaging of Singapore.
To be honest, I thought I was simply going to dig up my previous notes on the full dress rehearsal I caught during last year’s Singapore Arts Festival and write my belated views on what I thought was going to be the same thing (and, well, explain why it was one of my notables for 2011 – given that fellow reviewers didn’t really seem to like it.)
But while the bulk of it remains the same, it’s not the same Singapore.
Version One’s fragmented pomo zaniness, its extremely loose, meandering structure, its improvisational bits, its rather schizophrenic hesitations, its very incoherence as a whole I thought was rather charming. And, in a way, reflected the current state of the very country it’s titled after. And in hindsight, IMHO, should be clumped together with Cooling Off Day and Fear Of Writing as the three plays that collectively captured the political and social anxieties of 2011. If FOW was the gutsy one faced with a mid-life crisis and COD the feisty but popular Facebooking one, Singapore was the wacky, dazed and confused dude looking at everything that’s happening in front of him as if through a haze, an incomplete picture.
In Version Two, this very fragmentation was somewhat reined in as Singapore was tightened and made more cohesive. It made more sense.
It’s now even more clearly presented as a two-in-one play about the “unseen” and unrecognised players in the country’s history. The first part, a bwa-ha-ha series of scenes on the folks-who-are-not-Stamford Raffles — his wife, his rival William Farquhar and his wife Nonio Clement — and the wave of immigrants that came to call Singapura home. With lots of out-of-nowhere singing of contemporary songs and contemporary references. Hilarious stuff.
The fun continues in the second part but it’s mixed in with some serious issues – a meta-presentation of a play by theatre company The New Singapore (geddit?) about citizens old and new trying to rework the Singapore Pledge. The ensemble mix it up, weaving in and out of characters (the play’s and “TNS”’s), swapping roles and accents.
The original version ended with playwright Haresh Sharma, well, not ending it and instead working with the cast on a series of improvised scenes that mix up even more the scenes and characters and situations of Singapore.
This one makes the connections pretty darn clear. The tensions between citizens and immigrants in the play-within-a-play, the unease underneath the official lovey dovey mode of the country is echoed in the same issues that, surprisingly (?), rise up from The New Singapore theatre company. There’s closure and clarity of intent in this new version.
The thing is, I’m not quite sure if I completely agree with this strategy of making Singapore a more complete piece of work. I sympathised and sort of agreed with Sharma’s original hesitation at finishing and closing a piece with such a weighty title and with such ticking timebomb issues of immigration and race. I thought his initial decision to leave it rather open-ended was a relatively fresh approach and arguably the only available choice given its ambitions.
I’m now wondering whether the major tweaking perhaps highlights, more than artistic decisions regarding structure (again it does make more sense than the first run), the difficulty or tricky nature of the things it’s trying to say.
Perhaps the issues were too big for an out and out, slack comedy pomo meta play. But then again, that was exactly what I brought back from the original run. That the “foreigner issue” is too complex, too convoluted that really, it approaches the territory of the absurd and implodes.
But then again (again), Version One was staged in June. It was just after GE2011 and, arguably, everyone was at that point still making sense of what happened. COD and FOW, which were staged much later, had the luxury of gestation.
Which, I guess, Singapore now had. And the situation has (d)evolved. These past couple of months have seen an explosion of online vitriol against foreigners. If you thought GE2011 was the peak of hate and everyone’s calmed down, take a look at your FB wall or the comments section of practically every local news bit in Yahoo – it’s still snowballing.
Yes, my enthusiasm for it has diminished a bit for getting more “serious”. But the extremely honest latter scenes featuring Singaporeans dissing each other, “new” Singaporeans dissing born-and-bred Singaporeans behind their backs, and a confrontation between the two camps was something that had to be brought out in the open like a festering wound.
And my heart bled during one of the final moments where actress Karen Tan’s character (one of them) bursts out in despair about having to bring up her children in a country where people cannot find it in themselves to accept and to love and to be only filled with hatred for the Other.
Which is why, despite some of my reservations with this new version, I will still continue to applaud Singapore. And the Singapore it has its faith in.
(Singapore runs until Sunday. Details and tickets here.)