23 February 2017
Drama Centre Theatre
23 February–5 March 2017
In the programme booklet, playwright Goh Boon Teck emphasised that “this is not an anti-development play.” However, one is forgiven if one thinks otherwise after actually enduring the show.
The premise of the play is simple, and it ostensibly allows the audience to tune in to the debate. Aman is in charge of facilitating the demolition of Surrounding City, a place that was built as a sanctuary from the ravages of progress. In the course of attempting to convince the current inhabitants to vacate the place, his interactions make him question his job and the merits of progress as prescribed by the authorities.
But burrow deeper and one does not find a debate, but a simplistic rant.
First, a character decries the demise of culture: What happened to our traditional dances? Where is our traditional Asian clothing? Next, Aman encounters problems in his marriage. In a drunken stupor, he meets some of the inhabitants and is convinced to forgo rationality and indulge in his desires, as if both aspects can be so cleanly demarcated. Very much later, we are presented with a list of nations that were once colonial powers, and we encounter another binary; the colonial experience is completely bad, unlike the diversity and the cultures of Asia. This is followed very quickly by a litany of problems that plague Southeast Asia—Mrs Marcos and her shoe collection anyone?
Taking the trajectory as a whole, we are given the impression that the purity of Asia is soiled by modernity and Western influences. And this is meant to raise questions in an audience that is sitting on cushioned seats, watching an over-the-top performance in a state-of-the-art facility?
To compile the problem, the lack of rhetoric is coupled with a presentation of a society that is incoherent. Instead of giving thought to how the people of Surrounding City function, all we have is an anarchic celebration of diversity. The inhabitants hark back to abstract ancestors and practices without really elucidating what they will lose should the city be demolished. Furthermore, the walls of the city are brutish and they already look post-apocalyptic even before the demolition begins.
Additionally, Rei Poh’s direction seems intent on spending copious amount of time building up a disconcerting atmosphere, only for it to go nowhere. After all, there is only so much blocking and impressive technical effects can do to fill up a thin script.
To top it all off, Fir Rahman’s portrayal of Aman is cautious and tentative. After the first scene, one already senses that he is unconvinced about the merits of the government’s plans. When he recites the statistics about the building materials needed for the new facility, there is hardly any conviction and Fir fails to convey the significance of such precision. As such, his pivotal change of heart leading to his final soliloquy is not stark enough.
That said, if one can bear the whole show, one may catch certain artistic choices that bring delight. A stunning and exquisitely subtle moment occurs just before Aman is left alone for his final soliloquy. A door is thrown open and wads of cash are blown on to the stage as compensation to the inhabitants of Surrounding City. One of them picks up a stack and fans it out into a circle, signifying that the monetary compensation is nothing more than an offering to the dead.
Casting my eyes on the programme again, I cannot help but wonder why Rei Poh took the trouble, when the few hundred words in his directorial message about his neighbourhood engulfed in a sea of concrete is more impactful than the show.