[Theatre Review] Dark Room Sheds (More) Light on Prison Life

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Dark Room
Edith Podesta
28 April 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio
28 April–1 May 2016

Two years ago, I was profoundly affected and had my pre-conceptions about ex-prisoners challenged by Dark Room x8.

The memory of its impact makes me apprehensive about watching this iteration. What should one expect of this second staging? More importantly, having been made aware of my prejudices, will Dark Room still have an impact?

I am happy to report that most of my impressions of the first iteration apply to this one as well.

In the midst of my apprehension, I forgot a simple truth. Regardless of what one knows, there is a sort of power in having someone stand in front of you and tell you a story. And the stories told in Dark Room—that of the prison system, and how it affects the individuals—need to be retold again and again.

While there are some changes in the main ensemble (Nelson Chia, Timothy Nga, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Tan, Mohd Fared Jainal, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Oliver Chong, and Pavan J Singh), the performances by this batch of actors are equally stellar. The complexities of script are deftly handled as the show organically shifts from poignancy, to hilarity, to the downright painful.

Chris Chua’s set, which consists of three structures that can be cleverly configured into the prison cells and walls, is a much welcomed addition. It vividly impresses on the audience the small space that the prisoners inhabit, and its possible psychological impact.

That said, this fuller rendering also has its excesses.

Director and writer Edith Podesta took on the audiences’ earlier feedback by introducing the perspectives of a female inmate (Shafiqhah Efandi) and the parents (Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin) of the prisoners. However, they are tokenistic at best.

Apart from learning two new facts,—female inmates man the call centre, and yard time is not a regular occurrence—the female inmate does not add anything to the show. Podesta also does the character an injustice by not giving her an identifiable personality which is present in the male characters.

Similarly, the parents’ perspective only focuses on their sadness, and the difficulties of visiting their child in prison. All these are not really new insights and could be easily imagined by the audience.

Additionally, certain sound effects by Darren Ng—such as the banging of the judge’s gravel— are too literal and gimmicky. This takes away the gravity of the text which can be competently conveyed by the actors.

Finally, the ending which has the characters repeatedly imploring the audience not to judge too quickly risks being overbearingly didactic.

Despite all that, the beauty of Dark Room is that the issues raised in the piece will always be pertinent. This gives Podesta countless opportunities to re-stage it, and find the right balance for the show.  What remains is for her to trust her artistic instinct and be very selective of which suggestions to bring on board.

Resources on Dark Room

Dark Room in residence @ Basement Workshop, Centre 42

Other Reviews

“Edith Podesta and The Studios’ Dark Room is an immersive and intimate retelling of life in Changi Prison Complex” by Karin Lai, Today

“Prison Tales Retold” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Struggling with the Outside from the Inside” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Chained and Connected” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Dark Room by Edith Podesta at The Studios” by Corrie Tan

“Architecture of Empathy” by Dumbriyani

[Listing] Singapore Theatre Festival 2016


Wild Rice brings back the  Singapore Theatre Festival (STF) for the 5th time  with 8 of the most exhilarating, ambitious, and thought-provoking new plays.  Featuring 9 playwrights, 8 directors, and 4 theatre companies, the plays touch on a diverse range of issues that would speak to people from all walks of life in contemporary Singapore.

With LASALLE College of the Arts being the  festival’s hub  from 30 June to 24 July, STF will feature re-worked productions of recently staged plays,— Rodney Oliveiro’s Geylang, Johnny Jon Jon’s Hawa, Kenneth Chia and Mark Ng’s Let’s Get Back Together and Alfian Saat’s Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC)—and shine the spotlight on the works of first-time playwrights:  Helmi Yusof’s My Mother Buys Condoms, Nessa Anwar’s Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain, and Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue.

Recently awarded the Best Production of the Year at ST Life! Theatre Awards, HOTEL, directed by Wild Rice’s very own Ivan Heng and Glen Goei and written by Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, will be the mainstay production of the festival.

There will also be a programme of FEST!VITIES held at LASALLE’s Lowercase Café comprising a series of lively forums; drag, music and stand-up comedy  performances; and a Playwriting Workshop by the festival’s Dramaturg and Wild Rice’s Resident Playwright Alfian Sa’at.

For more information about the Singapore Theatre Festival, please visit its official website.

[Dance Review] Expressive Gratitude

Nah MA

Na Mah
Bhaskar’s Arts Academy
16 April 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio
16 April 2016, 3pm & 7:30pm

Before every rehearsal or performance, Bharatanatyam dancers are required to perform the namaskar. It is a ritual which expresses gratitude to Mother Earth, the deities, and their gurus who have brought them to where they are.

If Na Mah is anything to go by, these people, spirits, and elements have done an excellent job with Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA).

In many ways, the repertoire on offer is an extensive namaskar. Deities such as Ganesha, Bhaskara, and Muruga are praised; the wonders of nature is an analogy of the nature of love; and the skill, precision, and presence on display testify to the wisdom and efficacy of the gurus.

In the course of this thanksgiving, the audience is reminded of how the body is a fantastic instrument for story-telling. The group numbers—especially Bhaskaraya and The Peacock’s Cue—are wonderful spectacles as the dancers come together to form distinct iconographies of the gods, or inject a certain energy in celebration of a deity’s divinity. This is achieved through the contrast between stillness and exuberant footwork. The slight variation in the way each dancer executes the gestures or facial expressions also present the multi-faceted nature of the deities.

That said, there are a couple of occasions when the dancers missed their marks by a hair’s breadth. But they are so minor that they hardly mar an otherwise beautiful performance.

The solo numbers prove that abhinaya (expressive elements) is a forte of BAA’s soloists. The exactness of the gestures, and the nuances of the facial expressions not only tell classic stories, such as Shakuntala searching for Dushyanta in Maaney, it also expounds on abstract concepts such as the nature of love in Vaanil Mukilodum.

The ability to portray an array of emotions, coupled with the different physicalities of the masculine, feminine, and animal within a split second indicates a high level of craftsmanship. From the feelings of joy and longing when one is in love, to seeing a series of flowers bloom with a mere flourish of the hands, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off the soloists.

It is important to note that the programme also includes two Kathak solos by Pallavi Sharma. While she brilliantly executes her steps in Shiv Stuti, the choreography does not bring out the enormity of Shiva’s cycle of nothingness to everythingness, and everythingness to nothingness. However, she is an absolute treat in And This is Love…. Sharma brings out the coy flirtation of lovers through motifs of looking and hiding, and slowly progresses into a series of spins which evokes the all-encompassing and thrilling feeling of love.

It would be remiss of me not to praise the musicians (Ampili Pillai, Arasakumari Nagaradjane, Ghanavenothan Retnam, TV Sajith, TK Arunkumar, S Harikrishnan, Imran Khan, Nasir Khan, Shakeel Ahmed Khan) for their artistry in enhancing the dances. From the meditative to the earthy rhythms of joy, the music is evocative, hypnotic, and potentially therapeutic.

It is unfortunate that we have no ritual of our own to thank the performers for the sacrifices that they have made. Perhaps, the best thing we can do is to show our continuous support and introduce more people to their work. And Bhaskar’s Arts Academy definitely deserves that.

Bidding a Home Farewell: On Space, Gratitude, and Spirit


Stamford Arts Centre, April 2016

To many, the Stamford Arts Centre is a quaint building where art happens. But for Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (BAA), it is more than a sum of the things that happen within it; it is home.


Mrs Santha Bhaskar

It is home not simply because she spent half her artistic career there, or that she feels a surge of sentimentality with the centre’s impending closure. Rather, it is home because the space is sustained by a community and, in turn, the space allows for art to grow and evolve.  She explains:

“It was in 1988 that we moved here, and we were the first tenant. The National Arts Council (NAC) did not give us a grant to renovate the place, but we needed to convert some of the bigger rooms into smaller rooms on the third level for music classes. What my late husband, Mr K.P. Bhaskar, did was to borrow money from our students’ parents, wrote IOUs, and we returned the money when we made some profit,”

Another significance of the space is that it marked a new phase of development and growth for BAA and its training arm, Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society (NAS).

“Our group is in this place. When we were at the National Theatre and Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre, it was Mr Bhaskar and I who taught dance. We didn’t have any teachers. I taught most of the classes, and Mr Bhaskar handled all the administrative tasks. We only taught and performed Bharatanatyam, that is all. Coming here, we really grew and we brought teachers from India to help with the music classes. So all that happened here. The school has become big now.”



According to an earlier interview, NAS  has around 2000 students learning a plethora of Indian art forms. Courses in dance (Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi), music (various instruments and Carnatic singing techniques), and visual art are offered. More importantly, NAS has its own syllabus for Bharatanatyam and students who complete it are awarded a diploma, and offered teaching and performing opportunities at BAA. “We are self-sustaining in the sense that we have our own pool of dancers and are not dependent on India. We have Singaporean dancers, that’s our specialty,” says Mrs Bhaskar as she beams with pride.

Courses offered by NAS.

Courses offered by NAS

But space and community are not limited to the boundaries within Stamford Arts Centre. “We are opposite two temples and there’s a lot of good energy for the space. So whatever we do, we offer it to the deities, the people, and the space around us.” She adds, “We have very good neighbours. Although we are near to a food court and HDB blocks, no one has complained that we make a lot of noise. We stay here with a lot of harmony.”

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple which is opposite Stamford Arts Centre

Nearby HDB Blocks

Nearby HDB Blocks

It is with this sense of gratitude that led Mrs Bhaskar to conceive of Na Mah as the first production of the year for BAA. “We will be saying goodbye to this building. It is my way of thanking the space, and the dancers who have learnt from me. While some of them have stopped, their presence and support have sustained the company.”

In fact, gratitude lies at the heart of her practice. “For me, it’s very important. I’m grateful to a lot of things which surrounds me. Even the dancers, they pass energy to me when they perform. I consider this to be my philosophy of performing and teaching.”

Mrs Bhaskar giving instructions to the dancers

Mrs Bhaskar instructing the dancers

The show mostly consists of Mrs Bhaskar’s favourite pieces that were performed by the company. “I can sit and watch those items for any number of times. Some people might get bored and say, ‘I’ve seen this already. Why are you watching it again?’ For me, it’s not like that.”

However, there are other pieces in the show that hold a deeper significance. Two pieces in the line up are from a previous production, Xpressions, which was performed three years ago. This was the last production that Mr Bhaskar watched before he passed away. “We had two nights, and he couldn’t watch the performance on the second night as he was unable to walk up to Esplanade. Three days later, he passed away,” recalls Mrs Bhaskar. “As these two pieces have not been performed since, I am putting them in this show to pay homage to him.”


Mr TK Arun on the veena

Yet, long-time fans of BAA have something new to look forward to. Apart from the opening number, there is an item that is based on a contemporary Tamil poem. Mrs Bhaskar elaborates: “It is about love and anger between two people. Who is getting angry with whom? I am in love with this space, the clouds love the sky, and the flowers are also spreading their scent. But who is angry with whom?”

She also points out that the pieces are not connected together and audience need not be intimidated, if they are unfamiliar with the Indian epics, as they can be appreciated on their own. Thus, Na Mah is a tribute to those who have come before, and a celebration of the artistic trajectory that BAA has taken.


Dancers in rehearsal

Despite the understandable sadness of bidding the centre farewell, Mrs Bhaskar is accepting of NAC’s decision. “Singapore is changing, and we have to change accordingly. The building is very old and its stability is a big concern for all of us. If it has to be changed, it has to be changed.”  To the best of her knowledge, the centre will be converted into a space for traditional arts.

While NAC has yet to announce any concrete plans, she hopes that the NAC and other government agencies are mindful of the centre’s surroundings. “I told them that we are opposite two temples, and a lot of devotees go there. I believe that there are a lot of energies around, both positive and negative. It is important that they consult both temples before going ahead with any plans. Personally, I believe that there shouldn’t be any tall buildings in front of the temples.”

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Sri Krishnan Temple as viewed from Stamford Arts Centre

Looking forward, BAA and NAS will be relocated to the fourth floor of Bras Basah Complex. The new space will host rehearsals for their next production which will be choreographed by Mrs Bhaskar’s daughter, Meenakshy Bhaskar, in collaboration with Balinese dancers.

Apart from new productions, Mrs Bhaskar is also looking at starting a research programme in the near future. It will introduce a systematic way of archiving, researching, and analysing the artistic practices of BAA. For a start, Dr Wong Chee Meng, post-doctoral fellow at Nanyang Technological University, will research on BAA’s upcoming performance of Ramayana in Thailand.


Mr Ghanavenothan Retnam (flute), Mr TV Sajith (violin), and Ms Ampili Pillai (vocalist)

When asked for her hopes for the future, she has this to say:

“I hope the younger generation will take it seriously. Apart from dance, they should learn music, literature, and visual arts because these elements are interconnected with any traditional Indian dance form.

But the present situation is that they do not have time to learn other things because they are busy with their studies or work. They can only do that if they are a full-timer, but somebody has to pay them a decent salary. I don’t think Singapore is ready for that. So they have to resort to teaching, but the body will become lazy. You’ll think that it is enough and say, ‘I’m making a living already, so why should I do other things?’

If you really want to be an artist, you need a lot of willpower. I don’t know how the next generation is going to be as they are quite pampered. But maybe, someone will come forward.”

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

Hallway looking into one of the studios where music classes are held

While the future may be uncertain, there is still a lot to be thankful for. “Mr Bhaskar used to say, ‘Although we didn’t make much money from practising art, we have a lot of good karma.’ We are able to give our students a little bit of knowledge about dance and music, and that itself is a big thing.”


Directory of Stamford Arts Centre







Catch Na Mah at Esplanade Theatre Studio on 16 April, 2pm and 8pm. Please contact Bhaskar’s Arts Academy at 6336 6537 to book your tickets.

[Theatre Review] “A World Beyond Common Sense”


Photo: Vasco Emidio

n.b.  I would like to inform my readers that I am currently helping Checkpoint Theatre to archive one of their upcoming productions. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique.

Jean Ng & Joavien Ng
31 March 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio

31 March–2 April 2016

(After Tynan, 2 November 1958)

A studio filled with ephemera. It is scattered all over the place as it is evident it has been in a toss-up of trial and error. Towards the back, a banner reads “Our Dream Show.” Two performers are in the midst of the devising process.

Performer 1 (henceforth P1) is at the mirror making a series of weird faces. Performer 2 (henceforth P2) reacts by laughing. P1 occasionally checks the sound levels of P2, writes in a notebook, takes photos of some of her faces, and continues experimenting in the mirror.

P1: (while writing in her notebook) Ok, so that’s two motifs done.

P2:  (laughs a little) I really admire you man. Not only do you have a strong physicality, you have a rubber face; the variety of expressions you can do ah. (P1 takes pictures of some of her own expressions) Eh, you trust me that much?

P1:  Yea. But we still have to try them out on others… just to be safe (continues with her experimentation).

P2: Yea, play safe better.

P1: But not too safe, if not our show will be boring. (She writes up her notes and takes a break. She’s clearly exhausted). Oh yea–

P2: What?

P1: What is a good way of linking the motifs together?

P2: Hm… I’m not sure…

P1: Damn. We still need to create more sections…

P2: Well–

P1: Yup?

P2: If the motifs are good then maybe we don’t have to worry too much. We just use the usual link. (P1 is puzzled) Since our work has a post-modern flavour, we link it up by the usual movement as if we are being electrocuted or possessed.

P1: What?

P2: Don’t worry. As long as the motifs of the facial expressions and our subsequent material are amusing enough, I think the audience won’t mind too much about that.

P1: (looks at the decibel meter) I guess so. Ok let’s KIV this issue.

P2: Orh. What about our other materials ah?

P1: Let’s look at our journals. (Goes to a table and takes two dream journals and peruses them with P2).

P2: Eh see here… We both talk about mirrors!

P1:  Mirrors… Maybe we mirror each other in something…

P2: But don’t make it exactly alike.

P1: Same same but different… Perhaps like we are in a parallel existence or something. Then we do actions within in a similar theme but we are clearly in different spaces.

P2: Yea! Maybe different climate or we suggest that we exist in different era or culture. Not bad…

P1: Good, good. At the same time we can also confound expectations. Since we are both women right, maybe we randomly do some construction stuff and cook really badly in some parts.

P2: (laughs) Can. But do you think there’s something is missing for this part?

P1: Yea… but I don’t know how to say it.

P2: That’s right!

P1: Huh?

P2: We can’t communicate what it is… lost communication… (tries to come up with related concepts for a bit) Since we can’t just keep doing stuff willy-nilly, we should try to establish communication with each other.

P1: But we fail to do that! That’s great… At least the audience has something to follow. We also can throw in something for fun (looks around and sees a red telephone) like that one! (Both agree and write in their notebooks) Speaking of audience following us ah, maybe we should come up with something on top of us just moving all the time?

P2: Like what? Monologues ah?

P1: Yea… You can do that since you are the literary one.

P2: Eh but you must also help me to think.

P1: If you want audience to follow us… then throw in something about mothers or childhood. Make that one funny ah. Don’t just make it a trip down memory lane. The theatre shouldn’t add to the nostalgia fest.

P2: Ok… But I think we need to mix it up a bit. Not everything should be funny.

P1: Funny is good what. If the audience—and especially the critics—are happier, they might be more forgiving… But you’re also right… If we want serious, then have something that suggests violence but we don’t actually act it out.

P2: Haha… like in a Greek play… Something serious… You ok with rape?

P1: What?

P2: I mean of course no one is ok with rape. I’m talking about adding something about rape inside the show… it could be quite violent. Just checking because some people might be sensitive.

P1: But we don’t act it out right?… Then it’s fine.

P2: Ok cool. Oh yea, how should we frame this whole thing? I mean we have a bit of this and that, but how do we string them together?

P1: We ask questions.

P2: Huh? Why suddenly so profound?

P1: No, we are talking about dreams and fantasy right? We ask questions about it.

P2: Oh like those seemingly paradoxical ones?

P1: Yea. With that we can also use the lights to highlight certain things. That way, we have some sort of structure but we are free to explore.

P2: Dreams are such wonderful sandboxes. You can do anything.

Other Reviews

“Madly beautiful dreamscapes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Intrusions by Jean Ng and Joavien Ng – Review” by Five Lines Asia

“Dreams, and what to do?” by Kei Franklin, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“不是痴人说梦” by Neo Hai Bin, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews