[Theatre Review] Polarities Disguised as a Spectrum

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Prism

Toy Factory

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.

Other Reviews

“Dystopian drama lacks insight” by Helmi Yusof, The Business Times

“Haunting tales of change” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Toy Factory’s “Prism” refracts social reality” by Akanksha Raja, Arts Equator

“Enduring Prism’s lamenting angry lecture on urban change” by Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Review: Prism by Toy Factory” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

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[Listing] Prism by Toy Factory Productions

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Singapore’s leading bilingual theatre company Toy Factory Productions is proud to present its first production for 2017, PRISM.

Aman, an urban city development official, starts to question his work of demolishing old historical buildings to make way for new cityscapes. Faced with the task of informing the residents of the impending demolition of the city’s oldest heritage ‘The Surrounding City’, Aman experiences the wrath of the city, despair of her dwellers and confronts his personal ambivalence about the price of material gains.

A thought-provoking play that explores the limits of one’s threshold for pain and loss, PRISM spotlights the struggle between progression and development, and eroding a nation’s heritage and culture, through a storyline that will resonate with audience given the parallel in the current state of affairs locally.

An original script penned and directed by Toy Factory’s Chief Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck in 2003, PRISM was first staged as a grand multi-cultural theatrical performance that featured performing artistes and designers from six countries; including Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Today, the premise of the script remains relevant, especially in Singapore where development is slowly but surely usurping more local treasures.

In line with Toy Factory Productions’ unwavering commitment to provide the opportunity and platform for budding local talents, the upcoming PRISM is helmed by rising director Rei Poh; a consummate actor last seen in Toy Factory’s Titoudao, and features an all-Singaporean cast comprising several fresh faces led by Fir Rahman, who recently headlined the high-profile local feature film, ‘The Apprentice’ (Cannes Film Festival 2016).

Director Rei Poh shares his approach to his adaptation, “The story told is simple; one of progression versus loss, through a narrative that is familiar to most of us. I would like the audience to ‘feel’, more than ‘watch’ the show, since pain and loss are more deeply felt and conveyed through experience, than explained.”

PRISM

23 February–5 March 2017

Drama Centre Theatre

Tickets from $42 at Sistic

[Theatre Review] Turning Up The Heat on Politics

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Courtesy of Teater Ekamatra

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.

Geng Rebut Cabinet
Teater Ekamatra
Commissioned by W!ld Rice for Singapore Theatre Festival 2016
14 July 2016
Flexible Performance Space, Lasalle College of the Arts
14 — 24 July 2016

Neither our theatre scene nor playwright Alfian Sa’at is a stranger to political plays. But what the avid theatre-goer would have been used to is a play that focuses on a particular issue, and offers a barrage of criticisms; some vociferous, while others are comical.

In Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC), we see Alfian Sa’at unfurling his list of criticisms of government policies, especially those which affect different racial groups, and frame all of them within the boundaries of a political farce. From the lack of Malays in major military roles; to the lack of Malay representation in local popular culture; to the media releasing negative statistics according racial lines, nothing escapes this playwright.

Despite packing in so many issues and criticisms, he achieves the incredible feat of not allowing it to be overbearing, didactic, or a tiresome lament. His creation of a hypothetical Singapore with Malays being the majority, and the Chinese being the minority, is a defamiliarising element that throws the justifications the government gives for their policies into sharper relief.

It is within this sophisticated structure that the plot of five candidates from the ruling party contesting to win a group representational constituency in an election progresses. As Catherine Seah (Serene Chen), the minority Chinese candidate, deviates from the party line by campaigning for improving the Chinese community, the play poses questions that transcends beyond race issues: Who should a politician represent? What constitutes the people? Should one campaign for what one believes in despite in displeasing one’s constituents?

These questions are raised as Catherine comes into conflict with her colleagues: grassroots activist Zainab Halim (Dhalifah Shahril), Minister of Human Resources Roslan Jantan (Khairudin Samsudin), retired Brigadier-General Bukhari Ghazali (Fir Rahman), and Maisarah Hamdan (Farah Ong); a lawyer who neither harps on her homosexuality nor identifies herself to be part of the LGBT community.

While characters in a farce are not meant to be complex, the cast should be lauded for their robust performances. The comical moments are buoyant and entertaining as the actors pick up on each other cues quickly, while the tense moments are played with emotional truth as each character knows what they want out of the exchange.

All said and done, the successful staging of the show, with merely an advisory that says the show is suited for 16 years and above, raises another political issue. Why did the powers that be let such a show pass?

Of course, I can only offer speculations.

While I would love to think that the authorities have become enlightened to allow the airing of such issues, they could be acting based on yet another old argument. Plays have very limited reach, and theatre-goers are usually more “sophisticated” than the lay person. Furthermore, the “problematic” character is Chinese and not Malay. As such, the Malay audience members would not identify with her too strongly. If that were the case, then the very existence of GRC as a staged play is a manifestation of the problems that the playwright is trying to raise.

Other Reviews

“The Party Don’t Stop: A Review of GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Ng Yi-Sheng, The Online Citizen

“Review: GRC by Teater Ekamatra” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“Chasing our dreams… together?” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

““少数与多数之间的互换与碰撞” by Zekson Tan (陈迦笙), Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews