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2015 produced some of the most dazzling Singapore plays this reviewer has ever seen. Partly fuelled by the buzz and significance of SG50, several artists and arts groups set out to create theatre that seemed to incorporate all they have learnt and mastered.
Heavyweights such as Ong Keng Sen, Ivan Heng, Alvin Tan and Kok Heng Leun - all of whom have been actively practising theatre since the 1980s - delivered pow-wow pieces that felt like summations at mid-point career.
The year also saw a raft of plays about Singapore's pioneers, from the good (The LKY Musical on late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Yusof on Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak) to the disastrous (Singapura: The Musical and Nanyang, The Musical, both incoherent takes on different aspects of Singapore history).
Notably, three of the works in the top 10 list here premiered at the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), powered by the progressive vision of festival director Ong - testimony to how art thrives when the person at the helm is willing to take artistic risks.
Here's our list of the best plays in 2015:
Top theatre company Wild Rice created the most ambitious play in the history of Singapore - a five-hour epic spanning 100 years of Singapore, with a cast of 13 actors playing more than 80 characters speaking in more than seven languages. It is by turns audacious, exhilarating, hilarious and heartbreaking as it tells the story of Singapore from 1915 to 2015, through events in a hotel room and characters who don't typically appear in history books. Nearly every aspect of the production, including direction by Heng and Glen Goei and script by Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, delivered in spades.
The Esplanade celebrated SG50 by reviving 50 iconic Singapore plays. Most of the readings and stagings were well-executed, but director Oliver Chong's production of Haresh Sharma's 1993 play Off-Centre was so rare, delicate and haunting, it took the tribute series to a whole new level. Chong understands its story of mental illness well, having suffered from depression and schizophrenia himself. And the poignant lead turns by Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah Zainal get this reviewer's vote for performances of the year.
The Incredible Adventures of Border Crossers
Here's another monumental piece of theatre that lasted more than five hours and featured 20 performers speaking in more than a dozen languages. Directed by Ong Keng Sen, the play-cum-museum installation-cum-fashion show-cum-musical centres on the wide-ranging personal experiences of the 20 mostly non-Singaporeans living, studying and working in Singapore. The result is a mesmerising tapestry of sights, sounds and emotions.
It Won't Be Too Long: The Cemetery (Dusk)
The complex political saga involving Bukit Brown Cemetery and the government's decision to exhume 5,000 graves to make way for a new road is brilliantly and judiciously recounted in this verbatim theatre piece by director Kok Heng Leun and playwright Jean Tay.
The LKY Musical
The early years of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is told through music and lyrics by Dick Lee and Stephen Clark. The main strength of production is the cast (Adrian Pang as LKY is excellent) and the script by writers Meira Chand and Tony Petito who condense several years of political history into a tight, pacy and riveting account.
Director Alvin Tan displays absolute finesse and assuredness in helming two short abstract plays by Haresh Sharma about women and mortality. Even if one remains unsure about the play's message, there's no denying the beauty and dynamism of Tan's mise-en-scene, the elegant cadences of Sharma's words and the hypnotic appeal of Bani Haykal's accompanying music.
Upstage: Contemplating 50 Years of Mandarin Theatre
The rich history of Mandarin theatre is recounted with much love and reverence by director Goh Boon Teck and playwright Cheow Boon Seng in this play-within-a-play. It employs live action, archival photos and video interviews with directors, actors, critics and even a driver.
Rarely are race relations in Singapore talked about in theatre - and certainly not with the kind of outright candour that playwright Alfian Sa'at displays in GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet). The play reconfigures the racial demographics of an imaginary Singapore-like country, in order to highlight the privileges of the majority race.
Pangdemonium's pitch-perfect comic-drama Tribes deftly examines the faultlines within a family, in which one of the sons is deaf. Directed by Tracie Pang, it featured strikingly strong performances by two relative newscomers - Thomas Pang and Ethel Yap.
Faith Ng's delicate and heartbreaking play about teenage girls in the Normal stream chafing under the perception that they are somehow less valuable as people than their peers in the Express stream is written from her own experience.
Wild Rice's Another Country; Loo Zihan's With/Without; Checkpoint Theatre's The Good, The Bad and The Sholay, Pangdemonium's Circle Mirror Transformation, The Finger Players' Seed, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid's Yusof, PAssionArts' Open Homes, Drama Box's Scenes: Forum Theatre Festival
Singapore art in the global spotlight
THE visual arts scene expanded impressively in 2015 with the opening of National Gallery Singapore. With a combined floor area of 64,000 sq m, the S$532 million museum features the biggest names in Singapore and the region. Unsurprisingly, the large and well-designed museum vaulted into the global spotlight, getting coverage in major publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian and Art Review magazine.
Meanwhile, government-funded art events such as the Singapore Tourism Board's Singapore: Inside Out brought Singapore arts to Beijing, London and New York, while the Singapore Festival in France organised by National Heritage Board and Institut Francais put Singapore on art-loving Parisians' radar.
But even as government-funded efforts made headway, the commercial art scene went through endless shake-ups. Several galleries downsized or shut down because of rising rents, overhead costs and slow business.
High-profile art fairs, such as Singapore Art Fair (an offshoot of Beirut Art Fair) and Milan Image Art & Design Fair Singapore, did not return in 2015 after their debut edition in 2014. And the upward trajectory of sales figures at November's Affordable Art Fair went south for the first time in six years.
But artists, collectors and galleries persisted in their love of art, putting out dozens of extraordinary exhibitions in 2015. Here are some of the best:
Siapa Nama Kamu?
(What Is Your Name?)
National Gallery's inaugural, ongoing exhibition of Singapore art takes its title from Chua Mia Tee's iconic painting National Language Class.
It begins with 19th century prints and drawings depicting Singapore's early years, carries on through the crucible years of Modern Art, and ends with the multimedia works of contemporary artists. No exhibition on Singapore art has been this comprehensive or looked this stunning.
Sous La Lune/Beneath the moon
LaSalle College of the Arts' Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore gallery had some splendid shows in 2015. But the ongoing show curated by Khairuddin Hori - formerly from Singapore Art Museum and now the deputy director of artistic programming at Palais de Tokyo in Paris - is jaw-droppingly good.
He asked 11 South-east Asian and French artists to interpret the moon, and the results range from Oanh Phi Phi's otherworldly ceiling painting to Marguerite Humeau's mesmerising sculptures inspired by ancient Egypt.
What It Is About When It Is About Nothing
The stillness of a vacant void deck, the mystery of unclaimed keys, the anonymity of Singaporean characters briefly appearing in Western novels - these are some of the images and concepts explored in artist-curator Michael Lee's group exhibition of seven artists' works at Mizuma Gallery. Its distillation of absence served as a counterpoint to almost every SG50 show.
Four of Singapore's best artists - Ho Tzu Nyen, Suzann Victor, Zulkifle Mahmod and Matthew Ngui - as well as its foremost art critic TK Sabapathy were brought together by Singapore Art Museum to parse the five ideals represented by the five stars on the flag - democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality. Their often gorgeous and large-scale works combine wit, high concept and sophisticated technology to challenge one's notions of the city-state.
Koh Seow Chuan: An Art Collector's Journey
Not a few art collectors chose to celebrate SG50 by putting on an exhibition of works from their collections. Of these, Koh's was perhaps the best. The architect showcased over 130 works amassed over 50 years at the massive Helutrans gallery. They include very fine works from artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng, Chua Ek Kay and Chen Wen Hsi, as well as two rooms devoted to works by Malaysia-born artists Zulkifli Yusoff and Mohammad Din Mohammad.
Imprint: New Works by Suzann Victor
The homecoming show of Australia-based Singapore artist Suzann Victor at STPI was nothing short of a triumph. Better known for her large-scale mixed-media installations and performance art, she employed these strategies to make strange and beautiful paper and print works - including a "performance on paper pulp" that had her writhing on large stacked sheets and tearing off portions of paper to create the works.
Tomas Saraceno: Arachnid Orchestra. Jam Sessions
The NTU Centre of Contemporary Art in Gillman Barracks staged terrific shows through the year. One of its best is the recently ended solo by Argentina's Tomas Saraceno, who placed live spiders in large transparent containers. As they spin webs, they make minute vibration sounds which are magnified by microphones and transposed into strange and truly wondrous music.
Cheo Chai Hiang: In A Cowboy Town
The wittiest show of the year has to be Cheo Chai Hiang's at Michael Janssen Gallery. Satirising all things SG50, the veteran conceptual artist created peculiar Chinese wooden clogs (as a kind of parody of SG50 souvenirs), a room filled with sideview mirrors (to reflect our paranoia) and hilarious signages that said, among other things: "Strawberry Fields Forever lah".
FOST Gallery continues to champion local art with its Foursight series of debut solo exhibitions by Izziyana Suhaimi, Ashley Yeo, Luke Heng and Khairullah Rahim. Izziyana's fabric creations and Heng's abstract and material explorations were some of the strongest works to emerge from young local artists this year.
Carlos Rolon/DZINE: Mi Casa
Pearl Lam Galleries, which almost always puts on a sensational show, introduced Chicago artist Carlos Rolon, also known as DZINE (pronounced "Design"). Dzine takes shiny trinkets, fake jewellery and other worthless objects to create stunningly baroque sculptures that make you rethink the value of things.
Honourable mentions: Lost City 3 at Chan Hampe Galleries, Dear Painter at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Prudential Singapore Eye at ArtScience Museum, Robert Zhao Renhui at the Substation, Liana Yang and Noor Iskandar at DECK, Wong Lip Chin at at Michael Janssen Gallery, Do Ho Suh at STPI, Sun Xun at ShangArt.
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