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Celebrating Singapore theatre in style
SINGAPORE stage gets a boost this July with the return of the Singapore Theatre Festival featuring eight plays by local playwrights and directors. Organised by Wild Rice, the crowning jewel of the festival is undoubtedly Hotel, the much-lauded five-hour epic of Singapore told in two parts.
Named the best play of 2015 by virtually every reviewer, Hotel tells 11 audacious, funny and moving stories of Singapore over the course of 100 years. It starts in 1915 and tells one story per decade until it arrives at 2015. It is directed by Ivan Heng and Glen Goei and written by Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten.
Though it has more than 80 characters speaking in nine languages, this ambitious work centres mostly on ordinary women and men who aren't normally featured in the government-endorsed narratives - such as a "comfort woman" for Japanese soldiers, transgender hustlers of 1970s Bugis Street and a Malay family being racially-profiled post-Sept 11.
Heng, the artistic director of Wild Rice, says: "Hotel shows us our past and how that past continues to resonate today, affecting our present in various ways ... We don't look at our history enough, or parts of it have been censored, and so we don't learn from our mistakes." Though Hotel played to sold-out houses last year, the run was brief, prompting Wild Rice to bring back the play.
Heng is also directing one other play for the festival, My Mother Buys Condoms, a dramedy written by The Business Times arts correspondent Helmi Yusof. The play centres on a 63-year-old retired teacher (Lok Meng Chue) who finds love and starts having an active sex life again. When her children and neighbours find out, she is branded and ostracised.
Helmi says: "There's been quite a lot of moral panic in this country lately - from the objections over Adam Lambert performing at the countdown concert, to the labelling of large crowds in Little India as potential threats.
"I want to dissect that moral panic through this dramedy about a middle-aged woman who falls in love with her aircon repairman (Remesh Panicker) and encounters the social opprobrium of her neighbours and friends ... To me, the cause of moral panic in Singapore is often prejudice - prejudice towards women, the aged, the foreign, the LGBT, the blue-collar and other minorities."
Beside My Mother Buys Condoms, other plays in the festival are also tackling topical issues head-on. Playwright and director Thomas Lim looks at the erosion of Chinese dialects due to the policy that Chinese-Singaporeans learn only Mandarin as their mother-tongue language in school.
In Lim's play Grandmother Tongue, a young man (Tan Shou Chen) struggles to communicate with his Teochew-speaking grandmother. Lim notes: "The play is based on my experience moving in and living with my paternal grandmother in the last year with no 'intermediary'.
"Usually when someone of my father's generation is present they are the de facto translator. My grandmother would speak in Teochew and someone would relay the message in Mandarin or English. Without that someone, I struggled with my lack of means to communicate accurately what she wanted to know. I've attempted to capture the struggles, both hers and mine, in this play.
"For the majority of the Chinese, the bilingual policy has created a very unforgiving atmosphere towards our dialects and vernaculars. I feel like how 'Chinese' a person is is solely measured by their 'Mandarin-ness'. The dialects spoken at home do not count for being 'Chinese'."
Heng explains that contrary to the image of Singapore as being "one people, one nation, one Singapore", he thinks that Singapore is "a diverse and complex society. Many issues surrounding race, religion, politics, sex and gender identity have become divisive and polarising. We are afraid to address them and we are stuck, paralysed. We need new ways of seeing and thinking. And we want to do that through these plays."
Tickets go on sale on Sistic on April 18. A full list of the plays is given at right
Eight to pick from
June 30-July 24
This extraordinary two-part epic looks at a 100-year history of Singapore through the lives of ordinary folk. When it debuted last year, The Business Times called it "exhilarating ... sets a new benchmark for Singapore theatre".
June 30-July 3
Explore the past, present and future of Singapore's red light district, Geylang, through the eyes of its denizens. Directed by Rodney Oliviero.
Doublebill: Riders Know When It's Gonna Rain and Hawa
June 30-July 3
Riders Know looks at the subculture of mat motor (Malays who ride bikes), while Hawa is a candid, moving piece on Islam and sexuality.
Let's Get Back Together
A testimonial theatre piece about what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) in Singapore, based on interviews conducted with over 50 individuals.
A play about the cost of Singapore's language policies on family relationships, explored through a young man's struggle to communicate with his grandmother in her Teochew dialect.
My Mother Buys Condoms
A fun, funny and bittersweet play about a 63-year-old woman's romance with her aircon repairman. Directed by Ivan Heng.
A bold, provocative comedy written by Alfian Sa'at who reconfigures the racial demographics in Singapore to make Malays the majority and Chinese the minority.
All tickets on sale from April 18 from Sistic. Buy tickets to three or more shows and get a 25 per cent discount. Offer valid from April 18 to May 11