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IN 1992, then-theatre critic Hannah Pandian reviewed Michael Chiang's play Private Parts and concluded that the "special production should not close until every person in this country has seen it".
There were certain moments during the recently-ended Esplanade Studios' ambitious revival of 50 Singapore "iconic plays" that made one recall her words. The season comprised full-length productions, dramatised readings and forum discussions. Some productions were so powerful, haunting and exquisite, they deserve to be seen again and again.
The one that burns in the mind is Oliver Chong's well-conceived staging of Haresh Sharma's 1993 play Off Centre, with bona fide star turns by Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah Zainal. Their portrayals of mentally-ill lovers were so emotionally honest, it made a few audience members cry uncontrollably throughout the play.
Tracie Pang's taut and precise production of Huzir Sulaiman's The Weight Of Silk On Skin, starring Adrian Pang, was also unforgettable.
Beyond these two full productions, the 16 dramatised readings of plays stretching back to as early as 1962 helped unearth forgotten gems and recall well-loved ones in the Singapore canon.
Jeremiah Choy's staging of a reading of three plays centred on gender and sexuality, for instance, was stylish and highly charged. With just spotlights alternately illuminating different characters and different plays, Choy placed a lot of faith on the strength of the performers. And several did stand out, in particular Koh Boon Pin as a drag queen in Russell Heng's Lest The Demons Get To Me and Eden Ang as a Thai masseur in Desmond Sim's Autumn Tomyam.
Also outstanding was Huzir's staging of a reading of Chong Tze Chien's plays, in which just two actors, Brendon Fernandez and Tan Shou Chen confidently played about a dozen characters. In what seemed like a theatre equivalent of a "DVD commentary", the actors even played Huzir and Chong respectively as they candidly discuss Chong's artistic process and choices.
Making an impact
Other readings, such as Claire Wong's poignant take on Kuo Pao Kun's plays and Edith Podesta's ingenious splicing of Natalie Hennedige's plays, also made an impression.
Admittedly, the list of 50 plays is not what one might consider definitive. There were some omissions, such as Alfian Sa'at plays (Alfian declined to take part because he felt there are niggling issues such as censorship that are not addressed by such a celebratory season), Oliver Chong's Roots (which had just been restaged late last year) and a few Chong Tze Chien works (as the co-curator working alongside the Esplanade Studios team, Chong modestly picked only two of his plays to be read, even though his oeuvre includes others that deserve mention).
There were also works among the 50 that are arguably weak. The quality of productions weren't always high - some of readings were straightforward, while the season closer, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid's take on Tan Tarn How's The Lady of Soul & Her Ultimate "S" Machine, looked under-rehearsed. (See review below.)
But taken as a whole, the Esplanade Studios' season affirmed the existence of a satisfying Singapore canon that is perhaps not celebrated enough by the public. Actress Helen Mirren, once asked about the difference between American and English film industries, said the Americans are very good mythologising themselves in ways the English aren't. The same could be said about the Singapore arts scene, which remains somewhat bashful and tentative about its homegrown artists.
The Esplanade Studios' season, to wit, was well-organised and well-marketed. But it was a somewhat low-key affair. The five full-length productions ran for just four days in a black box setting, while the dramatised readings of 45 plays were one-time events in smaller settings.
One wonders if the Esplanade would consider carrying out a theatre retrospective every year with a full-length staging of a few notable plays. A production like Off Centre, with its latest cast and creative team, deserves a much-wider audience - perhaps made mandatory viewing even for every student aged 15 and above. Other fine plays such as Charged, Lest The Demons Get To Me, The Silly Little Girl & The Funny Old Tree, Wills & Secession and Fear Of Writing also deserve an encore.
Many reasons have been given for the layman's reluctance to watch a play instead of a movie - higher ticket prices, no international stars, no special effects and the possibility of the work being abstruse. A yearly event that reliably curates the best plays and talents might just entice the layman to skip that summer blockbuster and catch a stage play instead.
CAN a play about the "soul" of Singapore ring hollow? The messy revival of Tarn Tan How's otherwise solid political play The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate "S" Machine shows it's possible. From start to finish, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid's direction embraces an over-the-top performance and production style that looked like a cross between a drug-addled 1960s hippies party, Jane Fonda's kitschy sci-fi flick Barbarella, RuPaul's campy Drag Race and Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Such amalgamations are fine, of course, if the end product is conceptually lucid and coherent. But it is not, with different actors and production designers seemingly getting different memos, resulting in a chaotic welter of looks and styles.
For all its sound and fury, this new production does little to illuminate Tan's potent themes and jokes. First staged in 1993, the political play deals with still-important issues such as the pervasiveness of censorship and the inscrutability of bureaucracy. It's a particularly astute work because, as some have argued, the censorship situation has not improved substantially over the decades.
The 1993 production directed by Ong Keng Sen was drum-tight and a watershed for theatre. But in this production, the actors missed or came too early on their cues at least five times - a sure sign that the play is under-rehearsed. Some actors are allowed or encouraged to overact, drowning the very lines they're supposed to say and hogging the spotlight to the detriment of the play.
Most disappointingly is the "S" Machine - a machine that's supposed to give Singaporeans their "soul". The "S" Machine is pivotal to the play and was perfectly embodied in the 1993 production by a blow-up sex doll played by a young Tracie Howitt.
Here, it is brilliantly conceived as a large neon-coloured vulva that can swallow a whole man - or two, in fact. But it is woefully under-utilised and quickly forgotten in this manic circus.
Good actors like Lian Sutton and Crispian Chan get lost in the shuffle. About the only actor who survives the chaos is Gene Sha Rudyn who does camp very well and knows when to attack his lines and when to give the spotlight to other characters.
Zizi, known for previous productions such as How Did The Cat Get So Fat? and Charged, is an intelligent and thoughtful playwright and director. So one is baffled by how those beautifully nuanced plays have given way to such a loose, messy, poorly-orchestrated vision here.
Perhaps she is experimenting her way towards a different style of theatre, one that's closer to expressionism, absurdity or high camp, and would one day emerge with a clearer, more coherent vision. But this production, at least, needed a lot more work.