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LAST year's SG50 theme saw the production of some sterling new plays. But 2016 has been no slouch. New and important local works, such as Manifesto and Grandmother Tongue, tackled the impact of policy-making on Singaporeans, while two American plays, Falling and Disgraced, struck a chord with audiences here.
Meanwhile, the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) led by Ong Keng Sen again presented some of the year's most challenging works. Here are our favourite plays of 2016.
By The Necessary Stage & Drama Box
Manifesto arrived with little fanfare and played to a relatively small audience at TNS' black box in Marine Parade Community Centre in March. But it was the most powerful and relevant play of 2016.
It portrays the lives of Singapore artists from different eras (1956 to 2024) struggling with their art, ideals and government censorship. It tackles these issues with grace, honesty and intelligence.
And, as with the recent censorship of the M1 Fringe Festival, it shows how the arts in Singapore continues to be misunderstood by those who engage in it the least.
The best tear-jerker of 2016 was also the most technically accomplished. Deanna Jent's play about a family struggling with an autistic child featured a solid cast led by Tan Kheng Hua, an immaculate set by Wong Chee Wai and surgically-precise direction by Tracie Pang. Newcomer Andrew Marko, playing the autistic son, was outstanding. Family dramas don't get much better than this.
Five Easy Pieces
By Milo Rau/ IIPM - International
Institute of Political Murder, CAMPO
SIFA continued to be the premier platform for challenging work. And no play rattled the audience more than Five Easy Pieces. It centres on the real-life case of Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux, but it's not just the facts that shock you, but the way director Milo Rau chooses to tell them. His cast comprises almost entirely of children playing various roles - including the victims - but he keeps them at a safe psychological distance by turning the entire play into a Brechtian game.
The Last Bull: A Life In Flamenco
By Checkpoint Theatre, Huzir Sulaiman, Claire Wong and Antonio Vargas
Written by Huzir Sulaiman and directed by Claire Wong, the biggest crowd-pleaser of 2016 was a performed memoir of flamenco superstar Antonio Vargas and featured some rousing footwork. But The Last Bull isn't just interested in the fantastic life of Vargas - it also ponders the meaning of being an artist, and the precariousness and rewards of living one's dreams, and the peripateticism of going where the work is.
By W!ld Rice
Inspired by writer-director Thomas Lim's experiences, Grandmother Tongue tells a poignant and humourous tale of a young man who moves in with his 84-year-old grandmother, and discovers how his high education in English and Mandarin has unwittingly created language and emotional barriers with the Teochew-speaking woman.
By Hideki Noda and Ong Keng Sen
Though not one of Ong's best works, Sandaime Richard must still be recognised for its grand and suffusive vision. Blending a wide gamut of performance idioms, from wayang kulit to kabuki theatre, it tells a very funny story of Richard III and Shakespeare on trial for murder and factual distortion respectively.
By Joel Tan and Chen Yingxuan
Ostensibly, it's a story about two women making small talk in a cafe. In effect, it works like a horror film that ratchets up its tension gradually and methodically. The conclusion comes in the form of a slightly self-conscious speech about life in Singapore, but you leave the theatre feeling like you'll never be the same person again.
Ophelia and Electra
By Cake Theatrical Productions
Cake's new series of reimagined classics centred of literary heroines is excellent. Ophelia, staged in March, deconstructed the story of Hamlet's tragic love interest with postmodern panache, while Electra, staged in November, retold the Greek tragedy with pop music, oversized masks and riotous lighting. One can't wait for the next instalment.
By Singapore Repertory Theatre
Written by Ayad Akhtar, this 2012 Pulitzer-winnner discusses race, religion, politics, history and identity in the US with grit, style and economy. SRT's slick production of it also featured a lead performance by the company's artistic/managing director Gaurav Kripalani who - surprise, surprise - can act.
- Note: In July, this journalist's play My Mother Buy Condoms was staged by W!ld Rice and directed by Ivan Heng. To avoid a conflict of interest, it is disqualified for consideration