The production staged by The Necessary Stage (TNS) for the annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, is by any measure, a deeply problematic piece of theatre. The promotional posters for the play radiate uneasily with pro-government utopianism, with the main cast leaping with joy at the Marina Barrage, against the city skyline that has been so often been emblematised as the definitive image of first world Singapore. Even the blurb appears to have been ripped off a government pamphlet, sprinkled with cringeworthy phrases like “traditional family” and “alternative lifestyles”.
I felt guarded even during the post-show dialogue. Was this another one of the trickeries of contemporary art – leftover gimmicks from last year, along the lines of that mysterious painter and those illuminating zoological curiosities? A member of the audience curtly questioned why they were even reiterating pro-government rhetoric that we hear blared into our ears on a daily basis, particularly since the stage has always been viewed as the domain of alternative expression. Do we really need to be educated about the threats of “socially irresponsible behaviours”? Or is that even the playwright’s intention?
But perhaps it is this bewildering nature of ______ Can Change, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, that is the production’s ultimate value. The more perplexed and undecided it positions itself to be, the better. Even as it unapologetically preaches pro-government rhetoric, the play is essentially a deeply subversive piece. Among the droves of the educated, progressive and possibly more affluent members of Singaporean society seated comfortably before the stage, self-assured of their liberal qualifications and quietly relishing their membership within the nation’s forward-thinking, open-minded culturati, many were left visibly confounded and unsettled. Their formidable bastion of liberal values had been given a slight, unexpected jolt, by a series of anecdotes affirming conservative, pro-government stances no less. How is that remotely possible?
The festival publication describes the production as a series of three plays about change. But it is really just two short plays and a powerpoint presentation, with the cast playing multiple characters in each play. The bold experimentation and politically charged content characteristic of TNS is curiously absent. In fact, structurally, everything unfolds in such a straightforward, simplistic and predictable fashion typical of an educational school play that the whole experience becomes a little too surreal for comfort.
The first play, Singles Can Change, features Siti Khalijah as Gillian, a young, independent single who eventually reassesses her views towards marriage after meeting a bachelor, played by Chua Enlai, at an event organised by the Social Development Unit. She not only marries, but becomes a complete convert, becoming a kind of pro-family ambassador. In fact, by the end of the play, we see her seated amidst a panel, taking questions from the audience, cheerfully affirming her belief in the traditional family.
It is followed by the next play, Homosexuals Can Change, in which we watch Rodney Oliveiro’s character experience a personal, familial and spiritual crisis as he struggles to confront his sexual orientation. Distressed by the pressures from his mother, played by Nora Samosir and his crisis of faith, he is determined to become heterosexual, even if it requires measures as drastic as electro-therapy. He eventually abandons his boyfriend for a girl, much to the relief and approval of his mother.
The last play, Marxists Can Change, is essentially a chronological presentation of TNS’ history from its troubled days of being branded as a Marxist group to present times when it is deemed to have been “rehabilitated” from its socially deviant ways.
The change that occurs in each of the three works fundamentally involves a conflict between personal choice and social duty. And what seems to triumph eventually is the deliberate social engineering so often employed by the establishment. While many of these decisions involve deeply personal choices, “the government can help steer these choices”, as a line in the play goes. This is social engineering at its most efficient and bizarre, in which personality switches can occur as quickly as a powerpoint transition.
While Tan has explicitly stated that the play is decidedly non-satirical (and in fact it does appear at times that it consciously avoids being so), it is difficult to take his words seriously when parts of the play are so painfully cringeworthy. Powerpoint presentations dominate the show and it is tough not to cringe at those with the logo of a government statutory board emblazoned on it and the transparently euphemistic language used.
The challenge is made even more daunting by flawed delivery, particularly in terms of the acting which comes across, at times, as unconvincing and one-dimensional, particularly in the case of Singles Can Change. The image of a pregnant Gillian seated in a panel amidst the snug comfort of her husband and aunt, with an unbearably placid, contended smile on her face is far too caricatured to be taken seriously, whatever the intentions of the playwright. It also doesn’t help that the plays are narratively weak. Each seems to holler, “Yes we can!” with unfounded optimism, without actually illuminating us on the hows. All we see are heated arguments followed by an abrupt time-lapse during which change has miraculously happened off stage.
However, to take another perspective, the perplexing, incongruous mingling of (perceived) satire and anti-satire serves the play well in unexpected ways. After all, it is the play’s deliberate problematisation of itself and its messages that forms the core of its criticality. As an audience, we are left bamboozled by the play’s utter indecision of itself, constantly reassessing our prior interpretations, reconsidering the propriety of our last laugh, readjusting our lenses and eventually reexamining some of the fundamental beliefs that we hold on to so tenaciously, enabling a deeply self-reflexive process that endures beyond the play.
In fact, despite the fact that many of the messages insinuated have previously been repeated ad nauseam, some of them genuinely inspire reflection and reassessment, to the extent that we begin to recognise a partial legitimacy in the conservative assertions we previously abhorred so vehemently. The production’s greatest success lies in how it has managed not only to refashion conservative attitudes as alternative, but as one that warrants thoughtful consideration. After all, isn’t it generally true that children bring joy to the family? And while not all will agree with the trite “happy family” ending in Homosexuals Can Change, the sequence that shows the mother heartbroken and devastated by her son’s coming out is genuinely poignant. Are the post-Stonewall practices of the liberal West entirely viable within a more conservative Asian context?
For a production determined to engage its audience on such a deeply critical level, sensitive acting that leaves sufficient imaginative room to enable multiplicitious and even conflicting readings is of paramount importance. Perhaps this is where the second play fares slightly better than the first. There is a degree of nuance in Oliveiro’s delivery such that even as he concludes that his switch to heterosexuality was successful and ultimately beneficial, we remain ambivalent and undecided. (Is he genuinely happy or was that a tinge of regret that I had noticed?)
______ Can Change is a play entirely directed towards the liberal, open-minded culturati of Singapore. While aesthetically bland and narratively flawed, its very existence provokes self-reflection and conversation on every level, questioning what it truly means to be a liberal. For a play that can be too easily dismissed as simplistic if not for TNS’ reputation, it serves as a timely reminder that the “enlightened” segment of the population has perhaps guarded the liberal-conservative divide with a little too much complacency and zeal that it has at times become culpable of the bigotry that it so fervently persecutes.
______ Can Change was an event of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2010, which is taking place from 13 to 24 January 2010. The production played at the National Museum Gallery Theatre from the 13 to 16 January 2010.