Singapore’s The Necessary Stage (TNS) is a very productive organisation, as befits a theatre company from our island-republic neighbour. It produces an average of two plays a year, invariably about pressing socio-political Issues. At a “Meet The Necessary Stage” event two weeks ago, TNS in-house playwright Haresh Sharma revealed a merciless work ethic: “If you are not producing work, any reason you might give for not doing work is an excuse.”
Goodness knows that Malaysian English-language theatre, susceptible as it is to faffing about, could use that emphasis on output. But the TNS process, to me, is uncomfortably product-oriented, almost factory-floor-like: pick a topic, research it, workshop it with actors, write a play, stage, applause. Listening to Haresh, I couldn’t shake the feeling that his primary aim was to put together a production, and less the effective and human exploration of a headline subject.
The two previous TNS productions I’ve seen, Good People and Gemuk Girls, appeared to suffer from this: funny, witty and spiced with powerful moments of humanity — but with characters who were all too prone to monologue about medical marijuana/the death penalty (in the former) or detention without trial (the latter), with the same depth of a newspaper op-ed.
Model Citizens (19 – 22 January 2011, KLPac; a restaging of its March 2010 debut in Singapore) is similarly un-gestated. It has an arresting premise: a Malay cleaner knifes an MP (PAP, of course; is there any other kind?) at a “Meet the People” session. But we never get to see that bit of action; the play cleverly decides to dwell on three characters: the attackers fiancée, Indonesian domestic maid Melly (Siti Khalijah); the stabbed MP’s Chinese-educated wife, Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian); Melly’s employer, a middle class Peranakan, Wendy (Karen Tan). The stabbing is a catalyst for all three to entertain their anxieties.
Mrs Chua is galvanised by her husband’s absence: she starts speaking to the press and clearing up his work. An authoritarian, interventionist Singapore has made her bitter — here, Goh was movingly, convincingly angry: “You wanted me to stop having anymore children. You changed the rules, and forced me to get sterilised. Now you want more children,” — and in her newfound power she imagines vengeance on the Anglo-centric status quo. “Mandarin will be compulsory for all Singaporeans!” she writes in a speech for Parliament.
Melly is the untrustworthy Indon maid stereotype: she abuses her freedom by working as a prostitute; her boyfriend, Zul, is a way to gain Singaporean citizenship. But Zul’s arrest unmoors her and forces her to examine why she wants to live in Singapore. By the end, she decides that Indonesia is home, and is determined to return.
Wendy is, presumably, Model Citizens’ audience-surrogate. She has no obvious faults. She is forward-thinking in terms of parenting and employment, espouses liberal views about race, language, and politics. She is also persecuted by grief. First her Aung San Suu Kyi-obsessed poet of a son commits suicide — now this stabbed-MP business. “But I did everything right!” Karen Tan despairingly asked. “Why me?” was the unsaid follow-up.
The play was excellently acted, with all three performers (veterans of the Singaporean stage) doing as well as their material allowed them to. But as action began to centre on Wendy’s existential travails, I couldn’t help but read Model Citizens as an apologia for the comfortable, English-educated, theatre-going middle class. Wendy’s fault is entirely justifiable inaction; her tragedy is the result of an uncaring society filled with Others: Chinese-ed politicians, Indonesians.
Why us, the play asks its viewers. Why are we having problems with immigrants? Why are the mainland Chinese taking over? Why are our children killing themselves? We did everything right! But victimhood is not a helpful notion. It makes it too easy for the sort-of liberal middle class (of any society) to absolve itself of responsibility. Good art about the Big Issues is honest: to its subject, to its characters, to ourselves.
This review was originally published for The Selangor Times.
Zedeck Siew is currently a journalist with analytical news website The Nut Graph, where he writes about Issues. He wrote for, and briefly edited, online culture diary Kakiseni, back when it was still running features and criticism. He also engages in fictions.
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