Singapore Theatre Festival: 8 Original Plays on Singapore’s Hot-button Issues

Let’s talk about race, religion, politics, sex and gender identity, shall we? 

This is Singapore. We are forward-looking in many aspects and we rank among the best cities in the world to live in. Yet we can also be viewed as ‘backward’ as a people. Developed and modern as we are, we approach (divisive) issues surrounding race, religion, politics, sex and gender identity either with fear or with prejudices through our own tinted lens. But it doesn’t have to be – and that is where art comes into the picture.

Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” If there is one theatre company in Singapore who is capable of exploring today’s hot-button topics through theatre, it can only be W!LD RICE!

W!LD RICE’s fifth Singapore Theatre Festival will take place in various locations in LASALLE College of the Arts from 30 June to 24 July. The annual festival is a month-long event dedicated to celebrating new local writing. Featuring the work of 9 Playwrights, 8 Directors and 4 Companies, the 8 new plays tell stories of contemporary Singapore and give voice to people from all walks of life: from the young and the old, to minorities and the marginalised, including members of the LGBT, Teochew and motorbiking communities.

Hilarious, witty and thought-provoking all at once, the plays “challenge and encourage us to imagine possibilities beyond our own biases and prejudices, giving us clues as to how we can live with one another”, said STF artistic director and W!LD RICE head honcho Ivan Heng.

I am particularly looking forward to Rodney Oliveiro’s Geylang that sheds light on Singapore’s most colourful and notorious district, and Helmi Yusof’s romantic comedy My Mother Buys Condoms that puts a cheeky spin on active ageing. Mark Ng’s Let’s Get Back Together uses the heartfelt testimony of LGBT individuals in Singapore to provide eye-opening insights into their trials and tribulations, while Alfian Sa’at’s GRC (Geng Rebut Cabinet) unearths some uncomfortable truths in a topsy-turvy political landscape in which Malays form the majority of the population.

Tickets are already available on SISTIC with 7 out of 8 plays priced at $40 or lower. Festival passes and concession tickets are also available. Be sure to buy your tickets early to avoid disappointment! See below for a brief description of the 8 plays featured during the festival. RW

1. HOTEL by W!LD RICE

Venue: The Singapore Airlines Theatre
Show Dates: 30 June – 24 July 2016
Ticket Prices: $80, $100 (click here to purchase tickets)

A hotel in Singapore is opened at the turn of the century, when the island is still a jewel in the British Crown. As Singapore morphs from British colony to Malaysian state to sovereign nation, its denizens experience profound and dramatic changes. We meet Indian mutineers, Cantonese nannies, Malay film stars, Japanese soldiers, transgender sex workers, wedding guests and suspected terrorists. They live out pivotal moments in their personal lives, even as empires die and new ones are born from their ashes.

A multi-generational epic that spans a century and unfolds in nine languages over five hours, HOTEL explores the notions of empire, nationhood, migration and identity against the backdrop of a shrinking world. Unanimously acclaimed as an instant classic and a five-star experience following its sold-out premiere at the 2015 Singapore International Festival of Arts, HOTEL is a ground-breaking theatrical event that highlights the eclectic energies born from the collisions between old and new, East and West, and tradition and modernity.

HOTEL was commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts and produced in partnership with W!LD RICE. A single ticket permits entry to Part 1 (1915 – 1965) and Part 2 (1975 – 2015).

 

2. GEYLANG by W!LD RICE

Venue: Flexible Performance Space
Show Dates: 30 June – 3 July 2016
Ticket Price: $35 (click here to purchase tickets)

Step into the neon-lit lorongs of Geylang, where a happy ending is not what you think it is. In this wicked interplay of four stories, meet those who have lived, loved and lost in Geylang. A pair of star-crossed lovers defy the river and cultures that separate them. Mediums and mamasans prey on lost souls. A single mother struggles to keep up with the relentless march of progress. A gang leader is swept up in a maelstrom of drug-fuelled violence. A civil servant falls under the heady spell of nostalgia as an iconic hawker stall is forced to relocate – or close down for good.

A potent, exhilarating brew of history and fiction,Geylang looks for truth in the past, present and future of Singapore’s most colourful district. Sexy, funny and poignant, Geylang is an electrifying, thought-provoking showcase of new Singapore voices and talent. GEYLANG was created in collaboration with the third cohort of young & W!LD (2014-2015), W!LD RICE’s youth development division.

 

3. Double-Bill:
RIDERS KNOW WHEN IT’S GONNA RAIN by W!LD RICE
HAWA by Hatch Theatrics

Venue: Creative Cube
Show Dates: 30 June – 3 July 2016
Ticket Price: $35 (click here to purchase tickets)

Riders Know When It’s Gonna Rain is a coming-of-age story of friendship that blossoms in the little-known, frequently misunderstood mat moto subculture in Singapore. It captures the bright, reckless spirit of youth: from the desire to rebel and an addiction to danger, to the fierce loyalty that springs up between kindred spirits. When their adventures take an unexpected detour, the four childhood friends learn that the road to adulthood can be bumpy and treacherous.

Written with an insider’s intimate understanding of the culture and lingo of Singapore’s motorbiking community, Nessa Anwar’s tough, tender play is an affecting portrait of youths living in the fast lane. RIDERS KNOW WHEN IT’S GONNA RAIN was first commissioned for and performed at the 2015 Singapore Writers Festival, as part of Checkpoint Theatre’s ‘What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem’.

 

4. LET’S GET BACK TOGETHER by Red Pill Productions

Venue: Flexible Performance Space
Show Dates: 7 – 10 July 2016
Ticket Price: $35 (click here to purchase tickets)

What is it like to grow up different in a country where laws, morality and the media dictate what is normal? Who gets to determine what constitutes harassment and discrimination against minorities? Is Singapore society really as conservative as we’re often told it is? Can this country truly be a home for everyone, regardless of race, language, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity?

Based on frank, funny and sometimes fabulous interviews conducted with over 50 brave and inspiring individuals, Let’s Get Back Together is an original testimonial theatre piece exploring the realities that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face on a daily basis in Singapore. Even as the rest of the world begins to wake up to the idea that LGBT rights are human rights, Let’s Get Back Together sheds light on the trials and triumphs of these individuals as they grapple with issues of faith, identity and acceptance.

 

5. GRANDMOTHER TONGUE by W!LD RICE

Venue: Creative Cube
Show Dates: 7 – 10 July 2016
Ticket Price: $35 (click here to purchase tickets)

In a Singapore where dialects have been losing relevance for generations, Grandmother Tongue traces a young man’s struggle to connect with his 84-year-old Teochew-speaking grandmother. He teaches her to use a mobile phone. He helps her buy her favourite brand of soya sauce. He visits her in hospital after a fall. Along the way, he begins to understand just what it means to spend decades in linguistic and cultural exile.
Inspired by Kuo Pao Kun’s seminal Mama Looking For Her Cat, Thomas Lim’s funny, insightful play examines the social costs of our mother-tongue language policy and the erasure of dialects in today’s Singapore. In ways both humorous and heartbreaking, Grandmother Tongue explores how our identities are bound up with the languages that we use and the ones that we lose.

 

6. MY MOTHER BUYS CONDOMS by W!LD RICE

Venue: Creative Cube
Show Dates: 14 – 24 July 2016
Ticket Price: $40 (click here to purchase tickets)

Sex and star-crossed love are domains reserved for the young… aren’t they? That’s what Maggie, a retired school teacher, has always believed. But everything Maggie had come to assume and accept about her life changes when she agrees to teach Raju, an air-con repairman, how to read. As their relationship blossoms into an unconventional romance, those close to Maggie begin to question her behaviour, morals and choices. Nora, her best friend, claims that she no longer recognises her. Wilfred, her son, is outraged. Only Gwen, Maggie’s daughter, seems to understand, but she has secrets of her own.

A romantic comedy that puts a cheeky spin on active ageing, Helmi Yusof’s first play examines society’s attitudes towards sex and senior citizens. Inspiring and empowering, My Mother Buys Condoms challenges audiences to re-evaluate the freedom to love for those who may no longer be young in body, but remain young at heart. MY MOTHER BUYS CONDOMS was first developed for the TheatreWorks Writers Lab’s ‘Writing From The Heart’ programme in 2014.

7. GRC (GENG REBUT CABINET) by Teater Ekamatra

Venue: Flexible Performance Space
Show Dates: 14 – 24 July 2016
Ticket Price: $40 (click here to purchase tickets)

With elections around the corner, a political party is planning to field candidates in a five-member Group Representation Constituency. On the shortlist are a Minister, a Brigadier-General, a high-flying lawyer and a grassroots organiser. But the team is not complete without a minority candidate. This candidate has to be likeable. He or she has to be a respected member of the community. Most importantly, he or she has to be… Chinese.
GRC examines what it means to be part of a minority in a topsy-turvy farcical world where the disempowered now rule, and the invisible have their faces plastered everywhere – but only during campaign season. Who defines whether someone is a member of a minority? Who sets the standards for a ‘model minority’ and a ‘problem minority’? And is the country ready for a minority Prime Minister?

The Emperor’s New Clothes: A Treat For All Ages

W!LD RICE wraps up its ImagiNATION season with The Emperor’s New Clothes starring Lim Kay Siu, Benjamin Kheng and Sezairi Sezali.

Pantomimes are always fun to watch, especially a W!LD RICE’s production. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is W!LD RICE’s fourth and final production under its 15th anniversary theme; ‘ImagiNATION’.

The Emperor's New Clothes by W!LD RICE pic 1

PHOTO: W!LD RICE by Albert Lim KS

 

Enter the dystopian yet colourful kingdom ruled by Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun. Emperor LBK is one egoistic, narcissistic ruler and has sanctioned the 49th NDP (National Day Parade New Dress Parade) in celebration of his good rule and well, new dress.

The music is playing and the little cheerleaders (First Kids!) are putting out their best performance for the Emperor. We didn’t have to wait too long to see the eye candies; Khairul No Surname (Singapore Idol’s Sezairi Sezali) and Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng from The Sam Willows) on stage. They are the orphan-turned-tailors behind the cheerleaders’ costumes.

Our Emperor (Lim Kay Siu) makes his appearance, all bald and pompous. Much like our own NDP, the New Dress Parade also features performances by the children depicting how Emperor LBK brought the fishing village from ‘third world to first’ (sounds familiar?) and saved the country from the tyranny of an evil villain quite literally by the sound of music.

The Emperor's New Clothes by W!LD RICE pic 5

PHOTO: W!LD RICE by Albert Lim KS

 

Midway into the NDP, a child performer (Anne-Sophie Cazaubon) performs a violin and vocal solo, drawing the applause from everyone, except the emperor who thought that she was “stealing my thunder”. She was imprisoned for ‘possession of drugs’.

Right after the 49th NDP performance, the emperor calls for his ministers to begin preparations for next year’s 50th Golden Jubilee NDP and his new dress (Singapore’s NDP preparation typically begins 8 months before, so it ain’t so different huh).

The national budget is blown (once again) by this year’s extravagrant tailored dress and next year’s NDP could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In spite of that, the ministers are chastised by the emperor to make it happen since they are the “highest paid ministers in the world”. Desperate, the ministers found their answer in cheap and exploitable local tailors Khairul and Nathan, owners of KnN tailors.

The Emperor's New Clothes by W!LD RICE pic 2

PHOTO: W!LD RICE by Albert Lim KS

 

The ‘brothers from another mother/father’ rallied and broke out into song and dance, celebrating their big break. They impressed the emperor with their speed tailoring and was advised by the Emperor to rebrand themselves as ‘KnN Costume Custom Bespoke’, KnNCCB for short (Laughs).

But all is not as it seems. The two discovers that the fashionista emperor that they adore can’t tell dog hair from fur and have been imprisoning citizens for unjust reasons. The KNNCCB tailors then decided to expose him with a dress made from a material so fine and exquisite that only the ‘most intelligent, clever and competent’ can see it.

Their plan almost go awry when Empress Janet (Audrey Luo) demands the tailors to try on the cloth (Kheng almost strips, don’t funk with our hearts damn it). A year later, the ‘big reveal’ was made ‘right in our faces’ and just like the original tale, everyone plays along until an innocent boy points out that Emperor LBK is really butt naked; further inspiring the ‘naked as my butt’ song.

But this is after all a pantomime for all ages and must end well. In the end, redemption and reconciliation was found with the emperor and his subjects.

The Emperor's New Clothes by W!LD RICE pic 3

PHOTO: W!LD RICE by Albert Lim KS

 

A world of difference from their previous production ‘Another Country’ (read my review here), The Emperor’s New Clothes features a gorgeous palace set by set designer Eucien Chia, and visually delectable costumes designed by Thailand’s Saksit Pisalaupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin from the Tube Gallery.

The music was equally good too. Trust composer Julian Wong to come out with catchy vanilla tunes like the “There’s a Festival” NDP opening song, Khai and Nat’s “Brother from Another Mother/Father” bromance duet, and more.

As expected of a W!LD RICE’s production, no source material is off limits when it comes to scripting. Young playwright Joel Tan is the brains behind the witty dramatised musical.  Throughout the pantomime, the characters were on round robin; taking digs at the Motherland with witty one-liners and humourous satire often referenced to that of Singapore’s style of governance.

In spite of these, I found Oei’s musical a tad too lukewarm for my liking. In one scene where the tailors were explaining a certain fabric material woven and “washed by virgin’s tears”, one of the kids in the act asked “What’s a virgin?” The reply he got was, “Er.. Olive oil.” Great save there even if it was an intended reply.

While I get that W!LD RICE always seeks to challenge perspectives and status quo against the current political and socio-cultural narrative, perhaps The Emperor’s New Clothes is not be the right stage to do so. Pantomimes may be fun to watch, creating one that’s entertaining across all ages is a huge artistic challenge. Often, sacrifices have to be made to accommodate everyone and the result is a toothless, half-pass-six attempt for entertainment.

The kids from First Stage! were exceptional in their song and dance, perhaps too exceptional. In several scenes, Oei had the kids playing the younger version of the main characters, which were for me delightful at first, but distracting towards the end. I found myself watching the younger Khai and Nat dancing rather than the actual tailors Sezali and Kheng.

The Emperor's New Clothes by W!LD RICE pic 4

PHOTO: W!LD RICE by Albert Lim KS

 

Making their debut in a W!LD RICE production, watching Sezali and Kheng perform was as interesting as watching paint dry. Don’t get me wrong, both are immensely talented and delivered their lines well. Perhaps it was the kids overshadowing their performances, or the ‘cooling effect’ of having two equally talented artistes with similar stage persona performing side-by-side, I was left disappointed (because I was really looking forward to Kheng and Sezali’s debut performance).

On the other hand, it was the supporting characters; Empress Jeanette (Audrey Luo), and the ministers (Siti Khalijah Zainal and Benjamin Wong) who I felt shone in their roles. Audrey did a spectacular job as Empress Jeanette. I love her bilingual and very humourous dialogue delivered through expert acting. I love the charisma of Zainal, come what may she always dazzles in the roles given to her.

Ultimately, W!LD RICE should be credited for giving young artists and creatives a stage to execute their craft. During curtain call, artistic director Ivan Heng tells us that the talented cast is ‘all Singaporean’, which was poignant.

One idea that I really like from the musical was the ‘air-con dome city’ idea so that we can wear ‘fall and winter collection clothes’ anytime. The playwright must had heard the call of every Singaporean and incorporated it into the script. I bet the dome keeps the haze out too.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is not W!LD RICE’s best work nor the kind the theatre behemoth is known for, but an entertaining act nevertheless. Support local and catch The Emperor’s New Clothes at the Drama Centre Theatre. RW

Many thanks to W!LD RICE for the media invite.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Drama Centre Theatre

Opens 20 November to 12 December 2015

Following our smash-hit production ofMonkey Goes West, W!LD RICE puts a Singaporean spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale about the ultimate fashion victim. Directed by Pam Oei, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a brand-new musical with a razor-sharp script by Joel Tan and a sparkling score by Julian Wong. Its stellar cast includes Lim Kay Siu as the Emperor, Benjamin Kheng of The Sam Willows, Singapore Idol’s Sezairi and Siti Khalijah Zainal – all playing musical instruments live on stage!

Ticket Pricing: $45 – $80

Web Link: The Emperor’s New Clothes