50 Shades of Plays

Published on 31 March 2015

To celebrate a half century of Singapore English theatre, a vibrant selection of 50 Singapore plays are treated to restagings and dramatised readings.

TEXT BY JO TAN

Among the Esplanade’s assortment of performance festivals and series of programmes, The Studios is probably the quirkiest: specialising in small selections of intimate, experimental and often, new works with a healthy disrespect for convention. This year however, The Studios series present 50 extremely established local plays dating from the 1960s onwards, including classics like Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre and The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine by Tan Tarn How.

“It’s a little bit of a departure this year, for SG50, of course,” says Rydwan Anwar, a member of the Esplanade team and programmer for The Studios. “But that’s why this edition is called The Studios: fifty (TSF). We want to highlight that when all these 50 works first came out, they pushed the envelope, before eventually becoming the classics they are now. It’s a nice resonance.”

Playwright/director and 2006 Young Artist Award recipient Chong Tze Chien, who is co-curating TSF with the Esplanade, offers more details: “What Singapore theatre has achieved in five decades is astounding. We want to tell its story through presenting these scripts as five fully-staged plays with the rest grouped into dramatised readings.

“We cross-compared plays from different generations and noticed many recurring themes, such as gender and sexuality, politics and society. We grouped the works accordingly and within these thematic selections, compared plays on the same theme across different generations. It’s interesting to see how playwrights’ strategies in surfacing issues changed over 50 years, and to glimpse how Singapore society is changing — or not.”

Even before that though, the TSF team had to select plays to make up the magic number 50. This turned out to be tricky, not because there weren’t enough masterpieces to pick from, but because there were too many. Says Chong, “There are over 100 local works to choose from at the very least. We shortlisted just under 100, and took months to narrow down to 50. All our choices have quality as well as historical significance, or were artistic breakthroughs, or inspired entire shifts in theatrical practices.”

Then there was the issue of coordinating the titanic throng required to perform these 50 seminal plays. “It was quite crazy juggling everybody’s calendar, what with the different directors, designers, actors, crew and arranging rehearsal spaces. But it’s also encouraging to see that there’s more than enough talent in Singapore,” grins Rydwan.

Chong agrees. “Take the directors involved. We have so many to choose from in Singapore! But we were hoping to see new interpretations of the selected works, so instead of the more- established directors like Ivan Heng, we got those below the age of 50, from very seasoned to freshly emerging ones. It’s been such a celebration, such a rare opportunity to get everyone involved.”

Indeed, many of these directors are pulling out the stops in their reinterpretations of the classics. “We let the directors choose which script they wanted to work on, and many settled on their choice because they thought they could do something new with it,” shares Chong. “For Jeff Chen’s interpretation of Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral, instead of actors saying the lines, he’s pre-recorded the text, so the words are read by an invisible chorus of voices, accompanying the actors onstage.”

Rydwan is equally excited about the reinterpretations. “I’m interested to see Emily of Emerald Hill played by a woman, since I missed Margaret Chan’s performance,” he says, referring to how one of the most famous versions of the Stella Kon classic featured Ivan Heng as the titular matriarch. TSF’s version, directed by 2008 Young Artist Award recipient Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit, is headlined by theatre veteran Karen Tan. Adds Rydwan, “I’m also excited to see some of the earlier plays like 1964’s The Moon is Less Bright [by Goh Poh Seng] brought to life in our staged readings.”

If sales are proof of anything, many theatre-goers are psyched about seeing these 50 works come to life. “Many of the shows sold out within weeks and we had to release extra tickets,” says Chong. “There is a hunger out there for local works  — there are people who really want to see TSF productions and can’t get tickets!

“On the flipside, you have many people who know nothing about local plays and may probably remain oblivious. Not enough people know how good the local theatre scene is. I think the reason is many of our theatre gems played at small venues with limited runs. That’s why it’s important to restage classics, like what we’re doing for TSF.

“People think Singapore theatre is very new and still developing,” laments Chong. “But we have evolved very quickly these past 50 years. I will unapologetically say that we rival the scene in London, New York and anywhere in the world. Other than telling the story of Singapore theatre, I want TSF to help people realise we have a treasure trove of good works right here at home, ranging from experimental to mainstream — all thought-provoking, vibrant and challenging.”

The Studios: fifty is on till 10 May at the Esplanade.

UNDER ONE ROOF Dozens of our brightest and best playwrights, from past to present, collaborate in The Studios: fifty to restage Singapore classics.
ONCE AGAIN, WITH FEELING Singapore stage classics Off Centre (top) and The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate “S” Machine (bottom) get fresh reinterpretations with an all-new cast.
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