What Makes a Classic?

Published on 7 November 2015

Singapore theatre titans weigh in on the ingredients needed for a play’s longevity.

BY JO TAN

By definition, a classic is a work of enduring excellence. In theatre, we all recognise Shakespeare’s plays as classics, and they continue to be performed 400 years after his death. Does this mean, though, that a fresh 50-year-old Singapore is too young to have enduring classics?

“I believe Singapore theatre has several classics,” says Alvin Tan, 2014 Cultural Medallion recipient and artistic director of The Necessary Stage (TNS). He has directed and co-devised just about all the iconic works by this year’s newly minted Cultural Medallion recipient, TNS resident playwright Haresh Sharma.

“There are several definitions of ‘classics’, including something that’s an authoritative example of its kind. That’s why I think Haresh’s Gemuk Girls (about how a Malay family survives the long-term incarceration of its patriarch under the Internal Security Act) is a Singapore theatre classic, even though it was a 2009 production, because it so thoroughly reflects Singapore on a political and social level, gender politics and race politics.

“Even on a more basic level, pieces that Singaporeans continue to enjoy and relate to over many restagings, spanning many years, are definitely popular classics even if they’re not academically studied. Without going into a theatre thesis, I think we can say there can be many types of Singapore classics.”

LITERARY GEM Gemuk Girls by The Necessary Stage highlights Singapore’s social and political issues.

THEN & NOW

SG50 has been the ultimate ‘classics test’ of which plays remain relevant over time. There were restagings of several Singapore works, such as Titoudao, plus the Esplanade’s ‘The Studios: fifty’, which paid tribute to 50 Singaporean plays, several of which hadn’t seen the limelight in decades. This month, there’s a revival of Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun’s The Spirits Play and the fifth local restaging of one of Singapore’s first musicals, Beauty World.

“It’s been very good to revisit our treasury of local work and to ask if they continue to make sense to today’s audience,” says Michael Chiang, playwright of Beauty World and Army Daze. “Because sometimes echoes come back, and it’s quite nice to see how works that were very controversial way back when could be so normal today.”

Playwright Jean Tay, writer of several works that have enjoyed multiple restagings such as Boom and Everything But the Brain (both are being studied in schools), agrees. “What was taboo then may not be so now, and might be even more accessible today. It was also quite cool to observe how many of the commonly hailed ‘enduring Singapore classics’ like Emily of Emerald Hill, or Off Centre, have a very local voice, with vernacular dialogue. Even when I teach in schools and I talk to young students about these plays, they say they start to hear their own voices, or those of grandfather in the kopitiam, and they relate, because they feel they are valid and represented.”

Chiang agrees. “There’s no formula for writing a Singapore classic. For me, writing plays is always about capturing that Singapore identity, spirit or idiosyncracy. I just want to make it very Singaporean from the minute a character walks onstage, the way they behave, the way they look. It’s about the colour and humour of Singapore. And I feel that those do last.”

Sometimes, the issues discussed also last, which is not always wonderful. “Off Centre had a very well-received staging earlier this year, but the truth is, I can’t tell if it remains relevant because the characters are well formed and the themes are universal, or because the central problem — the marginalisation of the mentally ill in society — has never gone away. And that’s painful, if that’s why it remains ‘classic’,” says Tan.

“It’s useful to restage plays and ask these questions. Sometimes they even unearth different current issues. I always look forward to works getting new treatments, and taking risks the original team might not have because they were held ransom by the original formula. There’s a risk of failure, of course, but if you think it’s a good Singapore play, it belongs also to the society, not just to you.”

BOOM TOWN Growing in popularity since its premiere, Jean Tay’s Boom has become part of the literature syllabus in Singapore schools.
CLASSIC REPLAY Off Centre, a play about the mentally ill, enjoyed a successful restaging this year. PHOTO  The Necessary Stage

TWEAKING THE SCRIPT

Indeed, many theatre-makers encourage restagings of established plays, not just to see if their classic themes remain relevant, but to find brand-new relevancy. Shares Tay, “It can be stressful, but also really nice, seeing deconstructions and reinterpretations of your works. At ‘The Studios: fifty’, one director, Thong Pei Qin, spliced passages and themes from some of my plays with those from other plays to deal with a theme of family relationships. That was interesting, to see new meanings in the text. It’s always useful for a piece to be seen through different eyes. Even when students study my works, I find some read more intelligent stuff in them than anything I could ever have thought of!”

Of course, restagings come with challenges. “Staging plays cost money, so sometimes companies would rather pick plays that are already very widely recognised so that many people will buy tickets, like Shakespeare, rather than Singaporean works,” explains Tay.

Moreover, classic scripts might need tweaks to remain relevant. “Scripts sometimes benefit from changes. I update the script for every staging of Army Daze. In the first staging, the officer’s girlfriend was said to look like Teresa Teng. Later it became Fann Wong, then Stefanie Sun. Most recently, it was updated to Rui En!” says Chiang. “Beauty World is a period piece that I don’t need to ‘update’ as religiously, though I reworked it for the 2008 edition. I wrote new scenes and Dick [Lee] wrote new songs, to clarify relationships and strengthen the show. For this year’s instalment, I added new lines simply because we have great actors onboard! It’s always nice to revisit each unique production and try to make it better.”

And, of course, there’s the stress of living up to a good play’s previous hype. Says Oliver Chong, resident director of The Finger Players, who directed this year’s hit restaging of Off Centre as well as the revival of The Spirits Play. “Of course, I have concerns directing what I feel is a classic. The play has always been so successful … until perhaps your version? Also, when directing Off Centre, I was concerned my interpretation might not be the same as previous versions, maybe not even what the playwright intended.” Chong inserted puppetry into Off Centre for the first time, and will do so again for The Spirits Play, where he also adds three ensemble characters.

NEW WORLD First staged in 1988, Beauty World gets its fifth local restaging this month.

CLASSICS IN PROGRESS

Pressures notwithstanding, Chong believes that Singapore theatre-makers have a duty to restage plays, perhaps even groom classics out of unpolished gems. “We have to keep giving works an airing, if only to develop them. Singapore is a very small market. We churn out and dismiss new plays very quickly. Many of them aren’t necessarily given the right amount of time to grow and develop. In Europe or the US, if a new play receives bad reviews, the theatre company can gather audience feedback and keep working on it, then travel to another state and perform it there after some development. If it’s still not well-received, they can keep travelling and developing until it becomes better. And it may eventually go from off-off-Broadway to Broadway, so strong that it becomes a classic.

“In Singapore, you do a budding play once and critics and audience alike might just say, ‘Next!’ It’s not really their responsibility to be forgiving, but then it becomes the theatre companies’ responsibility to nurture.”

Adds Tan, “Through restagings, you develop not just a particular play, but also your own craft. We are restaging Gitanjali, even if it wasn’t an unequivocal success. You see, it was a breakthrough for TNS, one of our first truly interdisciplinary works, and we don’t want to waste the artistic investment on one short run. We want to extend the process to understand the creation of interdisciplinary works. I can’t say if Gitanjali will ever become a classic — you can’t just restage something three or four times and call it a classic — but once we understand this process, one of our future interdisciplinary works might become one.”

Sharma concurs. “I don’t think one can really predict a Singapore classic or plan to create one. But perhaps that is not so important. I feel that more plays from the past should be given restagings. Often, theatre companies spend months creating and presenting an original play, and it’s over in a week or two. We shouldn’t have to wait every 50 years to celebrate Singapore writing. We should do so every year.”

 

The Spirits Play is on at the Drama Centre Black Box. Beauty World is on at The Victoria Theatre.

BRAIN NEW DAY Jean Tay’s Everything But the Brain continues to be studied in Singapore schools, inspiring new readings and interpretations.
BACK TO THE FUTURE The Necessary Stage plans to revive interdisciplinary work Gitanjali after further exploration and development.
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