Culture Vulture

15 Singapore plays we can be proud of

They exemplify that spirit of empathy, embrace the multicultural and the diverse, often defying categorisation

Today marks the 15th and final instalment of Life's Classic Singapore Plays series. For the past 11/2 years, I have been visiting various theatre practitioners and groups in Singapore, coaxing them to dip into their archives or spare a moment with me over coffee or the telephone.

Some playwrights were easy to track down, their recent writings fresh in the minds of audiences.

Some playwrights, such as lawyer Lim Chor Pee and drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun, had died years ago, leaving me to piece together their artistic intentions from the voices of others - their colleagues or performers, or essays and interviews they had left behind.

The portraits that emerged were always moving and revelatory.

The cast of Mimi Fan (1962) never thought of the play as anything more than a bit of fun at university, not knowing that, in retrospect, the play would capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s. Actor Lim Kay Tong was bemused by Kuo's rehearsal process for The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole (1984), including telephone calls at 3am, realising only later what Kuo was trying to do. Then there was Tan Tarn How's meticulous and darkly humorous "diary of censorship", which traces the path that his play, The Lady Of Soul & Her Ultimate 'S' Machine (1993), took to the stage - first facing a great deal of censorship and then none at all.

Theatre is often like a rehearsal for real life. It helps us look at hard situations from a comfortable seat, so that when life throws us a few curveballs, we know where we've seen them before.''

Over the years, the audiences for Singapore theatre have increased, as has its quality.

English-language plays gradually moved away from a rigid three-act structure, leftovers from the British colonial influence, to let in a variety of styles and genres, some that interrupted conventions and some that invented new ones.

We have a soft spot for the monologue, whether Emily Of Emerald Hill (1983) or Kuo's Coffin - but also for the musical, captured in Michael Chiang and Dick Lee's irresistible Beauty World (1988).

There are plays that float in the realm of the abstract and the bizarre (Nothing, 2007) and those that use real voices as a conduit (Cooling Off Day, 2011).

As much as these plays are compelling and fun to watch, Singapore theatre has also always had a strong socio-political streak.

Artists often took on the role of the "fourth estate" and wrestled with difficult issues head-on.

They tested "out of bounds" markers and uncomfortable questions, challenging the audience members and authority figures to engage with a number of topics - politics, gender and sexuality, physical heritage, racism and ignorance, mental illness, and this hazy question of national identity. These plays reflect Singapore's preoccupations as much as they bring attention to the marginalised.

In a country where stability is prized, these plays have often deliberately rocked the boat.

Plays such as The Lady Of Soul, Off Centre (1993), A Language Of Their Own (1994), and Charged (2010) have all rubbed up against censorship in different ways.

The gay romance of Language, for instance, which takes a hard look at the fallout of HIV/Aids, received its Singapore premiere only in 2006 - 12 years after it was written. The heartbreaking Off Centre, which takes a pointed look at schizophrenia, depression and suicide in an unfeeling society, had its promised funding yanked by the Ministry of Health.

Despite this, these plays were often uniformly praised by their audience members. We may all hold different convictions - and that's okay. Theatre introduces us to new perspectives, and allows us to agree to disagree.

I believe that theatre gives us a safe space to discuss tough issues.

If we never air our thoughts on "sensitive", complex topics or never venture beyond our echo chamber of like-minded friends, these long- held ignorances and prejudices will continue to fester and rot. In that sense, theatre is often like a rehearsal for real life.

It helps us look at hard situations from a comfortable seat, so that when life throws us a few curveballs, we know where we've seen them before.

The Classic Singapore Plays series isn't perfect. There are omissions that I've made with regret and many plays in the wings that I wish I could have included.

Earlier this year, The Esplanade put 50 Singapore plays on show for its Studios series and, even then,50 was not enough - testament to the riches of the industry.

But all of the 15 plays that Life has chosen, I think, exemplify that spirit of empathy, of risk-taking and of a great faith in audience members to deal with hard realities with tenderness and maturity. They are "uniquely Singaporean", embracing the multicultural and the diverse without ever feeling tokenistic, and often defying categorisation.

I think they are 15 plays we can all be very proud of.

Go to http://str.sg/Z7xz for the complete 15-part series.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline '15 Singapore plays we can be proud of'. Print Edition | Subscribe