Drama Box & The Necessary Stage
The Necessary Stage Black Box/ Wednesday
Manifesto is a fascinating collaboration between theatre stalwarts Drama Box and The Necessary Stage, coming just as the former's artistic director Kok Heng Leun has announced his application to be a Nominated Member of Parliament. TNS' artistic director Alvin Tan is a core member of artists network Arts Engage, which has been vocal in raising issues such as censorship.
Manifesto is a strident yet subtle answer to the question of whether artists should be political. How can they not be, the script points out, in a democracy, where every citizen has the right to vote?
The 140-minute long production also addresses the idea that art is manipulative and untrustworthy, by extension artists as well. Manifesto offers deliberately skewed alternative narratives of Singapore's history, present and future through the fortunes of artists in various decades. Through theatrical sketches, soundscapes and a mixed-media art installation designed by Chan Silei, attributed to a character played by Koh Wan Ching, viewers encounter pioneering playwrights, actors and painters in 1956 and watch their legacies affect other artists all the way into 2024.
Many of these stories are expressed through multimedia (the always effective Loo Zihan), or with well-timed soundscapes by Bani Haykal adding an unwanted reminder that the audience is watching a performance. This is especially disconcerting when considering the narrative of a former political detainee, played by a riveting Ellison Tan Yuyang.
Her video confession of 1988 is broadcast on screen to the audience just before a live interview in 2016 with a film-maker where she claims the confession was scripted. As she speaks some of her most powerful lines, her back is to the audience. A camera broadcasts her face onto the same screen, generating suspicion over the trustworthiness of this performance too.
Tan's single role is the exception in this play where most of the cast switch crisply and effectively between multiple characters - and languages too, in a script devised by all associated artists, including TNS playwright Haresh Sharma. The use of Mandarin, Malay and English gives way to mostly English by the 1980s, mirroring a shift in Singapore away from traditional roots.
But when the characters of this decade talk, words are missing, dropped from their sentences to echo their fear of speaking their minds as ever-present cameras take on looming significance. When Sharda Harrison in her role as activist Sheila De Cruz allows herself to start completing her sentences again in 2016, it is one of the most moving moments of the play.
Another is when Siti Khalijah Zainal plays a pioneering actress Som, reflecting on her short-lived, controversial marriage to a Chinese artist lost in Indonesia (played by Neo Hai Bin). She crumbles, ageing decades within seconds, helped by lighting from Petrina Dawn Tan. It is a relief when the diminished Som switches character to the abrasive Ramlah Zee, a loving homage to the overlooked production managers who keep Singapore theatre running (Ng Siaw Hui, Azyyati Alias, Hu Chun Lai and team for this production).
In Manifesto, the strengths of both troupes combine to create something instantly recognisable as a work from either and something new as well. The Necessary Stage's facility with intimate theatre allows multiple, nested storylines to build into one panoramic whole, without a loss of focus. Drama Box's experience with forum theatre at last year's Singapore Festival Of Arts is scripted in to add nuanced shades to what seems like a black-and-white discussion of freedom of expression versus the constraints of high office - literally black and white, thanks to costume design from Max.Tan, which echoes the characterisation. When Koh plays the daughter of a theatre practitioner who is careful to tread on the right side of the political establishment, she wears buttoned-up white. When she is outspoken artist Rumiko Bhatia, she is wears liberally flowing dresses.
As the R18 rating suggests, Manifesto is a show for mature minds. It conducts conversations about racial, sexual and religious prejudice, about power and the allowable limits of artistic expression.
It is also an unforgettable statement of what artists hope to achieve through their work, including to start conversations, not end them.
The fact that such a play can be presented here at this time shows perhaps that they are not very far away from their goals after all.
Manifesto is sold out.