Haunting tales of change

Actor Fir Rahman in Prism.
Actor Fir Rahman in Prism.PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

A strong ensemble cast and moving scenes make up for the somewhat disjointed revival of Goh Boon Teck's 2003 Prism

REVIEW / THEATRE

PRISM

Toy Factory Productions

Drama Centre Theatre/Last Friday

Before the featureless grey walls of an ageing city, masked officers force its residents to their knees. Human objections are efficiently and mercilessly removed from the path of economic progress.

  • BOOK IT / PRISM

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till March 5, 3 and 8pm (all days)

    ADMISSION: $42 to $75 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

    INFO: In English. For more details, go to toyfactory.com.sg

The scene is made more powerful by its wordlessness. Only audible whimpers and a scream rise above minor key music from Jing Ng. Prism is an elegy and a powerful visual reminder of what is lost when a civilisation moves forward.

This revival of playwright Goh Boon Teck's 2003 project is beautiful, haunting but also disjointed. Too many ideas jostle for prominence in what needed to be a tighter production.

The original Prism was a multinational, US$1-million extravaganza meant to celebrate pan-Asian culture and lament the loss of diverse traditions as Asia sought Western- style success.

This version's director Rei Poh chooses to retain long speeches about the history of countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. These take away from a question both timely and relevant in land-scarce Singapore: whether urban redevelopment is a good or bad thing.

Bad, say the stifled speeches of news commentators following government diktat in demonising protests against the redevelopment.

Good, say the decaying, bland walls of the set designed by Leong Hon Kit.

This is no proud fortress of graceful towers that epitomise the cultural peak of a previous century. This place is a rotting old network of homes that should either be beautified or removed to make way for that much-needed nuclear plant that will power the entire nation.

The redevelopment issue is treated with respectful nuance.

Some of the scenes move backwards in time, so the urban planner Aman (played by Fir Rahman) hums a tune he apparently hears only in the future.

The point is that the city he must destroy has spiritual and cultural influence. This is movingly shown as Aman befriends a blind resident and attends a multilingual morning prayer ritual.

When this city and its residents are forcibly removed, what will take its place?

The strong ensemble cast enacts doomsday scenarios in response. The actors move bloodied hands in pretended joy, jerk mechanically to echo the industrialisation that replaces a closer link to the earth. Again, actions (designed by choreographer Goh Shou Yi) speak far louder than the words.

The script is sometimes clunky, sometimes profound. The flowery lines work badly in early expressions of dismay, but are transformative in a scene where Aman is seduced by two residents of the pleasure quarter - Shu Yi Ching and Trey Ho at their sensual best.

Audiences are treated to a glimpse of that pleasure quarter's past: It was a stronghold of political protesters and also a bloody battlefield. On cue, the cast's laughter is eclipsed by mournful song.

Change is inevitable and clearly unstoppable. But here is the clue: Perhaps holding on to intangible tales is all that is possible and all that is necessary, since brick and mortar eventually fall down.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Haunting tales of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe