The world of unwanted strangers

The story is played out in a semi-circular set. The cast (from left) Shrey Bhargava, Selma Alkaff, Adrian Pang, Thomas Pang and Tan Kheng Hua.
The story is played out in a semi-circular set. The cast (from left) Shrey Bhargava, Selma Alkaff, Adrian Pang, Thomas Pang and Tan Kheng Hua.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

REVIEW / THEATRE

DRAGONFLIES

Pangdemonium/ Singapore International Festival of Arts

Victoria Theatre

Thursday


What is the difference between a Bangladeshi electrical engineer working a menial job in Singapore to feed his family and a university lecturer who loses his right to live in the UK and has to be an Uber driver in Singapore?

We are all unwanted strangers somewhere, is one of several points firmly driven home in Pangdemonium's Dragonflies, the latest riveting work commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

The lives of several kinds of economic migrants are woven into the script by Stephanie Street - a Singapore-born, resident in Britain - and played out in a semi-circular set. The shape draws viewers intimately into the worlds of its characters and reminds viewers of the globe we share.

  • BOOK IT / SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS 2017: DRAGONFLIES

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: Today, 8pm

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

    INFO: Advisory 16 (Some mature content and coarse language)

The actors bring in and remove props to create the dining room of a home in coastal Dorset, hospitals, the Botanic Gardens in Singapore and even the scene of a riot. Endless rain or bright, dusty light encircles the actors, depending on whether the location is Britain or Singapore. Sound by Jing Ng completes the illusion created by set designer Kwok Wai Yin or lighting designer James Tan.

The real illusion dispelled by director Tracie Pang and her expert cast is the sense that we are safe anywhere. Singapore-born Leslie Chen (Adrian Pang) loses his house and residency in the UK after the death of his wife (Victoria Mintey), a British national. Their daughter (Selma Alkaff) exists on sufferance in Singapore, just like the Filipina maid (Frances Lee) or Bangladeshi construction worker (Shrey Bhargava) depicted in the play. Leslie's mother (Fanny Kee) in turn comes from a family that once owned plantations and, through the decades, has seen her fortune dwindling.

Whether one is born in a country or heavily invested in it, natural or man-made catastrophes can rip out any roots sunk in and do it so swiftly one barely has time to register the pain of loss.

Every actor is excellent, but Lee, Bhargava and Thomas Pang stand out by disappearing into multiple roles requiring them to speak in different accents, tongues and use different body language. A range of ethnicities appears on stage, from Chinese Singaporean to the Chinese-looking from north-east India.

Dragonflies have startlingly wide migratory patterns given their bodyweight, but humans eclipse them, travelling for work, love and the dream of a better future.

The play is set in a near future where immigration laws in First World countries appear to be even tighter and when climate change is eroding land areas and sending even more refugees and migrants in desperate search of a place of safety. If Leslie's immediate downgrade in status after his wife's death raises eyebrows, it is played believably in a time just around the corner, when dwindling resources make protectionists use rigid legal checklists as an excuse to ignore common humanity.

The fact is, there is no space in this world we have shaped through agriculture and industry. There is no space, true, but we still have to make room for one another - and can, as the hopeful ending shows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'The world of unwanted strangers'. Print Edition | Subscribe