In its relatively short, 50-year history, Singapore’s English-language theatre has had its share of memorable plays. Life! picks the classics and tells you why they matter in this new monthly 15-part series, titled Classic Singapore Plays, that runs till August 2015.
The play Are You There, Singapore? (1974) by Robert Yeo is the second instalment in the series. Here are five reasons why it is a classic:
1) The play marked one of the very few Singapore voices in the 1970s, after an initial burst of effort in the 1960s to create some sort of national theatre had simmered down to a lukewarm slow burn.
Playwright Robert Yeo says, “There were directors who showed no sympathy for Singapore plays. Goh Poh Seng was on to other things and Lim Chor Pee had retired from playwriting. So no one would give the Singapore play its due. There were producers who just wanted to do Anglo-American plays.”
The 1970s felt like a period of maneuvering for English-language theatre, preparing the way for the flurry of activity that would occur in the 1980s, when pioneering theatre companies such as ACT 3 and TheatreWorks would begin to emerge.
2) It was one of the earliest local political plays written in English.
The play picked up on the growing activist student population both at home and abroad. The main characters are thrown headlong into these discussions, whether by choice or by chance.
Yeo says: “There was the sense that from 1966 to 1968, the years after separation (from Malaysia), there were great things happening in Singapore, that the most significant thing in our history was happening. It must have been very exciting, the early years of creating a new nation – and I felt that I was missing out on something.”
3) It made great strides in accurately portraying the Singaporean vernacular on stage.
One of the problems early English-language theatre faced was the awkward nature of the Singapore English lexicon. Playwrights were undecided over the voices of their characters, and whether they ought to speak in pristine Queen’s English or the more colloquial vernacular that most Singaporeans were comfortable with. This inevitably reflected the same sort of questions Singapore had over what its native tongue should be. While Are You There, Singapore? focused almost exclusively on the English-educated elite, Yeo demonstrated a surer grasp of the idiosyncrasies of Singaporean English than his predecessors.
4) It was the first of Robert Yeo's "Singapore Trilogy" of plays, which paid close attention to Singapore's political coming-of-age, and hot issues such as detention without trial.
The characters in Yeo’s first attempt at drama were still not entirely fleshed out, and characters seemed to be constructed as conduits for various political and moral ideologies, each character acting as a foil to their diametric opposite. But Are You There, Singapore? paved the way for Yeo’s subsequent plays in the Singapore Trilogy, One Year Back Home (1980) and Changi (1997), each growing in craft and characterisation, and lending a three-dimensional voice to the political challenges that Singapore was facing.
5) It demonstrated that a play could have at least a modest success with a growing audience.
The play was well reviewed and its three-night run was sold out. It drew a nett return of $7,000, no small feat at a time where theatre was still viewed as a luxury commodity and not a bread and butter necessity.