Theatre review: Joel Tan's Mosaic critiques our obsession with the past

SG50 is upon us, and a tsunami of nostalgia has come crashing down on our shores. Government campaigns and civil society groups are exhorting everyone to celebrate our heritage, so we may better understand our national identity.

Playwright Joel Tan, however, is not on board with the programme. His powerful new play Mosaic, staged by Take Off Productions as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, sharply critiques our obsession with the past, revealing its hollowness and contradictions.

The tale unfolds at a 1980s mosaic playground on the eve of its demolition. Sharon (Julie Wee), a passionate young activist, has organised an all-night protest to preserve the monument, but no one attends save for her civil servant boyfriend Hanis (Erwin Shah Ismail), her punk rocker friend Wong (Yap Yikai) and a mysterious bystander named Rongcheng (John Cheah).

Sharon's fervor is soon exposed as superficial. She knows she cannot halt development: the sole aim of her protest is "to make a point". Moreover, she values the playground only in abstract. When Rongcheng confronts her with concrete memories of the space - which he insists she must share - she cannot respond.

In truth, all the characters are trapped by the past. They fetishise their childhoods, and are only in love with vanished versions of one another. Yet even as Sharon and Hanis witness their relationship's collapse, they dread the moment of separation. They cannot stay together. They cannot move on. The destruction of their love is necessary and traumatic.

One of Mosaic's many strengths is that it is gloriously naturalistic. Tan's script captures the subculture of Gen Y Singaporeans to a T: their dependence on social media, their courage to test the state's OB markers, their confusion about the way forward in life. His Singlish dialogue is uncontrived, flowing naturally off the actors' lips.

But equal praise must go to director Chen Yingxuan, in her first major production. She has chosen a stylised presentation for the play, with no props and only the suggestion of the form of a concrete dragon arcing overhead. The story is essentially performed in a void: characters fumble with invisible cigarettes and search for nonexistent mosaic tiles in the sand. Their nostalgic project is a game of holding on to nothingness.

As a whole, Mosaic is beautiful, admirably complex and disturbing. It offers no solutions to its crises, leaving viewers with a knot of angst in their chests. Yet it is also grounds for optimism. This show, created and staged exclusively by 20-somethings, is evidence that young Singaporeans can make great theatre. Never fear: there is a way forward, after all.

stlife@sph.com.sg

Book it

Mosaic

Where: Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore

When: Friday and Saturday at 8pm

Admission: $22 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)