When Rant & Rave was first staged for the Esplanade's 10th anniversary in 2012, it felt very much like a birthday gift, a cake packed with rich ingredients for a celebration of artistry.
It presented our theatre giants to us, fighting the good fight, with its verbatim dialogue culled from newspaper articles and other records, documenting the push and pull of theatre as Singapore's own fourth estate (so to speak).
Two years later, this well-structured gift has matured well; packed into its layers is a deeper excavation of how our theatre industry has come to be. It is a wonderful reminder of how far we have come - but also how far more we have to go.
Writer-director Chong Tze Chien plays documentarian in Rant & Rave, summoning the voices of politicians, journalists, academics, audience members, the general public and, of course, artists themselves, in constructing a portrait of the multitudes it has taken to build the landscape we have today, out of what was once dismissed as a 'cultural desert'.
It becomes clear that while so many people have had a hand in kneading its trajectory, or or attempting to impose their own conditions on the art form or to shape it in their (or their institution's) own image - theatre is the property of no one and everyone at the same time; it is pruned, but it grows back, just as wild and unabashedly as before, wilting and flowering in the same breath.
Actresses Karen Tan and Janice Koh pull a virtuoso two-act by impersonating at least 30 real-life characters each, from confused members of the public watching an avant garde show, to highly recognisable figures such as directors Alvin Tan and Ong Keng Sen, actress Margaret Chan and writer Robert Yeo, playing each with trademark tics. Tan and Koh share an infectious chemistry, they perform their caricatures with as much humour as respect, and reverence.
From the superficial tourist-trap performances of pre-independence Singapore, to the country's birth pangs of identity (Singlish and the Singapore vernacular included), to fights against censorship (long-time arts educator T. Sasitharan, by way of Karen Tan: "Art is born of inspiration, not prescription"), and then later to the evolution of a critical discourse, the actresses pull out all the stops to flesh out a perspective of Singapore theatre that is both tart and tender.
As we watch contemporary Singapore theatre in its infancy, the empty chairs on stage representing each practitioner and creator are arranged in a communal circle, in a concerted push to find an identity and a voice; later, in a discussion of art and the state, these same chairs almost seem to toe an arbitrary line, until 'Kuo Pao Kun', 'Tan Tarn How' and 'Sasi', all hugely respected voices in the industry, break away from this formation. And in the final segment on art and the media, we see them facing the audience: not necessarily confrontational, but robust, firm and engaged.
Despite a deluge of historical information, Chong keeps the 75-minute play going at a lively, light-hearted clip, feeding both the layman and the die-hard theatre aficionado with serious food for thought in-between the laughs.
Chong does square art against the state and media, but he probes these complex relationships with a deft sensitivity. The state and the media are not let off lightly, but neither are they maliciously ridiculed (where one journalist is caricatured, another puts forward a reasoned treatise). Rather, this play brings to the fore how the realm of the stage is very often a reflection of society's struggle.
As a citizenry grapples with issues of race, religion and politics, attempts by the state or an uninformed media to shape this discourse by controlling art is, by extension, a way of shaping how audience members perceive these issues when they are prevented from tackling these issues on their own.
This is most clear in a new segment on the furore surrounding Tamil playwright Elangovan's provocative Talaq (2000), which focused on the plight of abused Indian Muslim women, was not granted a license to be staged, prompting a maestrom of controversy. The push and pull between the artist, the National Arts Council, and the state, which once filtered through to the public through static news reports, gains new life when turned into a heated dialogue between the three parties.
But for all the trials and tribulations this industry has gone through, there are also moments of great triumph and tenderness - Chong emphasises that there are as many, if not more, champions of theatre who have propelled the art forward. And for that, Singapore theatre is still alive, and kicking heartily.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan
RANT & RAVE
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: May 3 (Sat) at 3pm and 8pm; May 4 (Sun) at 3pm
Admission: $28 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)