Theatre review: Tan Tarn How's satire Lady Of Soul still sings the Singapore blues

Cast of The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine: (From left) Crispian Chan, Dominique De Marco, Gene Sha Rudyn, Shafiqhah Efandi, and Prem John. -- PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY
Cast of The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine: (From left) Crispian Chan, Dominique De Marco, Gene Sha Rudyn, Shafiqhah Efandi, and Prem John. -- PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

October, 1992. Tan Tarn How leafed through page after page of his latest script, The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine, after it had gone through the censors. Of its 67 pages, 36 had suggested changes or cuts. The playwright and former journalist wrote these words in what would become a public diary of censorship, appended as an epilogue to the first publication of the play: "Very inconsistent cuts. Enough to maul the script. Very depressed."

In a rare twist of circumstances, the script went through another round of vetting and eventually made its way to the stage uncut, at a time when the Singapore authorities were still trying to decide where the boundaries ought to be drawn in the arts. It was 1993, just after the very first Censorship Review Committee had been set up to relook arts regulation.

Twenty years later, this censorship survivor is being restaged as the closing performance of The Studios: fifty, Esplanade's sprawling five-week theatre retrospective. Has anything changed in terms of Singapore's openness in the past 20 years? Or have we simply gone through a cycle of lather, rinse, repeat?

Director Zizi Azah and her cast have plenty of fun in their take on Lady Of Soul that also manages to bring out the pathos in its brightly-coloured stock character types. There is earnest civil servant Derek (Prem John), who has decided to help Singapore find its soul - through all the proper committees and sub-committees, of course - pitted against careful rung-climber Paul (Crispian Chan), a minister of state, and the Minister with a capital M, played with frenetic, cartoonish energy by Gene Sha Rudyn.

During Derek's soul search, he encounters three zany characters oozing different versions of soul: the intense Artist, Sham (Farez Najid); the equally intense Communist, Alban (Lian Sutton); and the intensely flamboyant Sexually Liberated, mama-san Madame Soh (Rizman Putra in drag, appropriately feathered and sequinned). Together, they are any authority's worst nightmare come to life.

Zizi plays up the heightened reality in every situation, which cleverly allows for the shoutier, weaker performers to blend in with the over-the-top tidal wave that sweeps everyone along in Tan's witty script. It gleefully name-checks and tears into anything flawed or funny about Singapore's bureaucracy and its decision-making bodies, from public "consultations" to the prefixes of "acting" and "vice" that accompany so many positions in the civil service.

This Lady Of Soul ends up being a wild game show spliced with the odd political debate, with some moments so overwhelmingly in-your-face that I almost averted my gaze. But it is also these brazenly lascivious scenes (mostly involving the sultry Madame Soh) that highlight the play's seriousness, setting the loud ensemble moments against the quieter interrogations of what it means to make a difference.

In terms of the casting, Zizi let past and present meet, using experienced actors such as Rizman and Gene as well as an enthusiastic younger cast, most of them fresh out of drama school, who bring a different and exciting energy to the work.

It all made for a rollicking and likeable production, but the question remains: is the play still relevant today?

The answer is both yes and no.

The play's 1990s heart shows through from time to time, and not just from various pop culture name drops. Zizi has trimmed a bit of the fat to keep up the pace and updated some of the catchphrases ("Vision 1999" is now "Vision 2030", for instance, and there is the offhand mention of an iPad), but other references immediately date the piece, whether they are "satellite TV" or "Henry Rollins".

Moreover, the political gags, so groundbreaking in their time, have become commonplace in Singapore theatre. In fact, political theatre has since gained new levels of sophistication and nuance, as has Tan's own writing - his deeply moving Fear Of Writing (2011) cut right to the hearts of many Singaporeans voting in the General Election that year.

But the play's fundamental substance remains relevant. Many of its sharp observations of Singapore bureaucracy, veiled in laughter and wry digs, are still uncannily on point today. Take Derek's over-eager attempts to crowd-source the public for an answer to "soul", foreshadowing the real-life mass dialogues with the public that were held in Our Singapore Conversation in the past few years.

Tan, who was a political journalist, also presents to us the many frustrations of an individual trying to navigate a system that has an almost allergic reaction to the very soul it is trying to create. He gives us relevant insights into the flawed humans in any political system, setting up the careerist minister of state Paul against the naive idealist Derek, with the former advising the latter to take the exercise as "an intellectual game", with the objective to "stay in the game" rather than to inspire change.

Underneath the raucous fun and games, a nagging question remains. The play leaves the ending unclear as to whether Singapore has actually liberalised or is simply trapped in a vicious circle - and on a meta level, The Studios season leaves that open to interpretation as well, in choosing to finish off their season with this play.

I suppose Singapore's Lady Of Soul may not always have the limelight. But she is there, in black boxes and theatre studios, beckoning to passers-by from her window. And judging from The Studios' slew of sold-out performances, we may have a little bit of soul in us yet.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine is sold out.