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Theatre review: Sluggish prison drama from Senang

Published on May 16, 2014 12:49 PM
Senang, a play set in Pulau Senang in 1965, centres on a real-life story about 59 gangsters who went on trial with 18 being hanged for rioting and murdering their prison officer. -- FILE PHOTO: DRAMA BOX LTD  

In the popular imagination, Singapore's history of violence seems to comprise certain key events - the Maria Hertogh race riots and the Hock Lee bus riots come to the fore - but less is known about the Pulau Senang riot on July 12, 1963.

The island contained Singapore's first penal settlement, a place where convicts did not live behind bars but instead worked for a chance to be released back to society. The experiment ended in disaster: a brutal riot killed four officers, and the settlement was razed to the ground.

Award-winning playwright Jean Tay takes an admirable stab at dramatising this bloody incident, tracing the initial "brave new world" hopes to its eventual disintegration. Overall, it is an earnest recreation of a little-known historical episode, and does a mostly decent job of giving the event a human face and a backstory. In Tay's version of events, the grudge that the prisoners had against superintendent Daniel Dutton was personal - he ran a brutal and unjust regime on the island.

This seems like a juicy true-crime story of gangsters versus wardens, with the threat of a bloody clash ever looming in the background. But strangely, this production ends up being a really unexciting reconstruction of an exciting event. Even its action sequences are slow and unengaging. The sluggish three-hour running time feels a bit like doing time.

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