THE YEAR OF NO RETURN
The Necessary Stage
Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa)
Victoria Theatre, Friday (May 21), 8pm
"Sanitise your hands before you applaud," says a disembodied voice as the house lights dim. "As you exit the theatre, please feel happy."
It is a droll nod to the absurdity of the situation - a theatre experience where the actors must be masked and the audience swabbed for Covid-19 before the play can begin.
To the credit of the Sifa team, the pre-event testing is fuss-free - the results are sent to my phone in under 20 minutes - and painless, except for a lingering discomfort in my left nostril that persists throughout the play.
In any other production, this might be jarring. But this is a play about the climate crisis, determined to stick inconvenient truths in your face, so in fact the swab test acts as a kind of visceral seasoning for the whole experience.
In The Year Of No Return, a global climate forum takes place in Singapore. Amid the politicians and corporate moguls speaking are activists from eco-extremist group Green Liberation, played on stage by Lian Sutton and virtually by Marco Viana from the Philippines.
As a protest rages outside, the activists take the other attendees to task for "greenwashing", inaction and worse - such as a Singapore mining corporation's involvement in the displacement of indigenous Filipino communities.
Organiser Su (Siti Khalijah Zainal) tries to hold the forum together while grappling internally with the compromises she must make to further the environmental cause.
Last year's attempt to stage The Year Of No Return was thwarted by the circuit breaker, and it is dismally ironic how it is finally making its debut as Singapore regresses to a state nobody wanted to return to.
The pandemic, restrictions and all, has become so integral to the fabric of the work that it is hard to imagine what it might look like otherwise - in the same way that the urgent threat of the coronavirus has hijacked the conversation on the climate, for all that both are connected.
The international cast from the Philippines, Malaysia and Japan appear in videos on a shifting array of white screens, a cleverly versatile set design by Wong Chee Wai.
Siti and Sutton are masked, though both are actors of such capability that their performance transcends this. In fact, they are at times more coherent than their onscreen counterparts, who have the advantage of uncovered faces.
Viana does outstanding emotional work in his video monologues as Luis, a climate refugee who lost his entire family in a flood.
The play still feels like a work in progress, perhaps because it has had to constantly evolve in the pandemic.
Structurally, it is reminiscent of director Alvin Tan's Zoom experiment Who's There?, which he helmed last year with Sim Yan Ying and which tackled race via a series of dialogues between actors on different continents.
The Year Of No Return lacks, however, the novelty of the live Zoom format, while retaining a patchiness of structure.
The script by Haresh Sharma and Rody Vera is heavy on messaging and light on nuance. Politicians and chief executives are cartoonish caricatures, appearing in a karaoke pity party to drunkenly complain that they are the ones being oppressed.
All the activists have tragic backstories. Yet there is little insight into Su, what guides her choices and how she arrives at her own point of no return.
The problem with creating art about the climate crisis is that the scale of it is so vast and the parts of it so inextricable, it is hard to find a way in for the individual to comprehend it.
The script acknowledges this in searching moments such as a call between a protester and his friend, whose overwhelming anxiety prevents him from getting out of bed, let alone making it to the protest.
The play strives to find its footing in the middle ground between climate apathy and anxiety, and to coalesce that into action.
It angles for hope, yet is painfully aware of its helplessness. Somewhere in the coils of it is an epiphany struggling to emerge. One wonders what it would look like in the wake of the pandemic. Perhaps, despite its title, it bears returning to.
- The Year Of No Return will be available online at Sifa on-demand from June 5 to 12. Visit Sifa's website here or call 6348-5555