Sifa 2021: The Year Of No Return shines spotlight on climate crisis

The Year Of No Return has been in the works since 2018 and has been revised many times.
The Year Of No Return has been in the works since 2018 and has been revised many times.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

SINGAPORE - Staging a play about climate change poses a number of dilemmas. How do you convey the urgency of the crisis without being didactic? How do you move away from a human-centred view of the world, while telling a story that still strikes a chord with the audience?

The people behind Singapore International Festival of Arts production The Year Of No Return, which is set during an international conference on climate change, had to grapple with these concerns.

Add a raging pandemic to the mix, and the result, as Filipino co-writer Rody Vera puts it, has been "one hell of a writing process".

The play, directed by Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage (TNS), is a collaboration between the local theatre company and practitioners from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines.

"Many different voices come in - voiceless, marginalised communities, as well as the big corporations who tout themselves as green-minded," says Vera, 60, who wrote the play with Haresh Sharma and is also acting in it.

The Year Of No Return has been in the works since 2018 and has been revised many times.

"When the pandemic happened, we had to practically rewrite the whole play in order to incorporate what has been happening, because what we had written seemed outdated," Vera adds.

Uncertainty over whether they would stage it with all the actors physically present, or combine live acting with video presentation, also meant more rewriting.

Next month, Singapore actors Siti Khalijah Zainal and Lian Sutton will perform at the Victoria Theatre while the overseas cast - filmed amid local curfews and other constraints - are beamed in virtually.

The Year Of No Return examines people's responses to the crisis and the idea of coming together to push for systemic change.

Dramaturg Melissa Lim, 44, says: "We have a crisis of imagination around climate change, because we cannot imagine how terrible it's going to be. But that is going to be what stymies our responses, because we fail to imagine.

"It's not going to be some Hollywood blockbuster where you get tidal waves coming in. But there are such huge human problems we need to grapple with.

"Inequality, wars that are started because of famine - that has to do with climate change as well. People driven from their homes, militarisation, because they have absolutely no more choice but to leave their homes or to take up arms."

Lim, who is also the general manager of TNS, sees parallels between the global responses to Covid-19 and climate change.

"A lot of people say Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change. You can see how different countries, world leaders and people respond to Covid-19 initially, some with a lot of dismissal, some with a strong belief in science.

"Nobody had better tell us you can't have immediate responses to climate change. Of course, you can. Look at how you've treated Covid-19. It's a choice, and we should acknowledge that."

Lim says Singapore is complicit in the crisis too, citing its role as one of the largest oil refinery centres in the world, low carbon tax, the Government's "focus on adaptation strategies rather than mitigation", and Singapore corporations' involvement in the degradation of land in neighbouring countries.

While these are all weighty topics, Vera adds that they will leaven the play with humour and plenty of self-awareness. "Much of the material came from the actors themselves, who are aware of their own contradictions.

"We use plastic. I turn on my air-con. I travel to Singapore by the fastest plane possible. We are aware of these things. It can be funny, and at the same time make you think."

Tan, 58, hopes the play will make people reflect on what they can do and what agency they possess. "The little things that we do, like recycling and not using plastic bags, might not be the point."

Lim says: "This system of capitalism, where we are consuming way beyond the planet's means, is alarming. Making change is not just making individual change. Your individual change is a tiny, tiny drop in the ocean that's not going to make much of a difference.

"But change also means coming together collectively to demand changes in the way we run our industries, the way governments are addressing the problem. If you look at all the global movements of late, it's quite inspiring. This change is possible."