Theatre review: Model Citizens as relevant as ever 11 years after premiere

Karen Tan (left) and Siti Khalijah Zainal in Model Citizens by The Necessary Stage.
Karen Tan (left) and Siti Khalijah Zainal in Model Citizens by The Necessary Stage.PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

Theatre

MODEL CITIZENS

The Necessary Stage

The Necessary Stage Black Box, Wednesday (March 24)

"When you have power, it doesn't matter what race you are or what language you speak," says a character in Model Citizens. "You will do whatever it takes to hold on to that power."

Eleven years after its premiere, Haresh Sharma's acclaimed play returns to the stage with the same director - Life Theatre Award-winner Alvin Tan - and the same cast.

The issues too are the same, yet feel very much of the moment: debates over race and class, attitudes towards migrant workers and even the rise in teenage suicides.

The play remains stunningly trenchant - perhaps even more so, in light of a pandemic that has starkly highlighted the myriad inequalities in Singapore society.

In fact, the only moment when the script is out of step with the times is when a character calls a travel agent to book a flight to China.

The play unfolds around an offstage incident: the stabbing of an MP at a Meet-the-People session by a cleaner.

The attacker's girlfriend, Melly (Siti Khalijah Zainal), an Indonesian domestic worker, seeks out the MP's wife, Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian), and pleads with her to intercede.

As neither Melly nor Mrs Chua, who is Chinese-educated, can converse fluently in English, they rope in Melly's Peranakan employer Wendy (Karen Tan), who can manage halting Mandarin, as a go-between.

But Wendy has yet to recover from the grief of losing her son to suicide.

To say the cast is stellar seems almost a superfluous statement. Siti, who first played the role as an ingenue and won a Life Theatre Award for it, is now an actress at the top of her game; Goh flicks between comedy and malice with relish.


Goh Guat Kian in Model Citizens by The Necessary Stage. PHOTO: TUCKYS PHOTOGRAPHY

The scenes where their characters converse on an imaginary plane, transcending language barriers to achieve an impossible understanding, are some of the best.

They inhabit the worst stereotypes of their characters - the wealthy elite who thinks Mandarin should be mandatory, the maid trying to sleep her way to Singapore citizenship - but flesh out the complex human levers within each stereotype to show how social circumstances perpetuate them.

Tan holds together the play's emotional core and delivers a closing scene so wrenching that it is hugely disorienting to be returned to the real world after, especially as one is denied the palate cleanser of a curtain call.

You leave feeling that something inside you has been irrevocably shaken loose.

Model Citizens astutely picks apart the social contract, the trust in the notion that "I have done everything right and now everything right will be done to me".

What is especially heartbreaking is to look around and see how empty the theatre is - half the rows sparsely filled, in line with safe management measures. The in-theatre run is sold out, though a digital version will be made available later.

With the easing of capacity limits announced by the Government on Wednesday (March 24), perhaps theatre seating restrictions can also be revisited. A play like this has done everything right; it should be seen by as many people as possible.


BOOK IT/MODEL CITIZENS: VIDEO ON DEMAND

Where: Vimeo

When: April 19 to May 2

Admission: US$12 (S$16) from this website

Info: Advisory 16 (mature content and some strong language). For more information, go to this website.