Patchy lesson about colonisation

Civilised stars Ghafir Akbar (left) and Lian Sutton (right) are hilarious in their frat-boy banter in a segment that reimagines William Farquhar and Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah reunited at an Empire Ball 200 years later.
Civilised stars Ghafir Akbar (left) and Lian Sutton (right) are hilarious in their frat-boy banter in a segment that reimagines William Farquhar and Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah reunited at an Empire Ball 200 years later.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE

Civilised opens promisingly enough with a clever twist on the Australian Aboriginal tradition of acknowledging the land.

In this case, the tradition gets spun out into a spiel about how the land on which the black box stands is reclaimed land. Bowls of salted egg fish skin gets passed around in a jokey ritual nod to the sacrifices of the sea.

It is a funny and fun way to ease the audience into the complexities of the weighty topic at hand: exploring ideas about colonisation and decolonisation.

The fact that playwright Haresh Sharma's script seems to blur the finer distinctions between the words "civilise" and "colonise" is, pardon the mixed metaphor, a whole other kettle of worms.

Trying to wrestle with a Big Idea is a laudable aim. But Civilised scores about as many misses as it does hits, demonstrating the pitfalls of trying too hard to depict concepts more readily dissected in wordy theses than in short dramatic vignettes.

The play is watchable, thanks to director Alvin Tan's deft staging and a dedicated ensemble cast. Actors Edith Podesta, Ghafir Akbar, Koh Wan Ching, Lian Sutton and Siti Khalijah Zainal throw themselves with admirable conviction into the fray.

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  • CIVILISED

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And there are enough frenetic lines in this script to rival a Gilmore Girls episode as the storytelling takes the "more is more" approach.

Divided loosely into five sections, the play takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour through world history and current affairs. The sorry histories of colonial rapine and murder in countries as far-flung as Australia, Canada and India are recapped in soundbite form.

Sometimes the vignette staging works well.

Koh is spot-on in shrill sales form in a farcical segment that stages the hidden costs of Chinese aid to African countries as a slick series of telemarketing calls.

Ghafir and Sutton are hilarious in their frat-boy banter in another segment that reimagines William Farquhar and Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah reunited at a museum's Empire Ball 200 years later.

Other bits of clever stage business that encourage and/or subvert audience participation work well too.

Two books are passed around the audience and members are encouraged to pen down what they think is "civilised" and "uncivilised". Some of the results are read out, to eye-opening and entertaining effect, at the end of the play.

The "civilised" list on review night included law, plastic surgery and Nutella brownies while the "uncivilised" list covered nose-picking, table-choping tissue and Trump.

But these patchy bits do not add up to a satisfying whole.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2019, with the headline 'Patchy lesson about colonisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe