First Fleet: Power play on deck

First Fleet stars (from far left) Timothy Wan, Mia Chee, Shu Yi Ching and Jodi Chan.
First Fleet stars (from left) Timothy Wan, Mia Chee, Shu Yi Ching and Jodi Chan.PHOTO: NINE YEARS THEATRE

Nine Years Theatre's new play First Fleet is set aboard a ship transporting convicts from England to Australia to set up a new colony

What does colonisation have in common with the theatre?

A power play between the different parties involved, says director Nelson Chia of Nine Years Theatre.

On the sidelines of rehearsals for his upcoming production, First Fleet, he adds: "I thought I'd create a play where the setting is a kind of colony and we're also talking about power relationships in art, between human beings."

First Fleet is named after the first set of ships that set sail from England in the 18th century to set up a new colony in Australia.

These ships were manned by British officers and carried large numbers of convicts whose punishments for various crimes under English law were to labour in the creation of the Australian settlement.

Chia's script is inspired by Australian author Thomas Keneally's 1987 novel The Playmaker, about the early days of the colony, but is an original creation, focusing on a play performed aboard a ship by British officers and convicts.

Drama literally unfolds on stage as both parties try to work together despite the obvious and hidden power imbalances in their relationships. The ship is, after all, a miniature colony where the British officers are in charge and the convicts can only obey.

  • BOOK IT / FIRST FLEET

  • WHERE: Far East Organization Auditorium, Level 9 Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, 1 Straits Boulevard

    WHEN: July 18 and 19, 8pm; July 20, 3 and 8pm; July 21, 3 and 7pm

    ADMISSION: $42 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Performed in Mandarin, with English surtitles, including closed captions for the deaf and hard of hearing

The cast switch between the roles of convicts and officers.

Actor Timothy Wan, 31, notes that when a performer plays both roles in the play, "we see the convicts and see the officers and think, 'Is this power difference natural or is it something imposed on them?'"

First Fleet is yet another of Chia's plays-within-a-play that explores power relationships, similar to last year's Mandarin retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, titled Lear Is Dead.

First Fleet even has the same cast as Lear Is Dead, including members of the NYT Ensemble - such as actors Wan, Hang Qian Chou and Neo Hai Bin, who have long worked with Nine Years Theatre - as well as theatre co-founder Mia Chee, also the producer of the play. Also performing are artists Shu Yi Ching and Jodi Chan, who have been training with the troupe for some time.

Given their long association, Wan, playing the officer directing the shipboard play, finds himself devising lines using the same words Chia would use as a director. Sometimes, Chia's notes to the other actors echo things said by Wan's character.

The actor says: "A lot of times, we just stop and laugh at ourselves. We're not sure if it's us saying the lines or the characters speaking. It's an odd, in-between space."

Is this play Chia's response to the ongoing Bicentennial commemoration of Stamford Raffles arrival in 1819? The director says not.

"I'm interested in the idea of colonisation. It's significant for me that this group of Chinese-speaking people is going to tell Australians about their history.

"I've told my friends, 'You might feel offended or that I'm misappropriating it, but that's what I'm doing - it's kind of a mischievous and reverse colonisation through the theatre.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2019, with the headline 'Power play on deck'. Print Edition | Subscribe