The Necessary Stage's new play Civilised takes on colonialism

(Clockwise from top) The cast of Civilised is Ghafir Akbar, Lian Sutton (yes, in pigtails), Siti Khalijah Zainal, Koh Wan Ching and Edith Podesta.
(Clockwise from top) The cast of Civilised is Ghafir Akbar, Lian Sutton (yes, in pigtails), Siti Khalijah Zainal, Koh Wan Ching and Edith Podesta.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE

SINGAPORE - The Necessary Stage's (TNS) latest play Civilised deals with the fact that even today, historical narratives tend to equate the arrival of colonial forces with "civilisation", or a better way of living.

But is it right to say that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America or that Stamford Raffles made Singapore great?

Civilised takes on colonialism past and present and runs from May 15 to 26 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. It is the 120th play written by the company's resident playwright Haresh Sharma and is directed by TNS' artistic director Alvin Tan. Tickets are almost sold out.

Despite the timing, Civilised was not created in response to Singapore's Bicentennial celebration marking Raffles' arrival. It started as a cross-cultural project with an overseas theatre company that was later shelved. The intent was always to explore colonisation past and present and beyond the Little Red Dot, according to director Tan and the company's general manager Melissa Lim.

Lim adds: "We were also thinking of how China uses economic might to wield power over African countries. It was very, very consciously looking at not just Singapore."

Sharma says: "What stood out for me is the fact that we are living very 'colonised' lives, often without even knowing it."

He adds: "When we think of colonisation, we usually talk about England, France and so on colonising countries in the past. But there's so much more to it. What kind of 'legacy' does the coloniser leave behind? How does the newly independent country pick up the post-colonial pieces?"

Director Tan notes that the legacy of colonial rule remains in the laws, language and customs of the post-colonial nation. For example, Singapore's penal code was inherited from the British system, as are those of many other countries former under British rule. Why were the laws of the colonial power retained rather having new laws written for the new nation? "Convenience and pragmatism is not an excuse," he says.

  • book it / Civilised

  • WHERE: The Necessary Stage Black Box, 278 Marine Parade Road, Marine Parade Community Building, B1-02

    WHEN: May 15 to 26. Limited seats available for May 16, 8pm.

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

    RATING: R18 (mature content and coarse language)

The legacy of colonial rule also plays out in the histories of the cast, which includes performers from Australia (Edith Podesta), Malaysia (Ghafir Akbar and Lian Sutton) as well as Singapore (Koh Wan Ching and Siti Khalijah Zainal).

Podesta, 39, is the descendant of Italian immigrants to Australia and grew up learning of both the horrendous treatment meted to the First Nations of Australia by colonial authorities, as well as the fact that Italian immigrants were looked down on, rather than embraced.

Sutton, 27, recalls making a conscious decision when he was very young to speak like his English father, rather than his Malaysian Chinese mother, because of how differently he was treated when he used the British accent.

He notes that his father, who loves Malaysia, still exhibits signs of colonial pride on occasion. "Where is that coming from, this idea that we wouldn't have toilets or roads if it wasn't for the British?"

Director Tan speaks of "decolonising" Singapore theatre. Theatre-makers have aimed to do this for several decades now, including through intercultural and multilingual theatre and embracing Singlish on stage. At the same time, he recalls conversations with late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, where Kuo contended that decolonisation was near impossible - even Singlish is a relic of colonial rule.

What then is the answer? Lim says: "It's better that we acknowledge that we are colonised and decolonise in any way possible."

Sharma adds: "Civilised, as with many TNS plays, provides more questions than answers. But the journey for the audience will be riotous and fun."