Theatre review: Sluggish prison drama from Senang

Senang, a play set in Pulau Senang in 1965, centres on a real-life story about 59 gangsters who went on trial with 18 being hanged for rioting and murdering their prison officer. -- FILE PHOTO: DRAMA BOX LTD  
Senang, a play set in Pulau Senang in 1965, centres on a real-life story about 59 gangsters who went on trial with 18 being hanged for rioting and murdering their prison officer. -- FILE PHOTO: DRAMA BOX LTD  

In the popular imagination, Singapore's history of violence seems to comprise certain key events - the Maria Hertogh race riots and the Hock Lee bus riots come to the fore - but less is known about the Pulau Senang riot on July 12, 1963.

The island contained Singapore's first penal settlement, a place where convicts did not live behind bars but instead worked for a chance to be released back to society. The experiment ended in disaster: a brutal riot killed four officers, and the settlement was razed to the ground.

Award-winning playwright Jean Tay takes an admirable stab at dramatising this bloody incident, tracing the initial "brave new world" hopes to its eventual disintegration. Overall, it is an earnest recreation of a little-known historical episode, and does a mostly decent job of giving the event a human face and a backstory. In Tay's version of events, the grudge that the prisoners had against superintendent Daniel Dutton was personal - he ran a brutal and unjust regime on the island.

This seems like a juicy true-crime story of gangsters versus wardens, with the threat of a bloody clash ever looming in the background. But strangely, this production ends up being a really unexciting reconstruction of an exciting event. Even its action sequences are slow and unengaging. The sluggish three-hour running time feels a bit like doing time.

Part of the reason is the play's identity crisis. On the one hand, it aims for edgy realism in a multi-lingual environment, having most of the prisoners speak in authentically salty, vulgarity-strewn dialect.

On the other hand, the play, in its script and directorial decisions, is too eager in asserting its literacy and its artistic heft - even at the risk of dodgy characterisation and glacial pacing. A hyper-verbose Dutton quotes casually from Milton's Paradise Lost, and during the final confrontation, chants lines from W.B. Yeats (I, too, would have rioted for him to stop.) Protracted self-conscious references were made to Water Margin, a Chinese epic about a gang of outlaws.

The plodding pace in the script isn't helped by direction from Kok Heng Leun, now in the news as an Arts Nominated MP hopeful. His stylised, static tableaux result in stagnant stretches of actors speaking in slow, declarative speeches. Little else is happening, but you may be jolted out of sleep by Jeffrey Yue's punitive sound design, ranging from sounds of whipping belts to martial percussive effects.

Performance-wise, the ensemble cast puts in a valiant attempt at bringing to life the relationships in this make-shift family, such as the father-son dynamic between Ong Kian Sin and Neo Hai Bin, as well as the Mean Girls-style exclusion that leads to Rei Poh's Four-legged Snake character being a turncoat. Audiences also root for Oliver Chong's Red Snake, a man cheated out of a promise of freedom. Peter Sau's bad-tempered Rock, with his slow, taunting Hokkien phrases, is equal parts comedy and menace.

But I'm not quite sold on Chad O'Brien's blandly gruff Dutton, whose idealistic-new-settler-turned-Kurtz journey never quite convinces. His accent also drifts from Adele Cockney to Australian and back, though historically, the man himself was Irish.

There seems to be a larger tale of revolution here that is hinted at but never quite taken head on - how things can sour in communities that are systematically unfair and have a fundamental disregard for human rights. For that, I suspect you need a more vivid, pungent and tauter version of the Senang story.

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Where: School of the Arts Studio Theatre, 1 Zubir Said Drive

When: Until May 25, Tuesday to Saturday (8pm); Saturday and Sunday (2.30pm)

Admission: $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to