Colourful balloons in the shape of penises, an enormous blow-up duck, assorted mannequin body parts - the late Kuo Pao Kun's seminal text Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral (1995) was one of the most polarising restagings at Esplanade's The Studios: fifty, given a subversive, risque makeover by enfant terrible Jeff Chen.
Many audience members walked out of the visual assault, turning heads as they clomped down the stairs of the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Others gleefully clutched at each other, roaring with laughter and giving the production rousing applause.
On Sunday, the Esplanade concluded what has arguably been one of the most ambitious retrospectives of English- language theatre in Singapore to date - and as proved by Chen's Descendants, it was not just a celebration of ground- breaking dramatic writing, but also gave the spotlight to a large variety of different directorial styles. In all, 21 directors brought new perspectives to the works of 32 Singapore playwrights.
Anchored by five full-length revivals and 45 other plays done as dramatised readings over 16 sessions, plus several talks on Singapore theatre, The Studios' curatorial team hoped to piece together the arc of local dramatic writing and to pay homage to the rich diversity of homegrown texts.
What they ultimately achieved was something much greater. The past five weeks have marked a significant coming- together of the theatre scene, as practitioners across companies and genres - many of whom seldom, if ever, collaborate with one another - paid tribute to each other and the scene at large through the act of reinterpretation. It was a season where pioneering playwrights such as Robert Yeo and the late Lim Chor Pee and Kuo were acknowledged alongside younger but no less meaningful voices such as Joel Tan and Faith Ng, both in their 20s.
The five full-length productions at The Studios: fifty were either sold out or close to full house: Emily Of Emerald Hill by Stella Kon, directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit; The Weight Of Silk On Skin by Huzir Sulaiman, directed by Tracie Pang; Off Centre by Haresh Sharma, directed by Oliver Chong; Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral; and The Lady Of Soul And Her Ultimate 'S' Machine by Tan Tarn How, directed by Zizi Azah.
Performers also showed their heft - leading man Adrian Pang, for one, inhabited Huzir's silken monologue with such verve that reviewer Ng Yi-Sheng wrote in Life!: "One could easily believe The Weight Of Silk On Skin was written expressly for Adrian Pang." This, despite the pressures of a solid star turn by thespian Ivan Heng in the same role several years prior.
Theatre is one of the rare arts where an act of revival is also an act of rebirth. Pioneering theatre company TheatreWorks put together an iconic Retrospective season in 1990, possibly the earliest look-back at what are now deemed landscape-shaping, history-making work by the likes of Lim and Goh Poh Seng. Two years ago, Wild Rice's In The Spotlight theatre festival brought back three of playwright Alfian Sa'at's plays along with a new work, Cook A Pot Of Curry, reeling in about 15,400 audience members.
The Studios: fifty outdoes previous retrospectives in terms of scale, and these latest reinterpretations have also managed to elevate and bring out new shades of meaning in oft-staged classics such as Emily Of Emerald Hill, as well as hard-to-stage experimental texts by Natalie Hennedige, Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan.
Many audiences agreed. British Afro- Caribbean theatre practitioner Sharon Frese, 51, who relocated to Singapore six years ago, was delighted with the season and how theatre companies were "brave enough" not to restage their own work but "give it to someone else, to have a completely fresh look at it".
She watched all of the full-length works and two dramatised readings of work by Eleanor Wong and Ovidia Yu.
She says: "It's not just about Shakespeare and the Western canon - Singapore has also created its own canon... In terms of revival, it's necessary and important that you have this for people to know that you have great classics out there."
Prior to the showcase, there were murmurs of concern as to whether enough of a play could be seen or felt from the brief dramatised readings. Each director was allotted about 11/2 hours, which means that some of them would have to squeeze excerpts from three or four plays into a short space of 20 to 30 minutes each.
But many directors used inventive methods to get around what might have been perceived as a limitation. Many of them would splice work together, juxtaposing the thematic concerns of one piece against another, or highlight certain characters, bringing different issues and voices to the fore.
Playwright-director Huzir Sulaiman, for instance, who directed two of Chong Tze Chien's plays for a reading (Charged and PIE), included in his presentation a verbatim interview with Chong earlier this year to shed some light on the writer-director's approach to theatre.
Others, such as Ian Loy, framed the presentations of three plays as work conversing and interacting with each other. Loy directed Haresh Sharma's critically acclaimed socio-political trilogy of Fundamentally Happy (2006), Good People (2007) and Gemuk Girls (2008). His blind spot, however, was in casting all-Chinese performers in productions that were specifically written with minority representation and the careful, subtle dissection of ethnic tensions in mind.
It was unfortunate that the readings did not seem to attract a wider demographic of audience members. Mr Isaac Lim, 29, a theatre studies student at the National University of Singapore, attended about a dozen dramatised readings and observed that he "kept seeing the same faces, either theatre and arts students or theatre practitioners".
He says: "Many think that the readings are sub-par works, which is not true. There were readings that were even more outstanding than the full-length productions." He cited the Contemporary & New Wave reading on May 2, where director Edith Podesta wove three plays into a single textured tapestry; it was the first-ever revival of two of Natalie Hennedige's bold, experimental and visually saturated works, Nothing (2007) and Temple (2008).
Despite a pool of repeat audience members, Esplanade producer Joyce Yao notes that there were many younger audiences who came to see the shows and she was "glad that The Studios: fifty provided a starting point for (them) to learn about, read and watch more Singapore plays".
Chong Tze Chien, who co-curated the season, said that many audience members were asking for repeats of both the dramatised readings and full-length works, with reactions that were "nothing less than fervent".
The Esplanade has not yet concluded its celebration of local theatre. Goh Boon Teck, founder of Toy Factory Productions, will be directing Upstage: Contemplating 50 Years Of Singapore Mandarin Theatre at the Esplanade Theatre Studio next month. It will bring together archival material, recorded interviews and scenes from classic Mandarin works.
Chong adds: "We need to instil more pride and faith in our home-grown talents and their works and while The Studios: fifty may not be enough to shift mindsets and eradicate prejudices, I hope we have produced enough evidence that Singapore theatre is worthy of our attention and admiration."
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