The Folly of Youth
Why the hell was Survivor Singapore billed as the highlight of the Singapore Fringe? It was a clumsy, unsophisticated work of social theatre that spoke exclusively to an audience of youth. It should have been rated JA(18) for Juvenile Arts - seriously; it tested the patience of any theatregoers over drinking age who'd had the folly to grab tickets.
Sure, adult fans of The Necessary Stage and Cake Theatre could have been warned by the synopsis in the festival booklet, which advertised the play as a "must-see for every teenager", and described it as being set in a school where students have been tasked with creating projects that "think outside the box". Most of us, however, banked on the reputation of the theatre groups and the festival's strong endorsement of the performance - the cast was even featured on the cover of the festival booklet, wielding machine guns and survival gear.
The show's set at a school assembly hall, where a principal, Mrs Kwan, conducts a post-mortem of the controversial projects. A project on domestic workers involves a student working as a maid and almost murdering her employer. An eponymous Survivor-style project has Nintendo-addicted students challenging themselves to live on Ubin, without the comforts of first-world living. Last, there's an experiment to test the strength of Singapore's racial harmony by attempting to start a racial riot.
For the majority of the audience, largely composed of school groups, this works out fine - it's an introduction to social theatre, raising socio-political issues close to young people's hearts. In his talkback, playwright Haresh Sharma described his aim to express the voicelessness of Singapore youth by bestowing his characters with a "vision they could not express". Certainly, this sense of adolescent aimlessness comes across clearly in the production, as actors idly toss balls to each other while planning their work.
However, this sense of immaturity ultimately infects the play itself. Survivor Singapore ends up taking on the most annoying attributes of disaffected youth. It tries painfully hard to be hip - witness the bizarre neon-coloured combat gear wardrobe of the cast - and struggles to be taken seriously while constantly undercutting itself with its superficiality and crude humour - one second, Phin Wong is playing a teacher, didactically explaining the necessity of encouraging independent thought amongst his brood; the next minute, he's capering around in a cardboard cut-out costume as a female news reporter with a torturously affected accent.
The forceful style of surrealist comedy that's made Cake Theatre famous is watered down to mere kitsch and slapstick - what justification was there, for instance, for the cast's candy-coloured costumery, or the pointless hip-swivelling motions they make at periodic junctures in the play? Laughs were milked a-plenty using the lowest forms of humour - drag queens, caricatures, and men falling down. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as seen when a physical actor as gifted as Najib Soiman plays a comically abusive Malay grandmother. But all this aimless clowning comes at expense of real wit; a real flaw in a topical play like this.
Survivor Singapore is also weakened by the rigid structure of Sharma's script, which places unnecessary attention on the three student projects. Each project deals with a complex issue deserving of a play of its own - domestic worker abuse, technological overdependence and racism. Consequently, the twenty-minute re-enactments are barely able to introduce the themes, and oddly, where they succeed best - as in the scene where an Indian student, trying to incite a racial riot at SINDA, realises the racism of his own friends - the play becomes diverted from its central theme of voicelessness.
Perhaps the central problem with the theme of voicelessness is that it's a negative concept - it's most strongly illustrated in contrast with the articulation of a strong rebel voice, as in Bryan Tan's classic young people's play Over the Wall. Without such a voice, the bedfuddlement of the students in Survivor Singapore comes across as mere stupidity - enhanced by the writing of almost characters as generic, whiny teenage stereotypes. This is why the play's conclusion has such an impact - the chorus of students confronts Mrs Kwan, who has resolved to turn them over to the police, and begins chanting, "We don't have a voice! We don't have a voice! We don't have a voice!"
This moment of protest, of real outcry, redeems what's otherwise a wishy-washy pastiche of youthful angst. It's a potentially dangerous moment - director Natalie Hennedige noted that the actors lived in fear of the student audience joining in the protest and storming Jubilee Hall.
This is exactly the kind of edge that strong youth theatre needs in order to have a place at the Fringe Festival. Survivor Singapore appears to have been trying to incorporate such an edge, with its discussions of racism and its depiction of how students might be treated like terrorists, and even a line which, as Hennedige revealed, was deleted at the request of authorities, running along the lines of, "But what if Malaysia invades Singapore? Then we can run away to China." And in a phone interview, Sharma further confided that the Singapore Fringe had fought unsuccessfully to have the RA(18) rating removed from their reprise of Fundamentally Happy, with the result that a generation of GP students were prevented from sharing and discussing the issues of pedophilia that the play dealt with.
Such is the double-bind that TNS and Cake Theatre discover themselves in - they wish to expand young people's minds with a mature, dangerous play, but are barred from discussing taboo topics by regulators of the arts. In the process of negotiating the dilemma, a synergistically bad-ass production is sometimes able to flower, such as The Necessary Stage's award-winning What Big Bombs You Have!!!, a youth production on terrorism based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. But at other times, the result is a handicapped work like Survivor Singapore, provocative enough for a student audience but thematically and aesthetically disappointing for over-18s. Obviously, students aren't the only ones who can complain of voicelessness.
I'm not going to heap all the blame on the government, though. My original complaint still stands: this play simply should not have been advertised as a Fringe highlight. According to the programme booklet, "the Festival aims to bring the best of contemporary, cutting-edge and socially-engaged works to the Singapore audience." Survivor Singapore might have made admirable attempts to be edgy and relevant to the local concerns of its audience. But to claim it's among the best of such works would simply be folly.
Survivor Singapore opens a whole lotta doors, but doesn't close them. It's a fable about a bunch of schoolkids who embark on wild social science projects, attempting to work as maids, survive in the wilderness or incite racial riots, so it's full of little jibes about kids being pampered and clueless. It's only gradually that the real message emerges of the voicelessness of Singapore youth, delivered with a daring conclusion which thrilled the uniformed students in the theatre - yet for an adult, the piece remains irritatingly light and loose, so full of slapstick humour that it's hard to take it seriously. In a nutshell: it's a youth theatre project, and doesn't travel well between generations.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /