Out with a Whimper
It is 2058 and Singapore has suffered the wrath of "fire and brimstone from the unremitting heavens". Ken Kwek's Apocalypse: Live! fashions political drama out of post-doomsday clutter, envisioning the dangers current social and political perversions pose to a country in crisis. Political egotism and self-righteous evangelism are taken to their extremes: a bumbling military General attempts to impose a new tyranny on the post-apocalyptic wasteland; the only intact religious institution of the country seeks to proselytise its faith to the disillusioned through massive reclamation efforts. The ensuing debacle of blood, guts and power unfolds around hapless newscaster and protagonist David Fong, an island of quiet decency in the sea of howling prejudice and hypocrisy.
Entering the theatre, the stage arrests you immediately. Wong Chee Wai scatters television screens, telephones, radios and other personal effects across a wilderness of clothes, capturing the devastating emptiness of a world frozen in chaos. Smoke and disaster linger in the air; a slow, visible process of decay has set in. Grainy, black-and-white sketches of Singapore's eponymous skyscrapers magnify the hollowness of a city so quickly distressed and depopulated.
Wong's spectacle of debris enhances, and to some degree upstages the production. While fertile with ideas of censorship, autocracy and dispossession, Apocalypse conveys them in fits and starts, depriving Wong's stage of its obvious promise and failing to cohere into a fluent work of theatre.
Rather than contemplate social and political realities through the lenses of the future, Kwek gleefully rips through age-old debates about staying and quitting, restricted press freedom and religious fundamentalism, straining to revive them under the cover of easygoing irreverence. Kwek endows Apocalypse's characters with poker faces and acid tongues, dutifully firing potshots at national landmarks, political figures and religious institutions of our apparently "small but self-important nation". The result is a script that shamelessly exploits the same satirical tricks that countless other Singaporean plays have used and abused. Major General Abdul Aziz often digresses from his fervently patriotic speeches to bark tired observations about our "charred durian" and the purported terrorists that have sent "our microscopic pool of talent to where the sun doesn't shine". Pastor Seetoh and his wife resort to talky inanities like "Goddess bless" and other pseudo-Christian aphorisms, rendering Kwek's religious commentary mortifyingly obvious and contrived.
Apocalypse's satire is governed less by the spirit of observation than by the angst of a bitter, disillusioned citizen. If the main characters are merely ciphers in Kwek's allegorical scheme, the minor roles scattered across the play fare even worse, conveying a blind anti-nationalist rhetoric that fails to inform Kwek's rigorously pessimistic view of Singaporean life. When David pleads with viewers to express their opinions of the unfolding events on air, he receives calls from a typical Singaporean auntie and a "constitutional lawyer" enquiring about the Great Singapore sale and en bloc sales respectively. That a typical bystander of such devastation will continue to dabble in everyday trivialities boggles the imagination. In the face of ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise in any crisis, human apathy and ignorance might mutate into more insidious forms. However, Kwek chooses to stretch his conceptions of typical Singaporean behaviour past the limits of caricature, rendering his interpretation of a Singaporean's response to tragedy simplistic and unrealistic.
The persistent din of socio-political rhetoric also obscures a more incriminating neglect. Apocalypse's messages often drown out its stories, depriving characters of the depth and emotion that lend tragedies poignancy. Apocalypse's second-act collapse into predictable tragedy and sentimentality attempts to correct this. Halfway through the play, David realises that his sister is missing, but is stuck at the news centre covering the disaster. He sends correspondent and confidante Lisa on a frantic and ultimately futile search through the rubble. Both characters become rapidly disillusioned by the unfolding crisis, musing out loud, "should I stay or should I go?" These scenes are often overwrought and implausible, acknowledging certain token dramatic elements (the requisite sighs, pauses, trembling voices) and lapsing into a self-serious didacticism that takes no real interest in the tragic interconnectedness of a population affected by disaster. When David exasperatedly proclaims, "Am I the only one who is worried about our country here?" his plea ends up sounding rather disingenuous.
Under Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction, or the lack thereof, Apocalypse treads as gingerly around Kwek's script as the actors do around the debris on stage. Characters fade into Wong's spectacularly arranged clutter of clothes, bags and television screens, devolving into a landscape of surprising stasis. The motley crew of young starlets and old hands stumble through their lines uncertainly, infusing the "live coverage" of crashes and mayhem with antic, purposeless energy. Gene Sha Rudyn milks the crass military stereotype for all its worth, but fails to go deeper or any further. As a devout evangelistic couple that Kwek eventually and predictably exposes as frauds, Janice Koh and Loong Seng Onn often flail between forced cheekiness and unearned sentiment.
The result is a production that relies heavily and dangerously on its protagonist David Fong to generate pace and direction for its otherwise static mishmash of narratives. Brendon Fernandez nonetheless obliges with a performance that radiates gritty reserve and nervous charm, drawing you into a slippery world where ideals are readily compromised, and tragedy lurks at every turn.
The premise of Apocalypse is enterprising, attention-grabbing. Unfortunately, the production also plays out that way, more curious than compelling, more strenuously creative than revelatory. So what kind of a play is Apocalypse? A frustrating one: full of heart and devoid of life; crudely manipulative when it tries hardest to be subtle; and profoundly complacent in spite of its intention to unsettle and disturb.
First Impression (***)
It is 2058 and Singapore has suffered the wrath of "fire and brimstone from the unremitting heavens". Ken Kwek's nihilistic construction of the aftermath rips through a familiar checklist of social and political gripes, straining to revive age-old debates about staying and quitting, restricted press freedom and religious fundamentalism under the cover of easygoing irreverence. While fertile with ideas of censorship, autocracy and dispossession, Apocalypse: Live! renders them in fits and starts, failing to cohere into a fluent work of theatre. The persistent din of socio-political rhetoric also reveals a more incriminating neglect: Apocalypse's messages often drown out its stories, depriving characters of the depth and emotion that lend tragedies their heartbreaking poignancy.
Under Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction, the production treads as
gingerly around Kwek's script as the actors do around the debris on
stage. Characters fade into Wong Chee Wai's spectacularly arranged clutter
of clothes, bags and television screens, devolving into a landscape
of surprising stasis. The result is a production that relies heavily
and dangerously on its protagonist, Brendon Fernandez's uptight newscaster
David Fong, to generate pace and direction for its otherwise static
The premise of Apocalypse is enterprising, attention-grabbing. Unfortunately, the production also plays out that way, more curious than compelling, more strenuously creative than revelatory.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /