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The Necessary Stage


Ng Yi-Sheng






The Drama Centre



Migrant Players

There was a time, back in the 80s and early 90s, when theatre in Singapore wasn't about imported blockbusters or multimedia gimmicks. Back then, we were still busy exploring ourselves, defining ourselves as a community of people of different languages, cultures and classes - simply portraying how we can and do live together in both harmony and conflict. It was an age of seminal works whose value we're only beginning to recognise, canonising them as part of our dramatic heritage: Army Daze, Mama Looking for Her Cat, Off Centre.

Watching Mobile at this year's Arts Fest, it feels as if those days are back - only now, those old issues of racism and classism are being discussed on a continental scale. Focused on examining the experiences of migrant workers, this play ends up shining light into the new power dynamics of contemporary Asia, a world of Japanese businessmen, Thai sex workers and Filipina maids - all caught in the disorienting circumstance of being displaced for the sake of labour needs.

Mobile attains a level of intimacy and relevance that's rare in international arts projects, emerging as an exceptionally powerful work of drama, both broad in its scope and deep emotionally. This isn't to say that the play is flawless - far from it. The framing story of two delegates at an NGO conference succeeded in articulating some problems in the agitation for migrant workers' rights, but ultimately came across as didactic, with flat characterisation. The play's finale was similarly a disappointment: the directors were unable to round off their ambitious project with anything more than three actresses linked by a white strip of cloth, laughing hysterically.

These faults were, however, redeemed by the remaining scenes of the play, which were uniformly excellent. Based on true-life accounts gathered through interviews in shelters, these stories related the desperate situations in which people find themselves during overseas work, and they consistently contained more twists and turns than we might expect. For example, a Filipino activist-turned-hotel magnate is haunted by the memory of a Thai fisherman, who trusted the magnate to make him rich - but, as the magnate's ethnic-jewelry-toting wife protests, it was impossible to invest in the natives when the fishermen themselves refused to adapt to their new roles as hotel staff. Who are the victims and who the villains in this play? When perspectives from both sides are presented, the answers that emerge are never simple.

It's an interesting strategy, this, to place the dilemmas of the rich on equal footing with the suffering of the poor - a distorted view of the world's inequalities, but a necessary one, if we're to bring freshness and interest to the topic, engaging an Asian theatre-going audience with its own implication in a pattern of global injustice. It's also quite crucial that no mention of Europe, America or Australasia occurs in this play, as it's now far too convenient to scapegoat the West for economic exploitation. This new focus forces us to examine ourselves in the context of the oppressor rather than to mistakenly adopt the self-righteous label of the oppressed.

Outside the realm of power relations, the play also becomes the site for a new understanding of cultural encounters. It draws fully on the resources of a production team with members from Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan, with two directors, four writers and a workshop process that allowed for high levels of interaction and discussion. Having participated in mutual arts exchanges over the past two years, the theatre practitioners were able to forge themselves into a strong co-operative team, making the most of their differences onstage. Hence, a harsh, stark Japanese aesthetic became evident in scenes directed by Tatsuo Kaneshita, while concentration on human relationships remained the focus in scenes directed by Alvin Tan. Likewise, the cast was simply stellar, with each member displaying the best of his or her talents in multiple roles. In particular, I'll remember Tetsuya Kataoka's breakdown from being an inflexible Japanese husband. Initially liberated by his new job in the Philippines, he ultimately became desperate and crazed, stripping off his yuppie clothing to reach the same level as his indigenous pole-dancer girlfriend. I'll also have to mention Jarunun Phantachat, who played a Thai masseuse with a stridency and power befitting a performance of Medea, with dialogue in all of the play's three languages: Thai, English and Japanese.

I'm particularly glad that in this play, The Necessary Stage was able to move away from its habit of relying on video projections for spectacle in major productions -this aesthetic of creating multiple layers of signifiers has proved alienating to me in previous productions like godeatgod. Here, although one such projection was used, it was seamlessly integrated into a versatile set, composed of movable container parts.

Also typical of TNS productions was a scene of high absurdist farce - featured here as a play within a play, ostensibly put up as a pan-Asian, not-for-profit political show by volunteers at an NGO conference. This gigglesome little number, entitled "Eleanor's Nightmare", involved actors dancing and singing multilingual folk songs to campily dramatise a Filipina domestic worker's dilemma over whether or not to abort her child so she can continue to work in Singapore. "Eleanor's Nightmare" was the team's acknowledgment of how an international play about migrant workers' rights should not be done - in fact, the reason I didn't snap up a reviewer's ticket to this show was because I feared that the production would either be boring or turn out as a one-sided, semi-clichéd, feel-good, multicultural mess. Plays about the oppression of migrant workers have a tendency to come out inadequate or silly - consider Henry Ong's overwritten Fabric, Stella Kon's unbelievable Feeding the Armadillo, and TheatreWorks's drily conceptual Workhorse Afloat.

The Necessary Stage has a long history of creating theatre based on social issues, from its 1987 forum theatre treatment of interracial love in Mixed Blessings to its dramatisation of first-hand disaster accounts last year in Boxing Day: The Tsunami Project, which featured Southeast Asian actors who were to become part of the present international collaborative team. Nor is TNS only extending its international reach among the participant nations of Mobile - last year also saw the cross-Causeway production, Separation 40, which discussed Singapore-Malaysia relations with a cast, script and direction based in both countries. This current project, however, is especially important, being the culmination of efforts between artists of four countries. I'm adamant that it should be seen by people in more cities than just Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, which viewed it during this run.

In retrospect, one must give kudos to Ong Keng Sen for first envisioning a pan-Asian theatre with his 1997 cross-cultural project Lear. But one must also be grateful for our subsequent impetus to progress from his obsession with antique Asian art forms to also embrace contemporary society, investigating how the communities around us are changing right now. Mobile thus joins TheatreWorks's Geisha and W!ld Rice's Second Link in the creation of a new Singapore theatre, one that recognises our contingent situation in the complex, mutant landscape of a developing continent. Though we're small, we can have a part in investigating and defining the culture of today's Asia - just as we did with our own national culture, not so long ago.

"The play's new focus forces us to examine ourselves in the context of the oppressor rather than to mistakenly adopt the self-righteous label of the oppressed"


Concept: Alvin Tan

Directors: Alvin Tan and Tatsuo Kaneshita

Head Writer: Haresh Sharma

Writers: Narumol Thammapruksa, Rody Vera and Tatsuo Kaneshita

Set Designer: Vincent Lim

Multimedia Designer: Brian Gothong Tan

Lighting Designer: Naomi 'Shoko' Matsumoto

Associate Lighting Designer: James Tan

Choreographer: Kuo Jing Hong

Production and Technical Manager: Isis Koh

Stage Manager: Elnie Suhumastri Bte Mashari

Performers: Reina Kakudate, Tatsuya Kataoka, Rody Vera, Mailes Kanapi, Jarunun Phantachat, Narumol Thammapruksa, Pradit Prasartthong, Aidli Alin Mosbit, and Chua Enlai

More Reviews of Productions by The Necessary Stage

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.