21 December 2003

Review for Stray

So you’ve written a sardonic, anti-establishment play that pokes fun of, even punctures straitjacketed Singaporean society. Knowing smiles broke out in the audience each time Stray highlighted the insanity of a nanny state that produces conservative, play-it-safe clones. Silent laughter, the most dangerous kind, erupted each time the play held its mirror to a citizenry which has been so disempowered, deprived of most liberties (especially creative ones) that it is only free to participate as vacuous actors in the futile and fashionable pursuit of consumerism and the sham social charades that include televised charity drives, National Day parties, celebrity-watching, economic restructuring exercises... And of course, the obligatory, but oh-so-stinging deconstruction of sound bites from our leaders and typical Singaporeans by the chorus, never failed to bring the house down with genuine laughter.

Yet, to the credit of its playwright Emeric Lau, director Aaron Tan, and talented cast of Stage Pals, Stray never comes across as heavy-handed or polemical when it expresses the rage, alienation, and irreverent, iconoclastic humour of the 20-somethings, its ideal audience. It helps that the humour is always at the expense of the powers-that-be - and the 20-somethings are the first generation in Singapore to openly and savagely mock their leaders in everyday speech - but more importantly, this play is the honest collaboration of people who know and love Singapore too much to want to present the topic in any other way, and in such damning detail.

In his preamble, Lau writes of his struggle against the “dearth of well-written, well-performed original material in the local theatre scene in recent years”. It is a fact that most ‘big’ Singaporean productions are either adaptations of acknowledged Great Plays of the civilised West (modern or classic); huge musicals (any of the interchangeable Dick Lee productions); or “seem to pander to niche audiences” - a code for the Gay Play, which can be dissected into the Gay Martyr Play where every gay person emotes existential angst (the recent stage adaptation of Cyril Wong’s poetry), or the Gay Camp Play that merely celebrates the spending power of its niche community (the vulgarly shallow and consumerist Asian Boys Vol. 1, Shopping and F***ing, among others); or the multi-disciplinary, multilingual, multinational “Pan-Asian” play that has no real message aside from its own salad-bar conception of an ersatz, exotic, and auto-erotic Asian identity. Lau and Tan are right in lamenting that the tradition begun by Kuo Pao Kun seems to have been forgotten.

In this respect, Stray has managed to avoid the pitfalls its creator identifies as endemic to current Singapore theatre. The play is unapologetically original and Singaporean - its themes and issues, sensibility and psyche are undeniably “20something Singaporean”, and most importantly, the play has a real heart and soul; it grapples with real issues. In other words, an attempt to resurrect the tradition of Kuo Pao Kun, a tradition of writing and performing original Singaporean plays while maintaining the intercultural and eclectic osmosis of creativity.

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