I look forward to this being a great play in its version 2. Version 1 contains promising seeds.
My take-away from this play, written by Wong Souk Yee and directed by Peter Sau and performed 20-21 December 2013 at the University Cultural Centre, is this: When a state has acquired instruments of non-democratic control, merely changing parties in government is not good enough. It takes a revolution to clean up its act. Of course, revolutions don’t have to mean violence. Much of Communist Eastern Europe shook off totalitarianism in 1989 – 1990 quite peacefully. But a key difference remains between parties merely wanting to succeed into power, and groups (usually coalitions of civil society and political forces) wanting to reform and rebuild the state.
It may be argued that the same point can be made through a well-written essay. It doesn’t take many words to point out that a party succeeding into power can be tempted to use the same illiberal tools to destroy its opponents and perpetuate itself in power as its predecessor had used. But theatre, when done well, can bring much more cogency and urgency than any essay can.
To be a great version 2, Square Moon will need to sharpened considerably. My view is that it should be delivered as a straightforward serious political-morality play, and much of what was in version 1 would do well to be cut out and replaced.
For example, the supporting characters — the deputy director of the prison (played by Pawan J Singh) and the two constables (played by Hemang Yadav and Erwin Shah Ismail) — should not have been given such campy characterisations. Making Yadav’s character buffoonish and Erwin’s character transgender (in one scene masturbating with a dildo, to boot!) and dressing all three in sado-masochistic gear, seemed to me totally frivolous. Doing so added nothing to the narrative. Yet, the script contained something that briefly had potential, and I wished that this was developed more: Erwin’s character later revealed himself to be secretly supportive of the opposition side.
In lieu of the camp, three problematising characterisations could have been created among the prison staff: a true believer in the ruling party passionate about carrying out his duties in the internment centre, a closet opposition supporter reluctantly doing his job, and a politically-apathetic guy that doesn’t allow himself the dangerous luxury of holding any strong views and thinks others are foolish to do so. How would these play off against each other and against the demands of the state i.e. to detain people on false pretexts, and torture them to extract ‘confessions’?
During the intermission, a member of Function 8, the social enterprise behind the performance, asked me if I thought the torture scene was too much. He said others had told him it was excessive. I said no, I thought it was fine; if anything, I would have preferred it a little more graphic. I added: “When people say ‘it’s too much’, it indicates they were squirming in their seats feeling uncomfortable. That to me means the playwright and director have done something right. It means the audience is being confronted with what they’d rather not see.”
Theatre is not merely entertainment. This is exactly why I felt the campiness that led the audience’s expectations astray did such a disservice.
As did the use of music. Words and pregnant silences were all that were needed.
In the first half, there were several throw-away lines — about ministers’ salaries, and the ‘royal family’ — which might have resonated with a Singaporean audience, but actually degraded the script. Snide remarks do not make great plays. Such highly-local references also undermine the universality of its message and undercuts the ability of the play to travel.
The mention of ‘royal family’ in a play that speaks of elections would also cry out for clarification to a non-Singaporean audience. Far better, I would have thought, to drop such a remark and beef up the tension between the pretence of electoral democracy and the desire for unchallenged power. One possibility that occurred to me as I watched the play was to use the dialogues between the prison director (played by Koey Foo) and the minister (Neo Swee Lin) to better effect. It would have been a whole lot more poignant if the director tried to stand up for constitutionality and due process, only to yield to the minister’s demand for ruthlessness and shortcuts. With this compromised personal history, the director can appear again in the second half once again trying to argue for professionalism with the new minister (and ex-detainee) River Yang (played by Lim Kay Siu)
Instead, Foo’s character is written as little more than a go-between between minister and his detention centre staff — which seems a waste.
The use of colour in the direction, stage set and costuming was a good effort but, again, could have benefitted from more single-mindedness. In the first half of the play one party is in power, represented by the colour black. The stage was black, the minister and the prison staff were all in black (albeit in semi-ridiculous S&M garb). In the second half, the opposition party (represented by white) comes into power. Ex-detainee River Yang becomes a minister and he is in a white cloak. The prison staff change into white, but in an equally ridiculous costume that remind me of the uniform of River Valley High School. However, the set doesn’t change. It should have have changed to white too.
In conversation with my friend Russell Heng, he suggested that a more dramatic effect could have been had with the change of power. There would have been a short scene where, as River Yang is released from prison to be made the new minister, all the prison staff could have been on stage, taking their black jackets off, turning them inside out and wearing them again, this time with white exteriors. The visual message would be one of switching loyalties; the implied question is whether civil and security services wear their professed loyalties as no more than clothes.
Last but not least, the character of the detained lawyer (Zelda Tatiana Ng) had huge potential. As I remember it, when she was first introduced, the character was more like that of a public defender, albeit one with her heart in the right place, tasked to represent a jailed terrorist. By the end of the play, the years of her own continued detention had made her a cause celebre. I was sorry to see that the play made her too noble. I thought it would have been a lot more interesting if she had been an accidental hero, and if by the end of the play she had to choose (and not be shown to have made a decision) between (a) being her true self (not a human rights fighter) wanting her freedom and (b) imagining herself as a human rights fighter, desiring the accolade of martyrdom.
Singaporeans need theatre that can push our political education along, theatre that doesn’t shy away from characters with mixed motives and grubby hands, and which demolish simplistic notions of new electoral dawns. Square Moon can be that theatre.