From the first entry the group displayed its precision, teamwork and commitment to the play, in reality eleven plays, linked by the history and cultures of Singapore.
The programme listed the cast members by name but did not indicate who played which role. No photographs identified the performers. The Directors were named, Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, and the playwrights, masters of observation and invention, Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, but we were left in the dark about which plays each directed or wrote.
In the sequence of eleven scenes separated by decades from 1915 to 2015, the actors assumed leading, supporting and walk-on roles, transforming themselves completely for each characterisation, totally different in manner, voice and body language. A young actor appeared as a transvestite in one play and soon after was a young Indian bridegroom.
A mature actor burst out of a wardrobe in one scene, exploding with energy for a few minutes as the populist Lee Kuan Yew, fulminating against long hair on young men and banning it, then in the concluding scene, he appeared as a hotel guest dying of prostate cancer, reduced, like dying men I have met, to a head in bed. He led equally strong performers in a scene of operatic proportions.
Every role was a gift and the actors wasted no opportunity to deliver the lines with impact, their timing matching the early Marx Brothers films and like them so funny that I was still laughing at one line when the audience erupted in reaction to the next. This suggests the plays were a comedy. Rather, it proved how comedy leaves the audience with its soft belly exposed so the sword of truth can penetrate. The truth was the history of conflict and compromise between the cultures within Singapore. For example, a Chinese bride marrying an Indian wants to appear at the reception in a sari but her mother will have nothing of it. It seems a triviality but the symbol of identity divides the bride's family.
Image © W!LD RICE
In portraying the multiplicity of cultures within Singapore the performers spoke in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, Hindi and Japanese but not necessarily in the expected tongue, and all spoke English. When English was not spoken, often a quick aside, surtitles flashed.
The surtitles epitomised the precision of this performance. In opera surtitles often approximate the sung lines so laughs preempt their delivery, the drama lags behind the action or important lines are skipped to catch up. Here, in rapid sequences the performers and subtitle operator, Augustina Ongah, never missed a beat.
The sets by Wong Chee Wai and lighting by Lim Woan Wen created a design beautiful in its simplicity, a model for others.
A couple of the youngest performers did one or two hand actions more common on amateurs stage but they will grow in experience. I also found the music for sound design just a little loud.
However, in sixty plus years of association with the stage I have seen little to match this play.
Thank you W!LD RICE. Please come again.