A look back: 2019 theatre in review

I watched a total of 17 plays in 2019. Not a lot, I must admit, and also maybe why the recent Life! theatre awards nominations left me with “Oh, maybe I should have watched that…”. So only two months late, here are my 3 favourite plays from 2019:

Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் (Wild Rice)

If there was one play in 2019 that was so talked about and truly so “of its time”, it’s Merdeka. The buzz of the bicentennial year, a minister citing a poem from co-playwright Alfian S’aat in parliament, and ardently vocal criticisms of colonialism had set the scene for Merdeka. Told in the form of a reading group meeting, Merdeka highlights carefully selected stories to show a different side of Singapore history. The cast of six is entirely captivating, gathering the audience to a climatic rallying cry of “Merdeka! in recreating the 1959 Padang speech. Some might disagree that Merdeka‘s rigid format results in a purely fact-dispersing performance, but to me, Merdeka’s strength is in how it informs and interrogates. Now as ‘Merdeka’ becomes a term reserved for the post pioneer generation, it is more likely we will eventually associate ‘Merdeka’ with Medisave and senior discounts. The memory of our past will gradually fade. Now, look how far we’ve come.

Catamite (Loo Zihan)

This careful retelling of queer Singaporean history is so lovingly told. Comprising of an object exercise, lecture, documentation and retelling a trial, Catamite effectively interplays with the dry methodological process of archiving and the very personal connotations that are derived from objects. A participatory performance that I actually enjoyed as Zihan led the audience in simple creative exercises that was assuring and entertaining. For example, we had to pick an item from our wallets or bags, previously laid out, and place it on a table. We then had to grab one piece of item from the table to write about. Mine was the last to be picked – a Vicks inhaler.

Blunt Knife (Eng Kai Er)

Contrary to its title, Blunt Knife cut me wide open. A confessional solo show, Kai Er recalls her teenage years as a competitive figure skater. She hands out medals, she holds the dull blade of her figure skate to her face, and she rollerblades round and round the room. The entire performance is enthralling, as it hinges on her confession of her romantic relationship with her much older coach. It is deliberately uncomfortable, I felt a mix of unease, admiration and sympathy for her. There is a tremendous tenderness and fragility in Blunt Knife, and also an urgent sense of brutality and violence as Kai Er invites? exposes? this non-consensual act. My favourite performance in 2019.

Honourable mention for a non-Singaporean play: The Far Side of the Moon (Ex Machina)

A French-Canadian exploration about the heartache and longing of reconciliation. What I liked the most was its very well-thought out set: a circular glass door that serves as a washing machine, an aircraft window or a space capsule door. There is a rotating mirrored ceiling effectively used throughout, from a bar table to the walls of a gym. Very enthralling in its use of stage space, and how truly curious mankind is.

Bonus (and absolutely a humblebrag): Hamilton 

I caught this on my first work trip to San Francisco and also the first time I’ve been to the US. It was more of a rock performance than musical theatre, the (mainly white) audience was cheering and grooving to the rap music about their constitutional history. Very American!

It’s funny looking back at my own top anticipated plays for 2019 a year ago, that it is hard to predict what moves you and what stays with you. Here’s to more plays in 2020!

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