There are some local theatre companies that most of us have heard of by now: W!LD RICE, the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Pangdemonium, among others. But behind each major, established company are smaller groups and productions, doing what playwright Stella Kon refers to as “small theatre”.
While lacking the budget and finesse of the larger, more commercial companies, small theatre is nevertheless crucial to any country’s arts scene. As Kon explained, small theatre forms the grassroots that grows and replenishes the skills and talent needed to keep the bigger productions going.
Semoga Bahagia, which played in the Drama Centre’s Black Box this weekend, is one example of small theatre. Written by English lecturer Geraldine Song and directed by comedy and children’s theatre practitioner Sirfan S. Sulaimi, the play is set in the future as Singapore heads toward SG100. Two brothers, named Zubir and Said after the composer of Singapore’s national anthem, are born with special powers enabling them to transcend dimensions and ward off evil spirits. Identified as having the ability to help Singapore deal with its challenges – such as opening a portal to settle 6.9 million citizens in a new dimension – the brothers, one a musician and the other a particle physicist, feel the weight of great responsibility upon their shoulders. Urged on by flamboyant devils from hell, jealousy, love and ambition all come into the story.
Although still a little rough around the edges, with exposition more told than shown, Semoga Bahagia is a heartfelt story that examines the need for the arts and sciences in a society. Yet both these things can be easily subsumed under the national project: while Said’s research helps break new ground for Singapore, Zubir’s musical skills are recruited to help develop living conditions in the new dimension (which apparently reacts well to “musical vibrations”).
Thus both brothers serve the nation, labouring under a rigidly top-down structure in which they go wherever the Prime Minister tells them to. In the play’s Singapore of the future, little appears to have been gained in terms of democracy; while the brothers are told that it is their destiny to serve Singapore and better the lives of Singaporeans, it is quite simply accepted that the directions set by those on top are what needs to be done. Settling and preparing the new dimension for human habitation is a massive project – and awakens its own share of evil spirits – yet at no point do any of the characters even wonder if it is the right plan for the country.
Still, family ties and love are ultimately what keeps the characters going, reminding us that no matter the circumstances it is human connection that keeps Singaporeans moving into the future together. The play’s title, Semoga Bahagia, is a direct reference to the song Zubir Said wrote for Children’s Day, which translates to “may you achieve happiness” in English. It is a wish that transcends mere pragmatism, but emphasises relationships as the play does.
Each member of the cast played his or her role with an earnestness that carried the audience along no matter how surreal the plot, with the youngest actor capturing the heart of everyone present (you could actually hear the “awww!” every time she said a line).
Semoga Bahagia only had a two-day run; as with most small theatre productions, affording a performance space has been difficult. Yet the team is not done with the show yet: they hope the play can continue to be performed in a variety of locations, from graduate clubs to schools, and appealed for donations to allow them to do so.