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Manifesto: It’ll keep you thinking and talking

One day before opening night, the authorities rated The Necessary Stage and Drama Box's play R18. The reason was that its socio-political content was more suitable for "mature audiences". But everyone should get the chance to consider the questions this show poses.

Haresh Sharma, resident playwright at The Necessary Stage, described their latest play Manifesto as one that would challenge audiences. “[I]t's to have a good, intelligent all-rounded experience where you want to talk about things after you leave... and not just talk about supper,” he told me.

Having watched the play on opening night, I was only sorry that I’d gone to see it alone. I did go for supper after it, but there was no one to talk about the play with. And trust me – you’ll want to talk about the play.

Manifesto is a co-production by The Necessary Stage and Drama Box, both companies with an established history of device theatre. Spanning 70 years with a cast of seven highly versatile actors (who workshopped characters, styles and scenarios in the creation of this work), the play examines the relationship of artists and the Singaporean state, coming back again and again to questions of power, authenticity, voice and accountability.

The idea for the collaboration first came from conversations between the creative team: TNS’ Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma, and Drama Box’s Kok Heng Leun. And it’s possible to guess what they talked about; although all the names have been changed, those who follow Singapore’s news and current affairs will still be able to identify certain references or sources of inspiration, such as Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love – still unable to be distributed in Singapore – or incidences of censorship at arts events.

Photo: Caleb Ming / SURROUND

The play is not so much a streamlined narrative – especially since it isn't chronological – but a series of scenes with recurring characters posing questions. A former political detainee returns to Singapore to take on a post in the establishment, in the hopeful (or naïve?) belief that she can change the system from the inside. A Malay actress falls victim to the political turmoil of the country and region. An established theatre group struggles with a history deemed inconvenient in the contemporary milieu.

Each scenario serves up more food for thought: what is art, and what is politics? How are artists affected by blatant acts of state oppression? Can the establishment ever be subverted, or will an artist simply be assimilated into the Borg one day?

This provocation continues throughout the whole show. Even the intermission doesn’t spare the audience; one exits the black box to find that The Necessary Stage’s entire space has been converted into an audio landscape/installation piece that keeps one in the play’s universe.

It’s probably why the Media Development Authority decided one day before opening night to rate the production R18, requiring schools to return tickets that had been bought for their students. With so much sensitivity still surrounding questions of power, authority and the murky periods of detention without trial, it’s possible that the official censors felt that the play’s prompts would lead youngsters to uncomfortable answers. "Uncomfortable for whom?" one wonders.

Ironically, the last-minute rating of the show itself contributes to the performance, highlighting the way in which the state is able to proclaim certain socio-political content “mature” and therefore restrict access. What does that mean for art in Singapore, and for artists who want to push the boundaries? As one character says: everyone is checking the artists, but who is checking the government?

Presented as a multilingual, multimedia experience, Manifesto features a stellar cast that keeps the audience with them even as we jump from decade to decade, from moment to moment. Siti Khalijah Zainal’s performance as a former Bangsawan performer and yearning wife brought tears to my eyes, while Goh Guat Kian’s turn as a former political detainee at a gathering of old leftists took me right back to my own experiences of speaking to former student activists.

It's ultimately difficult to give a concise review of Manifesto; despite the many questions posed the team has steered away from offering any answers. It makes the whole thing a confounding experience, and I've already revised my thoughts a few times in the writing of this piece. Any attempt to come to any definite conclusion now would be futile; I'd probably end up coming back to edit this piece again and again as more thoughts occur to me.

I suppose this is what I'll say: go watch Manifesto. I need someone to go to supper with and talk to about this show.

This review was first published at Kirsten Han's byline column