Fresh Faces, Old Wounds: A review of the Twenty-Something theatre festival, Part 1

By Ng Yi-Sheng

As part of my commitment to reviewing indie theatre, I’ve decided to write about every single play in the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival. This is a completely new arts festival, initiated by actor/producer Tan Kheng Hua to give young theatremakers a platform to stage their works. It’s running from 9 to 19 June at Goodman Arts Centre, featuring the works of eight playwrights, all in their 20s.

On Thursday I managed to catch three plays in the “Fresh” category: works selected by a team of professionals out of a total of 69 submissions. They’re all under an hour long, and interestingly, they’re all stories about pain—tales of individuals facing the pressures of Singaporean society, suffering in silence, trying to survive.

Long Weekend
Directed by Mitchell Fang, script by Kenneth Chia

This was my favourite show of the night—heartfelt, imaginative, daring and also wonderfully specific in its portrait of what it’s like to be a young in today’s Singapore.

Long Weekend

It also happens to be hella gay. That fact isn’t mentioned in its publicity materials, but it’s pretty obvious as soon as you enter the theatre and you see the whole ensemble dressed up in see-through white gauze and undies, save for a guy with the head of a giant penis. The whole pre-show spectacle is pretty elaborate: there’s a woman in a military beret and brassiere, barking orders at the audience, while excerpts of pro-gay and anti-gay political speeches play in the background.

But it worried me. It looked as if the play was attempting to launch a broad protest against Singaporean homophobia. I’ve seen productions like that (e.g. Toy Factory’s Grind and Red Pill Productions’ Let’s Get Back Together) and they tend to passionate but heavy-handed and unfocussed—more propaganda than art.

Luckily, Long Weekend does have a focus. It’s about a closeted gay university student, Han Lin (Terry Tan), mourning the death of his friend-cum-secret lover, Keith (Juni Goh). It isn’t a sob story about suicide—we’re never told how Keith died, but it’s clear he was an outgoing, sexually liberated guy with supportive friends. Instead, it’s more about the strange tension of being a closeted introvert: everything takes place within the space of Han Lin’s dream, as he’s haunted by the memory of a man who did everything he never dared.

Han Lin’s sadness serves as our emotional and contextual anchor, which means that playwright Kenneth Chia can go wild in terms of form. He gives us naturalistic dialogues between university students as they clear Keith’s dorm, phantasmagorical visits to defunct gay clubs populated by penguins, intimate confessions by the beach, multiple versions of the visit to a psych clinic where Keith and Han Lin first met.

Somehow it all flows together smoothly, thanks in no small part to Mitchell Fang’s directorial skills and the versatile ensemble. Terry Tan deserves special praise: he’s utterly believable as the everyman protagonist, never hamming up his emotions or his Singlish, behaving as naturally as one can in his extraordinary circumstances. It’s a surreal little play, but the production team’s managed to make it feel real.

National Memory Project
Directed by Johnny Jon Jon and Nadia Cheriyan, script by Johnny Jon Jon

This play’s got a really cool premise. Judy (Tan Hui Er), a representative of the Memory Corps, has been tasked with getting a slice of oral history from Mona (Siti Sara Hamid), a woman on death row for murder. The interview takes place in prison, with Mona handcuffed to the desk, smirkingly refusing to reveal a memory to a government agent.

The dialogue between the two is wonderfully charged at the beginning, with playwright Johnny Jon Jon playing up their difference in power, the two code-switching between English and Malay, sometimes even punning between the two—for instance, can you say “sedut” to literally mean life “sucks”?


But the energy’s sapped from the room when Judy has her first flashback. She’s at a forest stream with her boyfriend—he appears as a projected image and a pre-recorded voice—and he’s reminiscing about how the land will be cleared soon, while she’s complaining about the mosquitoes. There’s an awkward time lag to the dialogue (a common problem with pre-recorded media). But my main issue is that the exchange is essentially a preachy jeremiad, all about how Singapore’s willing to demolish the past for the sake of progress.

And the truth is, we’ve heard all this before. Singaporean writers have been decrying the disappearance of our cultural landscape for decades. Furthermore, the play ends up revolving around Judy’s memories: specifically, her parents’ anguish when they moved from their kampung pig farm to a cell-like HDB apartments. In other words, even in a Malay language production, we’re getting a replay of the dominant Chinese cultural narrative.

It also irks me that there’s no real discussion of the death penalty in the story. Mona’s situation evokes our pity and horror, but it’s subsumed by the theme of nostalgia: instead, her execution becomes a metaphor for the erasure of our past. I can’t help but feel that that trivialises the very real issue of capital punishment.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s loads to like in this play. There are striking metaphors, violent plot points revolving around suicide and dementia, and an admirably unique treatment of a death row prisoner: Mona does not empower herself by telling her story, but by refusing to tell her story. Also noteworthy are actress Tan Hui Er’s multilingualism—she has lines in English, Malay and Hokkien—and the way it signaled to Muslim audience members when to break fast: at the stroke of sunset, a guard delivers Mona a glass of water, and viewers know they can snack on the dates and packet drinks provided at front-of-house. This is a clever play with emotional depth—I’m just bothered by how it also feels full of missed opportunities.

The Cave
Directed by Annabel Tan and Benjamin Chow, script by Annabel Tan

I’ve mixed feelings about this play. It’s a feminist monologue, chock-full of visceral imagery of wombs and government flats and of course the titular cave, all performed by Selma Alkaff, clad in a nightgown, surrounded by a backdrop of colourful synthetic rubber ABC tiles.

On the one hand, I’ve seen work like this before. It follows in a long line of angst-ridden intimate, experimental feminist plays, including Ovidia Yu’s Three Fat Virgins Unassembled and The Woman in a Tree on the Hill, as well as Chin Woon Ping’s Details Cannot Body Wants and Diary of a Madwoman.

Yet on the other hand, this specific type of play isn’t actually very common in Singapore—theatre companies here may not think that howling against patriarchy is very marketable. And so a work like this is welcome, especially since it’s done so well.

The Cave - 1

The language is poetic and vibrant, Alkaff demonstrates a capacity for physical and emotional acting well beyond her twenty years, and the stage action is playful and unexpected—Alkaff builds gateways with the tiles, turns them into giant boxes to confine herself and the contents of the stage, stands on them, sits on them, illuminates the stage by hiding torchlights in their alcoves, and smashes them in fury.

What’s missing, then? I’d have liked more plot details—right now all the digressions are framed by the tale of an unnamed 32 year-old woman who’s raped, gets pregnant, and marries a man she doesn’t love so she can have a flat to raise her child. There’s loads of material in there for rage and fear and insecurity and fantasy, but it all feels somewhat abstract. Providing names and cultural specifics can work, as seen in the exploration of a Malay woman’s identity in Haresh Sharma’s Rosnah.

Also, what with all the intensity of emotion, there’s no indication of when the climax happens—the play closes so abruptly that we’re left shell-shocked by the ending. I spoke to playwright/director Annabel Tan afterwards and she says this was deliberate: the torment of being a woman is interminable. But I think that’s the easy way out. We’re not going to become better feminists because we don’t have a resolution.

It may be worth noting that Tan is the youngest playwright of the evening, at just 21 years old. Her play has all the raw fury of youth—it’s no surprise that it also has some unpolished edges. So I’m interested in seeing more: as a director/playwright, she has much to offer the world of theatre still.

These shows don’t represent the entirety of the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival’s opening weekend—I wasn’t able to catch the Headliner show, Irfan Kasban’s Trees, A Crowd…, and a whole program of Q&As and musical events has also been planned. I’ll try and catch some of that too, and document it on this site. Youth burns bright, and its triumphs must be captured.

Long Weekend, National Memory Project and The Cave run from Thursday 9 to Sunday 12 June at Goodman Arts Centre, 90 Goodman Road, Singapore 439053. Tickets may be bought from Peatix or directly from the theatremakers. More information here: https://www.goodmanartscentre.sg/events/the20somethingtheatrefestival/