By Ng Yi-Sheng
Last Thursday, the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival kicked off with its first week of shows, all written, produced and performed by folks 29 and under. I managed to review most of the plays on offer (read here), but for logistical reasons, I had to miss the headliner: the specially commissioned Trees, A Crowd…, by director-playwright Irfan Kasban.
I’ve followed Irfan’s career for nearly a decade now, and he truly is one of Singapore’s original voices. There’s a strong surrealist edge running through his work, as seen in his reinterpretations of Quranic stories in Hantaran Buat Mangsa Lupa (Offerings for the Victims of Amnesia) and his installation-performance A Beautiful Chance Encounter of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella on an Operating Table. Yet he can also do social realism, as seen in Tahan, which documents the NS police experience.
Trees, A Crowd… shows us a new facet of his repertoire. It’s a comedy about activism, centred on a bizarre but not oddly believable premise. A team of four actors (Jo Tan, Faizal Abdullah, Shafiqah Efandi and Chng Xin Xuan) has formed a group called SOFAR, Save Our Flora And Roots, all in the name of saving a single tree that’s about to be cut down for an expressway. But they’ve only been able to gather 32 signatures on their petition, and the government’s alternative proposal has resulted in the endangerment of a different tree.
The play then takes the form of an elaborate presentation by the actors, who’re trying to educate the public about their dilemma. We’re told we have to choose between the two trees: a 200 year-old damar hitam gajah tree and a 50 year-old gelam tree, both situated in the Malay cemetery at Jalan Kubor. The choice is presented to us as a court case, a talk show and a public forum, with occasional pauses to tally our votes, as well as interludes in which the actors bicker with one another, putting their internal rivalries on show.
And it’s fun—more fun than any of Irfan’s previous shows. A lot of this is thanks to the actors, especially the ever-delightful Jo Tan, whose character (bearing the same name) keeps uttering garbled proverbs and giggling at her own disastrous puns. But it’s also because of the sheer zaniness of the scenarios, the petty squabbling, the variety of characters and accents each actor must play, and the inside jokes about the genuine lives of actors—Shafiqah and Chng’s complaints about how they’re too old to be ingénues, but have missed the boat to be established stars. There’s quite an aesthetic component, too: we’ve got live songs from Tan and Shafiqah, some beautiful lighting work, and of course a marvellous artificial tree, looming over the action in the backdrop.
But while the play’s entertaining, I’ll have to come out and say that it’s not actually satisfying. The principal reason for this is that it lacks focus: it doesn’t have a core message to state about the business of activism except that it’s often messy and unheroic. Plus, there’s the issue of logic—it doesn’t actually make much sense for activists to stage mock trials and TV shows to get their points across.
Furthermore, a whole lot of the play’s imagery and emotional heft is centred on trees rather than the quandary of the activists. We get endless tree puns, a barrage of botanical factoids about damar hitam gajah and gelam trees and key moments that underscore a genuine need for heritage and conservation—most visibly, the heartbreaking revelation that the 200 year-old tree was planted by the son of the last Sultan of Singapore, as a futile attempt to assert the eternal legitimacy of his reign.
One gets the sense that Irfan set out to create a work like Joel Tan’s Mosaic, which subtly interrogated Gen Y nostalgia-driven activism with naturalistic characters. Unfortunately, he got swallowed up by his background research about the lore of trees and threw everything in, so there’s a misplaced air of romance to the work, as in Kuo Pao Kun’s The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree. The result is a production that can’t decide whether it’s cynical or sincere, whether it’s seeking to calling people to resist urban sprawl or deriding our attempts to engineer any kind of populist change.
And yet there’s something very resonant about the whole show for me—the sense of disorderliness, the sense of disillusionment at the end when Jo reveals she’s been tricking the audience, and the sense of hopelessness at the end when we watch the tree’s demolition. Ask any activist in Singapore and they’ll attest that this is what it’s like to fight for something you passionately care about. You’re strung along, forced into odd compromises and then ultimately disappointed.
Maybe Trees, A Crowd… is unsatisfactory because activism is always unsatisfactory. It’s not even a uniquely Singaporean condition: across the globe, the struggle to change the world is almost necessarily a disappointing business. We might not want to see that story told on stage. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
Trees, A Crowd… ran from Thursday 9 to Sunday 12 June. The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival continues this week from Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 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/