By Ng Yi-Sheng
Marcia Vanderstraaten is pretty hot stuff in the theatre scene right now. The playwright recently won Best Script at the Life! Theatre Awards for W!ld Rice’s Hotel, which was a production of epic proportions. (Check out my review here – “Unforgettable stay – Review of Hotel by W!ld Rice“)
Before going into theatre full-time, however, she was a teacher. And though all of us know that that’s a tough job in Singapore, she’s managed to drive home the lesson even deeper in this dramatic exposé of the profession: Micromanage Overwork Exasperate—also known by its initials, MOE.
The show’s introduced as a training seminar for prospective teachers, complete with officious facilitators and manuals and technical malfunctions.
Four actors wearing lanyards welcome us to the profession: the ensemble cast of Vignesh Singh, Shafiqhah Efandi, Edward Choy and Jo Tan.
As soon as the house lights go down, they warn us to leave while we still can, then launch into a propagandistic parade of educational policy slogans—“Every school is a good school!” “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation!” “Teach less, learn more!”
This sets the tone for an absolutely hilarious first act, as they go on to perform multiple roles as teachers, principals, discipline masters, parents, and students, comically exaggerating their pride, their loutishness or their desperation in Parent-Teacher Meetings or Sports Day three-legged races.
But there’s more to this play than slapstick comedy. This is observational humour at its best: we experience a gleeful sense of recognition when you hear the characters specifically complaining about streaming, scholars, the PSLEs and propaganda.
It’s also apparent that one of Vanderstraaten’s great talents is for capturing the sound of the Singaporean voice: her characters speak utterly unforced Singlish, unashamed peppered with the acronyms of the teaching system (the program contains a mini glossary to explain BETA Forms, SMCs and CONNECT Plans).
There’s also a whole lot of heart to the play. Much of the work consists of monologues, where teachers explain their problems, from the politics of the staff room to the horrifying unavoidability of becoming tiger moms to their own kids.
And though each of these will elicit chuckles, they gradually communicate a total sense of disillusionment in a society where 12 year-olds are told they’re failures based on their PSLE aggregates and tuition teachers gain more monetary rewards than the rank-and-file educators who get the blame when things go wrong.
By the middle of this play, I guarantee that you’ll be heartbroken, poised to slap the face of any foreigner who praises Singapore Math, and reluctant to breed in case to expose any further poor souls into the cruelty of our education system.
Still, there is a note of inspiration in the darkness, as embodied by the character of Miss Tan (Jo Tan). She first appears as an airhead with an over-affected accent but emerges as a heroic figure, haunted by guilt over the students she failed to help yet determined to get up every morning and do her best.
Mind you, this isn’t a perfect production. It’s still fundamentally a sketch show, without a clearly defined plot or cast of characters. The idea of moving the audience around the premises of Centre 42 feels more gimmicky than worthwhile. There’s even a strange, subtle scene alluding to teacher-student sexual relations that feels completely out of place.
One might even say this play doesn’t feel completely finished—which is pretty ironic, given that it’s been reworked since its first performance in 2014, under the title Micromanage Overwork Exaggerate.
Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly entertaining and meaningful work of Singaporean theatre. It’s sold out for its current run, but the script deserves to be revisited—perhaps even by students themselves. I dare say drama clubs across the island could have a lot of fun with this text, with its modular scenes, flexible cast size, broad humour and biting social commentary.
It would be a delicious irony if this work, decrying the Ministry of Education’s policies, could worm its way into the school system, to be enjoyed by auditorium-loads of teachers and students.
Or would that just compound our problems? Might a play that’s meant to liberate us end up being yet another source of stress and indoctrination?
Show runs from Tuesday 27 September to Sunday 2 October. Tickets are sold out.