Clarissa Oon
SPH – The Straits Times, Life!
23 Jun 2011

A recent post on The Guardian’s theatre blog has the catchy heading, ‘Do we stage too much Shakespeare?’ It goes on to question British theatre’s overdose of Hamlet. In older and more established cultural cities such as London, dusting off a successful or iconic script is the order of the day.

Without going into chaotic extremes, encore productions are also becoming increasingly commonplace here. Some sniff at this as a lack of fresh ideas; I tend to think of it positively, as a sign of the growing maturity of some Singapore playwrights that make their best works worth returning to.

The restaging of well-received plays is not a new phenomenon, but seems to be happening more often in the past two years – perhaps because there is finally a substantial body of work to go back to, after more than 20 years of professional theatre development. There is something bittersweet about resurrecting past plays, an act of not inconsiderable labour compared to the snap rewinding of a film reel.

Age has something to do with it. A core group of full-time directors, writers and actors has spent nearly half their lives treading the boards. They are getting older and hence, conscious of the need to educate young audiences and artists of Singapore’s performance heritage.

Due to the transitory nature of the form, a play may only live for a few days. Once it has proven itself, it needs to be revived every few years to become part of the collective cultural imagination. Otherwise, ‘if we have no sense of what has been done, it is very difficult to move forward’, as Singapore Arts Festival general manager Low Kee Hong puts it.

The festival has led the charge in restaging seminal Singaporean works, with theatre practitioner and sociologist Low making it one of the fixtures of the programme since he took over at the helm last year.

While the tendency with restaging a play is to update or give it a radically different spin, at least two recent festival productions have kept faith almost note-for-note with the original, allowing their forgotten creators to be heard. Last year’s Emily of Emerald Hill saw a grand-motherly Margarte Chan reprise the classic role she first played as a young woman, leaving the script much as Stella Kon wrote it. At this year’s recently concluded festival, it was the turn of Conference Of The Birds, late director William Teo’s pan-Asian take on an ancient fable. Jeremiah Choy filled the director’s chair but kept the texture of the production close to the one in which he had taken part as a performer 20 years ago.

The new Conference had its weaknesses but I liked that it was an unabashed homage to Teo. Singapore drama went through a pan-Asian phase during the 1990s and early 2000s, as part of a search for its own language. Teo was ahead of his time in fusing different Asian performance idioms into an improbably lyrical, syncretic whole. Choy’s production brought that home to me and a new generation that missed out on Teo’s works.

Restagings dominated the theatre calendar last year with quite a few companies celebrating 10- and 20-year anniversaries, including English-language theatre group Wild Rice which revisited its past hits such as the pantomime Cinderel-lah! and comedy Boeing Boeing.

More comebacks are in store with the resurfacing of three critically acclaimed plays. The Necessary Stage will bring back its political drama Gemuk Girls in November, while two plays exploring inter-racial tension – Chong Tze Chien’s Charged and Alfian Sa’at’s Nadirah – will be restaged as part of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival next month.

It has always made economic sense that plays with legs should run and run. In the United States, a good play typically makes a cross-country journey from regional theatres to off-Broadway before finally winding up on Broadway.

Theatre makers here have found ways of telescoping that journey. For example, Nadirah and Charged were small productions first staged by Teater Ekamatra in 2009 and 2010 respectively. They will now play to a wider audience as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, Wild Rice’s platform for home-grown writing.

That playwrights such as Haresh Sharma, Tan Tarn How, Alfian and Chong have launched or will soon publish collections of playscripts can only encourage more revivals of their works.

Restagings make better practitioners – and audiences – out of us. A cracker of a script can only improve upon successive outings, as long as it is not milked to death – we have probably had enough of Singapore theatre’s favourite Peranakan matriarch Emily for a while, following two different revivals over the year.

With a restaging, audiences who did not see the play the first time around also get to plug that missing piece in the contextual jigsaw of arts appreciation.

As a theatre reviewer in the early parft of the last decade, I watched every show in town. Away from the scene for the past six years, restagings became my way of sifting out the enduring from the forgettable, and I suspect many audiences choose what to watch in the same way.

As a civil society observer with an interest in history, I am looking forward to Gemuk Girls, a powerful play about a political detainee’s family, first staged to rave reviews in 2008.

There are two other plays I would love to see revived. One is theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, a groundbreaking 1988 multilingual piece that has not been staged as often as his other landmark works such as The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, Mama is a sensitive critique of how society treats its elders, written in spare, economical prose that bears further interpretation. I last saw a version of the play staged in 1998 by Toy Factory and have no doubt it would resonate today – witness the recent expose of abuse in an old age home.

Another play which deserves a comeback is Tan’s Machine, a smart, dark riff on postmodern love, which won the Life! Theatre Awards Best Script in 2003. A total of 800 people saw the play, according to Tan. It was subsequently revisited by a different director in a low-key two-night production four years later.

Surely it deserves to be seen by more folks? Bring it on again, I say.