Clarissa Oon
The Straits Times

One of Singapore’s best-known playwrights recently expressed his disillusionment with writing political plays, saying in an interview with The Straits Times that political plays here are “no longer transformative” and “have lost their edge and danger”.

Tan Tarn How, whose name was practically synonymous with political satire and allegory in the 1990s, makes a comeback with a new play next month.

In private conversations, several others in the arts community have voiced similar sentiments to me over the years: that political theatre has become merely crowd-pulling entertainment. This view merits debate, particularly with the ongoing success of the Man Singapore Theatre Festival, where plays explicitly about politics, race and religion are sold out.

I disagree that theatre here has gone soft. On the contrary, I think the climate is right for plays with strong socio-political themes to thrive: hungry audiences, a gentler regulatory environment, corporate sponsors taking a risk, and playwrights at the peak of their powers.

If the momentum continues – and I hope it does – we could arrive at a theatre scene not much different from cultural capitals such as London and New York, where the measure of a good play is not just in what it dared to say, but how well it did so.

The three-week festival of new and restaged plays, ending on Sunday, is presented by home-grown theatre company Wild Rice. Its sponsor is global fund manager Man Investments, which also lends its name to the prestigious international literary Man Booker Prize awards.

The local plays which have sold out their five-day runs at the festival are the national service thriller Charged, inter-religious family drama Nadirah, and Cooling Off Day, a docudrama about the May General Election. The first play was written by Chong Tze Chien, and the latter two by Alfian Sa’at, both National Arts Council (NAC) Young Artist Award recipients.

Cooling Off Day, which I reviewed last week, manages to relive a watershed moment for political participation here with the kind of crackle and immediacy that you can only get with stripped- down live theatre.

Alfian and the veteran cast capture a range of voices, including ah peks and makciks, opposition figures and former political detainees, in vignettes notable not just for their unflinching honesty but also humour, compassion and insight.

If I was impressed by Cooling Off Day, my jaw dropped after reading the script for Charged, a searing, vulgarity-strewn piece taking off from the most extreme, racially loaded scenario imaginable – an investigation into the deaths of a Chinese and a Malay soldier, one having shot the other.

The play was first staged by Teater Ekamatra last December and ended its run at the festival earlier this month. Its script is one of four by Chong recently collected into a book by local publisher Epigram Books. Charged blows out the window at least two out-of-bounds markers that Singapore playwrights are thought not to be able to cross – racial sensitivities and the inviolability of national service.

It is a complex and layered interrogation of the interracial ignorance and prejudice that simmers in society and in national service barracks. It looks at how people sweep certain things they do not want to confront under the “race” carpet – issues that may really be about class divides or a basic level of humanity and decency.

There are two other politically themed works worth looking out for by other theatre companies. One is Tan’s The Fear Of Writing, a new play about self-censorship staged by TheatreWorks, which runs next month.

The other is Gemuk Girls, Haresh Sharma’s biting tragicomedy about the effects of political detention without trial on one Malay family. To be revived in November, it was first produced by The Necessary Stage to critical acclaim in 2008.

Apart from The Fear Of Writing, which has not yet received its licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA), all the other plays have been passed without cuts. Gemuk Girls and Cooling Off Day were given advisories for mature content and recommended for audiences aged 16 and above. Charged had an R18 rating for mature content and coarse language.

This reflects the MDA’s move in recent years away from censorship to age-appropriate ratings, although one could argue the NAC’s cut to Wild Rice’s annual grant for “disparaging public institutions” represents another form of censorship, given how other funding bodies take their cue from the Government.

This is why Man’s sponsorship is so significant. It signals the entry of a global sponsor responding more to a base of liberal yuppie consumers rather than an official government line.

Theatre here has a history of pushing the envelope, and has been given some latitude to do so because of its limited audience reach. The ups and downs of the theatre scene have thus depended partly on the development of its playwrights, and partly on the loosening and tightening of the political climate.

One high point was in the mid-1980s, when Kuo Pao Kun wrote some classic plays, and before the detention of key members of young drama group Third Stage for allegedly being part of a Marxist plot to overthrow the government.

Another peak was in the early-1990s, when playwrights such as Tan Tarn How, Eleanor Wong and Haresh Sharma won audiences and rave reviews.

Chong Tze Chien and Alfian Sa’at could be said to represent a third generation of writers, now in their 30s. In the last few years, theatre appears to be enjoying a new harvest of plays by them and others.

The challenge for playwrights has always been to find a fresh language to talk about society in all its complexity, against the homogenising rhetoric of top-down social engineering. I think great strides have been made in the writing, and I see audiences flocking to watch socio-political plays not simply to taste forbidden fruit, but to feed the soul.

The sensitivities of talking about race and religion in the public domain have been so ingrained that audiences look to drama for more debate and nuance about unspoken tensions. I am an optimist: May the illuminations in a darkened theatre counteract closed minds and knee-jerk prejudices.