Manifesto, a devised and collaborative piece, staged by The Necessary Stage and DramaBox was a giant that had legs and arms that extended way out of the tiny Black Box in Marine Parade. With simple set design, accompanied by Loo Zihan’s multimedia insertions (which didn’t make sense half the time) and Bani Haykal’s disjointed and jarring accompaniment, the production attempted to encapsulate the constant struggle between art and politics, embodied by characters that cross time and space, entering permeable walls that contain the different time zones, languages and diverse contexts. The use of multimedia was indulgent, barely adding layers. Much of it was just white noise, blurry sequences and film. While I questioned the use of film, there were several interesting plays on live feeds that explored the different spaces and time-frames. However, at some point, it became repetitive and over-done. Bani’s music would have been great for a physical theatre piece. Here it was jarring, and at some points, I wouldn’t have missed it if it wasn’t there. Bani did appear in the show as a Joker for some parts where they mock-forumed, before returning to his seat to continue making music. I didn’t know what that was all about. I didn’t understand the occasions where the musician and the visual media designer entered the space, only to promptly go back to their original spots. Wouldn’t it have been nice, if they too played their roles but in different eras, just like the rest? There were portrayals and representation of politicians slash artists slash old-timers slash cultural medallions slash political detainees, made all the more confusing with the different layers of forum theatre techniques, and some attempt at meta-theatre that left me very confused, dis-engaged and looking forward to the end.
Compact in its storytelling though, the narrative attempted to answer the age-old philosophical dilemma of whether one is a politician or an artist first? Collapsing the binaries and jam-packed with arguments, text-heavy dialogues, I found myself lost at some point in the whole frantic assembly of characters that were disjointed, made of a complicated permutation of race, gender and opinion, all interrupting, excluding, including, fighting against each other, making up, making sense of this new socio-political climate. While the questions were never truly answered, I loved the fact that there were camps in the audience, naturally floating towards different opinions. It was as if we all agreed to disagree, reflective of an ideal theatre scene where everyone co-existed without the concept of winning the debate. Constructed collaboratively with the directors Kok Heng Leun and Alvin Tan, the actors were seamless in their portrayal of the different characters from different time zones, but the text fell short of them. I felt that the strongest moments were when it was just one actor or two on stage, delivering powerful monologues. Siti Khalijah’s monologue as Ramlah playing Som through 50 years after the departure of her beloved husband was amazing, and Ellison’s performance in her reaction to her comrade Jonathan’s suicide note to her in the form of a video was painful to sit through (read: wonderfully done). These were the moments that held me, and drew me to the struggles of these characters. Other than these moments, I was disengaged and bored. Peppered with humour here and there (mostly the lovable Siti Khalijah delivering Malay expletives in butch-minah style, because we will only accept this if she delivers it and not anyone else, because she makes it funny and palatable pfft), I also liked the self-censorship, where dashes were included in the dialogue leaving several sentences open-ended and open to interpretation.
A hefty 2 hour 20 minute programme, coupled with a pseudo biennale that mocked modern artists and questioned (and also pushed and challenged roughly) the paradigms of aesthetics and art and politics (in a circular relationship, often the play fell into a polarising binary, while attempting to collapse it) I was irked that yet again Sharda Harrison played an Indian dancer character. For crying out loud! In most cases, I would argue a colour blind casting system, but here, the devising process would have included the several voices and research. I found Malay theatre and Chinese Art represented adequately. Having no native Indian speaker, the play was inclusive in all the Singaporean languages except one. Also, as the devising process goes, the methodical application of the process to the writing, (as there was no Indian artist who had insights from the Indian Arts scene) somehow excluded Indians from the entire conversation altogether. I found myself questioning why this was so. From my understanding, there were several struggles and political issues that arose in the Indian Arts Scene from the 50s (including in the Classical dance scene to theatre), but of course all of it was left out of the argument completely, and I found my race represented by a Eurasian actress (for the fucking umpteenth time) who attempted to represent our voice. And of course, perhaps, she would not have had this knowledge or content to contribute during the devising process (then get someone who does!). There were more issues with language and race that were fine details in the movements, they were subtle and underlying, but they were there nonetheless. My issues with these were namely: the subtitles only being in English and Chinese… even the programme booklet and house announcements were very clear in their privileging of a few languages over others. For all its efforts, The Necessary Stage still falls short of its claims of being focused on original local talent and inter-cultural exploration.
All in all, I think that Manifesto tried too hard to encapsulate too many things. It was an insane endeavour and I applaud all the actors for taking this up and performing to the fullest. Trying to take on too many complicated, convoluted issues, the entire thing became a huge —- in the end. (hint: cluster and —)