Rant & Rave

written and directed by Chong Tze Chien
The Finger Players
Esplanade: Dedicated to You
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

They say one of the aims of theatre is to reflect the state of the nation and this superb retrospective shows us, in just sixty minutes, how the Singapore Theatre Story is but the child of our much feted Singapore Story. Director and playwright Chong Tze Chien has put together one of the most articulate snapshots of local theatre history yet, drawing from commentary by academics, practitioners, government officials and the media to give us a real sense of where we came from and how the issues facing our theatre scene over the past few decades have been, in many respects, the issues we faced as a country.

Chong organizes the performance around three central debates. We are confronted with Singapore theatre's identity politics as it slowly shook off its colonial roots and began to embrace a unique Singaporean idiom. There is the perennial debate between the citizen and the state, fought out in the battle between censorship and artistic expression. Finally, the spotlight shifts to the voice of the people by examining the role of the media as commentators on the theatre landscape. It was particularly sobering to be reminded that in all these years, we've never really built up a strong critical voice in the arts community and people have moved in and out, lacking that history and cultural background to be able to assess the development of the scene.

If all this sounds like a boring history lecture, think again. Janice Koh and Siti Khalijah do a superb job in bringing the issues to life by taking on the guise of numerous characters. Through the use of a few simple props (a bag, a pair of glasses, a wig), they inhabit the roles of a wide assortment of theatre personalities and members of the arts community: from an earnest Alvin Tan permanently mopping his brow, to the erudite T. Sasitharan and the articulate and delicately poised Ong Keng Sen. The rapid-fire impersonations are brilliantly funny but at the same time, quietly absorbing. Carefully chosen anecdotes projected on the screen give us a sense of the conversations that have gone on over the years and one realizes that in terms of big issues, perhaps things haven't changed all that much: we're still not sure about the use of Singlish, we still gripe abut arts funding and the issue of censorship has never stopped rearing its ugly head. There's a veritable torrent of information thrown at the audience (it's impossible to read and digest every single quote) but everything is paced well and the length is just right to make us pause, reflect and learn.

As the sister production of two other Esplanade tenth anniversary commissions, National Broadway Company (a homage to Singapore musicals) and Casting Back (a revue on the role of actors), Rant & Rave ties the whole weekend together perfectly by looking back to the very roots of our theatre industry and illustrating the exhilarating journey we've been through, artists and audiences alike. There are not many opportunities these days for younger audiences to learn about our rich and varied theatre history and this production proves to be a true revelation. I only hope it gets revived or developed into a workshop or exhibition so more people would get the chance to see it.

The Crystalwords score: 8/10

*This review appears as a First Impression on The Flying Inkpot.


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