by Haresh Sharma
The Necessary Stage / Drama Box
The Necessary Stage Black Box, Singapore

In a week which has seen Parliament debate the issue of social inequality, this urgent, unsettling play could not have been better timed. Singapore prides herself on being a world leader on so many fronts. However, this relentless drive to achieve material success has come at a cost: we have one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world.

Who exactly are these individuals who slip through the cracks, the bottom 10% of the socio-economic ladder who barely make ends meet? We finally get to hear their stories in Underclass, a new play by Haresh Sharma jointly presented by The Necessary Stage and Drama Box. 

Before the play starts, a shabby, middle-aged woman wanders around, trying to sell tissue paper to members of the audience. Most people ignore her. We learn that she is Xinyi (Goh Guat Kian), who recently battled a stroke and has been made redundant from her secretarial job. She seeks financial assistance from the government and deals with a barrage of questions from breezy officials about her situation in life. Is she truly 'needy'? Can't she rely on a family member for support? With much difficulty, Xinyi gets a rental three-room HDB flat in Lorong Lima. However, she is unable to hold on to a job, refuses the help of others and sinks into a miserable state.

Xinyi's neighbour, Johari (Yazid Jalil), offers an interesting counterpoint. He's an aimless 25-year-old drifter who spends his time building scale models of buildings. He lacks motivation and expects money and opportunities to simply fall into his lap. When the chance comes join a European lover abroad, he immediately packs his bags.

Underclass seeks to interrogate the claim of meritocracy Singapore so prides herself on. The stories of Xinyi and Johari are set against others who have unquestionably 'made it' in life. Desmond Olsen is an eloquent, fast-rising minister tipped to be the next PM. He strolls around the Lorong Lima estate, making meaningless chatter with the residents in a bid to get a photo opportunity. This is the voice of the establishment, the politicians who who superficially talk about combating inequality through an assortment of schemes and benefits.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

In a telling moment, Olsen talks about his privileged childhood and access to enrichment activities, tuition and other resources. By the time he was 13, he acknowledges that he was the intellectual and emotional superior of 90% of his peers. How then are others ever meant to catch up? Something needs to be done to address the deeper systemic rot that allows some people access to success and not others.

Then there's a CEO of a halal food business (Siti Khalijah Zainal) who works hard despite her humble background to become a socially-minded businesswoman wanting to better the lives of others. Seeing how she has done so well, it's hard to feel for someone like Johari who can clearly succeed should he put in a bit of effort. Are people like him deserving of the government's support and our tax dollars? It's certainly a nuanced question.

Co-directors Alvin Tan and Kok Heng Leun, reuniting for the second time since 2016's Manifesto, extract strong performances from the ensemble cast and fashion a pared-down, simmer of a production that allows the stories to speak for themselves. Each character is presented as a 'case study', a deliberate choice of word which reduces them to their pure economic value.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Veteran performer Goh Guat Kian is the beating heart of the show as the shuffling, slurring Xinyi - a woman who, despite all her best efforts, never quite manages to make it through the system. Vincent Lim's economical set is progressively stripped down, with Xinyi's character folding away the cardboard boxes into a messy heap till all we are left with are a row of gleaming white shelves. It's a reminder, perhaps, of that perfect ordered society where the underclass like her have no place.

The decision to have the actors break the fourth wall is an inspired one. At one point, Yazid  compares his own situation to that of the fictional Johari. What gives him, a member of the middle class, the right to speak for such a character? At other times, the cast ponder the utility of putting on a play like this. Would people care about the underclass, those whose lives are all but effaced in the Singapore Story? These meta-theatrical incursions jolt us out of our passive viewing mode and force us to think about these people as real, authentic individuals.

Underclass is a rich, thought-provoking production that sees both companies doing what they do best - creating powerful, provocative theatre about issues that matter. After each actor walks out, we are left with a deafening silence. 'Nothing changes', the final words of an extract an audience member is asked to read out, ring in our ears. Let's hope this is not true. 

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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