Press Gang

by Tan Tarn How
Singapore Theatre Festival 2018 (W!LD RICE)
Singapore Airlines Theatre
LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

In a country where the media is forced to play a role in nation-building and in furthering the goals of the ruling party, it's no wonder that the press constantly battle pragmatism against journalistic integrity. Press Gang, the opening show of W!LD RICE's Singapore Theatre Festival 2018, sees veteran playwright Tan Tarn How making a highly anticipated comeback, drawing upon his years as a journalist in The Straits Times to expose the inner workings of local journalism.

Singapore has one of the lowest rates of press freedom in the world and the increasing public apathy about the state of print media and rise of alternative news sites make Press Gang a play that is both urgent and important. Unfortunately, the powerful themes simmering in the text are let down by poor characterisation, haphazard direction and a meandering plot.

Photo Credit: Albert Lim K S, W!LD RICE

The characters - all dutifully diverse and multi-racial - unfortunately come across as broad stereotypes. Promising former civil servant Kin Jek (Benjamin Chow) arrives in the newsroom in the role of the ingenué and is immediately swept up in office politics. Meanwhile, two deputy editors - the pragmatic Christopher (Shane Mardjuki) and the passionate Aminah (Oniatta Effendi) jostle to get the top job when the editor disappears after writing a controversial opinion piece about potential abuses of power in the government. A perky lifestyle writer who only cares about readership (Amanda Tee), jaded senior journalist who hankers for the days of real, robust reporting (T. Sasitharan) and zealous ex-reporter who runs a rival news blog (Yap Yi Kai) complete the picture.

Press Gang feels like something which may have made an impact had it been written perhaps a decade ago. It sets out to shock us but fails because we already know exactly what to expect from the media of today. Of course, we have special features filled with ads and vapid photo captions. Of course, censorship is rife with politicians dictating what can and cannot be said by journalists in news articles. And of course, in this dire landscape, the only significant questions are asked by the independent news sites who publish stories that would otherwise never make it into the press. Those who question the status quo are either repositioned into more harmless roles or quietly forced out.

The only genuinely interesting character, maverick blogger Mariam, is dealt with in an almost perfunctory fashion. There's no sense of catharsis to her story and we never get to find out why she left the newsroom or the aftermath of her reveal of sensational stories which she releases on her website.  The play instead jumps ahead by a year and we learn that nothing has changed.

Tan's dialogue, too, leaves much to be desired. Characters speak in formal, ponderous sentences of the sort rarely seen anywhere outside a literary text. Director Ivan Heng mines the dialogue for its dramatic potential and seeks to inject variety into the talky scenes but only ends up sensationalising them. Characters share awkward scenes around tables and water dispensers and the repeated meeting room scenes complete with raised voices and snide retorts smack of a soap opera. Stylised sequences involving the cast moving around the stage with multimedia interludes feel utterly incongruous.

Photo Credit: Albert Lim K S, W!LD RICE

Much like the stodgy text, Chris Chua's design is heavy-handed, adding to the play's plodding artificiality. We are confronted by a towering pile of newspapers which sits in front of a giant, empty mock-up of The Singapore Times, a thinly veiled allusion to our national broadsheet. Could this possibly be a symbol of how the papers are all talk and no substance? As a newly promoted editor carries a box over to his new desk at the play's denouement, this backdrop falls dramatically to reveal a basement filled with similar boxes which have been carried down by former employees. This image of silent, forgotten voices - the individuals before him whose contributions have been reduced to a mere footnote - seems unnecessarily sentimental.

Chow anchors the cast with a honest, believable turn as the rookie reporter although the individual motives and aspirations of his character are never quite apparent. There is generally good work by familiar faces like Marjuki and Tee and a very welcome return to the stage by the likes of Oniatta and Sasitharan. Occasional, deliciously tongue-in-cheek allusions to real life personalities and institutions, ranging from sovereign wealth fund Merlion Investment Corporation to an individual called Clarence George, keep us entertained.

Tan has crafted an powerful, incisive play that asks vital questions about the state of journalism in Singapore today. However,  this desperately needs some re-working if it is to stand as an effective critique of our political and media culture. One only wishes that, like his earlier plays, Fear of Writing and The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate "S" Machine, he had approached these issues with a little more thrust and nuance.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

*For further insights on this production, do check out my podcast with Matt Lyon for Arts Equator on the Singapore Theatre Festival 2018 here


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