A Tiny Country

co-created by Rei Poh and Jean Tay
text by Jean Tay
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2020: My Country and My People
(organised and curated by TNS)
Centre 42 Black Box, Singapore

Central to this year's Fringe Festival is finding some meaning in this place we call home. What ties an individual to the physical place one inhabits and gives one a sense of identity? This sophomore outing by ATTEMPTS, a theatre collective founded by Rei Poh that seeks to empower audiences using participatory techniques, tries to provide an answer to that question by making us play a game.

As we enter into the theatre space, we are split into tribes (Artists, Leaders, Protectors and Guardians) of a fictitious island nation and told to sit in four corners of a room presided over by a large map. We are then asked by facilitator/host Joe (Farez Najid) to make decisions about the country as it grapples with various internal and external threats over the course of several years, reaching a collective group decision and then presenting our arguments to the floor. The first question is whether we should allow a wave of immigrants and things lead on from there, touching on resource allocation, defence and civil strife.

Photo Credit: André Chong

This tactical game is punctuated with anecdotes from Joe about his childhood and a general theme of displacement. These lyrical monologues, written by veteran playwright Jean Tay, are beautiful in their own right but do not seem to link to the more practical decisions which we are asked to undertake. At best, they form interesting filler pieces that add some colour and pad out the piece. The consequences of each decision are also dealt with in a fairly arbitrary manner and the scripted dialogue goes on, regardless of what may have been decided.

In order to be effective, a work like A Tiny Country is heavily dependent on the buy-in of its audience-participants. The creators need to really prime us into action and make us care about this fictitious world we are thrust into. However, when confronted with stacks of information and made to give speeches to strangers, not everyone is necessarily inclined to be proactive. This can make for a fairly lacklustre experience where audiences simply do not care about the 'story' enough and are simply looking to be entertained at the end of a long day.

Photo Credit: André Chong

One wonders if audience members should have been allowed to switch tribes halfway to keep things fresh. Instead of sticking to a fixed format in which each tribe presents its arguments (leaders always going first), could the order have been switched up so that we could riff off each other’s responses? The live illustrations that accompany the Jo's monologues could also have sought to respond directly to points that were raised during the course of the game. This would have made audiences feel far more invested in the story rather than simply going through the motions.

A Tiny Country has its heart in the right place by forcing us to deeply question what it means to belong to a community and have a sense of place. With a tighter premise and more conscious attempt to create active participation, this game could definitely unlock its full potential.

I discuss this production in more detail in this month's Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with playwright and editor Nabilah Said and theatre educator Matthew Lyon. 

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5


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