The Year of No Return

by Haresh Sharma and Rody Vera
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

This interdisciplinary collaboration by The Necessary Stage (TNS) was originally commissioned for SIFA 2020 and had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Directed by Alvin Tan and co-written by Haresh Sharma and Rody Vera, The Year of No Return seeks to interrogate responses to climate change from a variety of individual and institutional stakeholders. Like many other productions in this year's SIFA lineup, COVID restrictions in Singapore have forced the work to adapt. It comprises a mix of live performance and video presentation, audiences for the in-venue shows undergo nasal swab tests prior to entering the theatre and all live performers remain masked throughout.

As far as TNS productions go, it’s certainly tighter and more disciplined than some of the company's more recent work like Civilised, a meandering response to colonialism, or Kebaya Homies, a musical romp through Malay culture. The framing device is a fictitious Global Climate Forum held in Singapore featuring many distinguished personalities. Diplomatic host Su (Siti Khalijah) tries to keep things moving along efficiently while dealing with a live protest taking place outdoors and a host of colourful characters. These include an earnest Filipino climate activist who lost his family to a devastating tsunami (Marco Viana), a self-absorbed CEO of a Japanese food corporation (Chihiro Hirai), an esteemed Malaysian marine biologist who is reduced to tears at the destruction of the world’s coral reefs (Sukania Venugopal) and a disgruntled eco-terrorist clamouring for action (Lian Sutton).

The ensemble cast, many of whom are longtime collaborators with TNS, are uniformly strong, achieving good chemistry despite performing across different formats. Interestingly, one finds that the characters on stage are far less compelling than those on screen. Venugopal and Viana are quietly powerful in their projected scenes that convey the depth of their characters' emotions. By contrast, Su, the pragmatic administrator who only gains her voice at the end, feels sadly underwritten. Likewise, Sutton's character Ary is all angst and bluster, coming across as a cartoonish caricature of an activist.

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography 

The hybrid presentation of the work is perfectly understandable due to the challenges brought about by the pandemic. However, the sheer volume of filmed sequences makes one wonder if this would have been better served as an online experience, perhaps akin to provocative Zoom show Who's There? which Tan co-directed with Sim Yan Ying last year. An extended scene of three artificial intelligence programmes communicating with one another is interesting but the multi-lingual text flooding the screen in real time is painful on the eyes. While the production has clearly been researched and dramaturged, some of the content feels more suited to a documentary. 

One also wonders at the point of all the extras on stage. Two movement artists perform choreographed dance sequences during the scene transitions but these do not seem to comment or add to anything happening in the main story. Even more incongruous are a group of background performers having no real purpose other than to carry the odd slogan and run from one point to the next. Given the size of the stage and the fact that there are only two principal characters performing live, I can understand the need to fill the stage with extra bodies but would have expected this to be more cohesive. 

Other elements of the production feel strangely disconnected from the central theme. Prior to the start of the performance, a recorded voice implores us to be happy and not to measure ourselves by our accomplishments and productivity. One wonders what this pep talk has to do with climate change. Elsewhere, the cast appear live on individual screens, asking us how we feel. Breaking the fourth wall is is a common device in TNS plays but it falls rather flat when the conversation moves around in circles. Interestingly, one of the most resonant scenes involves a FaceTime call between two friends about the protest taking place outside the event. It speaks to the apathy clawing at so many of us throughout this pandemic and how even though we may be riled up about making a change, we are consumed by a crippling inertia and far more content to sit at home pouring through our social media feeds. 

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography 

Wong Chee Wai's functional set involves a series of screens that are raised or lowered to form the backdrop for the various projections. These form a good canvas for the multimedia work by filmmaker Jasmine Ng, aided by lighting by Yo Shao Ann and sound by Jing Ng. Quiet, emotionally resonant moments contrast well with the bright washes of light elsewhere. I liked the image of a larger-than-life Venugopal floating on the screen dressed in white, an eerie, supernatural presence warning us of our perils. In an arresting sequence, the forum is hacked with a jaunty video featuring Pepe the Frog mocking the capitalist agenda with retro comic-like graphics.

The Year of No Return deals with an issue that affects us all and is undeniably of global significance. Yet, one struggles to walk away from this production with a radically different perspective on climate change. The simplistic binary of evil institutions versus radical activists leaves the average person feeling rather ambivalent and wondering what role one has to play in this conversation. 

I discuss this production in more detail in the Critics Live! panel as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable organised by ArtsEquator together with fellow critics Nabilah Said, Clarissa Oon and Lee Shu Yu. 

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5


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