I’m staying with friends in one of Singapore’s huge, sprawling, residential districts. They truly are communities unto themselves, these high-rise buildings grouped around communal spaces: playgrounds, parklands, and courtyards where pots of herbs and flowers mingle with bougainvillea and your local cat. The shopping precinct has 24 hour operational food stalls, and your doctor, dentist, herbalist, beautician, flower-seller, supermarket and ATM are all within walking distance. Hawkers visit daily selling the newspaper or calling for your trash, for which they pay – now there’s an idea! Literally thousands of Singaporeans live in these housing communities in close proximity to one another. The little Indian-speaking-at-home kids from one home play with the Mandarin and English speaking children from another. They meet in the playgrounds and build sandcastles, pick flowers, pet or chase the cats, and in the time-honoured way of children everywhere, just get on with it. Their differences are accepted. When they speak, the language of choice seems to be a perfectly adequate Singlish, which at times gets fractured into other rhythms and syntax and sprinkled with words from their ‘home’ languages – but that’s OK too. This is modern, multicultural Singapore after all.
I was keen to see The Theatre Practice’s return season of the Chinese language musical ‘If There’re Seasons’ which opened two days ago and which already is all but sold out for the duration of the run. Directed by Kuo Jian Hong this take on love, loss and nostalgia for home enjoyed huge success at its first showing in 2007. It takes The Theatre Practice under Kuo’s leadership into a new age of commercial success. ‘If There’re Seasons’ features the popular Singapore songs (xinyao) of hugely successful writer Liang Wern Fook spun into a narrative confection by Hong Kong playwright Raymond To. You’ll recognise the format if you’re familiar with ‘Mama Mia’ or ‘Jersey Boys’ or ‘Buddy’ or any of the other current music-theatre productions playing world-wide, and developed from pre-existing songs. Is there anyone out there who has not heard of ‘Mama Mia’? Just wondering.
Back to ‘If There’re Seasons’ (I have trouble with the English title by the way … it looks/sounds oddly … why not ‘If There Are Seasons’) but I digress, if not too far. ‘Mama Mia’ is entertainment, pure and simplistic; I think I’m the only one who couldn’t watch the movie version all the way through. I’m glad to say that ‘If There’re Seasons’ is in another league. Yes it is entertainment, but simplistic it isn’t. Indeed this could be one of the reasons for its ultimate failure to grip me as it should have. Playwright To’s slice of Singapore Pie is far too big, bursting at the seams with great intentions. Some of the songs feel and sound repetitious, and there are scenes which not only hold up the arc and momentum of the narrative, but which also distract from the central theme: dealing with ultimate loss – of love, home, identity. The writer would do well to tighten the book; the production suffers as a result.
And Kuo’s production is excellent, much better than the text she has to work with. She stages the work and directs with a sure hand and clear eye, showcasing the singing, dancing and acting of the cast … and how they shine for her. On opening night all of the performances were very, very good indeed, with Joanna Dong as Rose a standout for me. The Theatre Practice has its roots deep in training and the development of theatre in Singapore. It works hard at grooming its young professionals, investing time and ultimately money in what is perhaps the most vital component in creating a vibrant national theatre culture. And the effort pays off; artists and creatives rise together to the challenge in ‘If There’re Seasons.’ And there have been challenges during the development of this original Singaporean work.
After the first production two years ago, a letter of complaint about the show’s content was published in the local press; discussion ensued via blog and in a forum published in the Straits Times. As a result, this return production has been subjected to the equivalent of an M Rating by the Singaporean Censorship Board – yep, they still have one for theatre. This idiotic, unrealistic and also mean-spirited action has meant that funding for schools’ groups was made unavailable. Good lord, I hear you say … what could draw an M-Rating in a musical – always remembering that the best musicals deal with social issues – could it be drug use; nudity; the wonderfully coverall term ‘language’, what? None of the above. ‘If There’re Seasons’ has a sub-plot with two gay characters. This relationship is dealt with in the most discreet, gentle way via the play’s dialogue. So what action is it that offends? A hug my friends, a hug between the two men at the end of Act 1. I should add that theirs is a doomed relationship; they part to lead separate lives. Well, they say no publicity is bad publicity, and the almost sold out season as I write rather proves the point, however … it does underscore the power of live theatre to threaten repressive regimes wherever they are found. Who would have thought it … a hug … a blooming hug.
I began by talking about the way the children of multicultural Singapore live, play and communicate together. I’ll end on the same note. ‘If There’re Seasons’ slips gently and occasionally into English; most of it is set in New York City amongst the immigrant Singaporean community. The show is surtitled throughout with Mandarin and English. I know very little Mandarin, but enough to see that the Mandarin surtitles run literally line for line with dialogue and song lyrics. Whilst the English dialogue translations were fine, translation of the song lyrics into English was another matter. Words were misspelt, syntax garbled, and what should take 3 words all too often took 30.
Whoever approved the final translation does not understand the aesthetic and theatrical potential of the poetry, wit, and irony of song lyrics when they reflect the essence and not the surface meaning. In this production the English surtitles plodded prosaically word by word at ground level and, unforgivably in a live production, distracted the audience. As a result, our emotional engagement was lost. In a play which deals so much with identity and slippage, the tension and ultimate dramatic power of Mandarin and English flowing in and out of one another, with text set side by side would have provided a wonderfully powerful aural and visual counterpoint to the play’s dramatic theme. Kuo’s fine direction was almost derailed by this dreadful aspect of the production. The kids in the sandpit might have provided the translator with some help.