Sex, bikers and dialects

Sex, bikers and dialects

From a ragtag gang of mat and minah moto (Malay bikers) dealing with life and death in the fast lane, to a 63-year-old tuition teacher whose sex life is reignited to the outrage of her neighbours, the Singapore Theatre Festival is set to lift the curtain on the island's many faces.

It returns this year "more diverse, challenging and stronger than ever", says festival director Ivan Heng.

The biennial festival offers eight works, a mix of five reworked productions of recently staged plays and three efforts by first-time playwrights.

They put Singapore, its idiosyncracies and its people centre stage.

And while the festival, which runs from June 30 to July 24, is presented by Wild Rice, it is, at its core, a celebration of Singapore theatre.

"It takes a village to nurture a playwright or develop a play," says Heng, 52, who is also Wild Rice's artistic director.

The festival showcases the work of nine writers, eight directors and four companies - Wild Rice, Teater Ekamatra and budding groups Hatch Theatrics and Red Pill Productions.

More than half the shows are not completely in English, with Teochew surfacing in up-andcoming playwright Thomas Lim's Grandmother Tongue, and Malay biker lingo in Nessa Anwar's Riders Know When It's Gonna Rain.

Heng says: "I see this as a positive trend, enabling us to celebrate our diversity in a deeper and more meaningful way.

It also bodes well that our audiences have the sophistication and willingness to watch shows that are not in their comfort zones."

"Another exciting thing is the many young companies and playwrights, some of whom are writing their first plays. It's a fresh, youthful injection of energy that's inspired all of us."

The Business Times' arts correspondent Helmi Yusofmakes his playwriting debut with My Mother Buys Condoms, in which a 63-year-old's sexual reawakening leads to her neighbours' disapproval.

Riders Know When It's Gonna Rain, which follows four friends in the motorbiking community, is Nessa's first full-length play.

Another fresh voice in the theatre scene is Lim's, whose Grandmother Tongue, about a young man and his dialect-speaking grandmother, will premiere at the festival.

Festival dramaturg Alfian Sa'at says he and Heng also looked at plays that they felt should be seen by more people.

Says the 38-year-old: "Because of limited resources, the run of a new play is often very short."

"We felt there were certain plays that were bold, fresh and explored certain subcultures with sympathy and insight and deserved to be seen by a wider audience."

So there will be a restaging of Johnny Jon Jon's Hawa, presented by theatre collective Hatch Theatrics. It is a daring look at death, faith and sexuality that ran for two days last year.

Another play getting another stab at the spotlight is Rodney Oliveiro's Geylang, which had a five-day run last year and explores love, life and loss in the lorongs of Geylang.

Three-year-old theatre group Red Pill Productions' Let's Get Back Together, which gives voice to the trials and triumphs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, also gets a second staging. It played for four nights in 2014.

The two remaining plays are crowd favourites revived just months after their first staging.

Wild Rice's five-hour epic Hotel makes its return after walking away with four trophies - including Best Director - at this year's M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards.

This romp through 100 years of Singapore's history is directed by Heng and Glen Goei and written by Alfian and Marcia Vanderstraaten.

It was first staged last August at the Singapore International Festival Of Arts.

Teater Ekamatra's Geng Rebut Cabinet (GRC), which turns the political landscape on its head by making Malays the majority community, also makes a comeback after a short run in December.

The festival, which is in its fifth edition this year, costs close to $1 million.

"We're digging into the company's reserves to make an investment in our theatre industry," says Heng.

The troupe has applied for funding from the Cultural Matching Fund, which has the Government matching private cash donations dollar for dollar, and is "hopeful for a positive outcome".

But Heng adds: "To secure the long-term future of the festival, we need a title sponsor."

For now, the festival plays on and audiences are eager to get a slice of it. More than 60 per cent of the tickets have been snapped up.

It has, after all, chalked up a reputation for meeting thorny issues - such as race, religion and sexuality - head-on.

"It's always had an edge: challenging assumptions, provoking thought, inviting discussion and debate," says Heng.

"It carves out a space wherein risks are taken and our audiences come knowing that they will be challenged."

These seemingly taboo topics are part and parcel of everyday life, but "due to social media and how quick we are to judge or be offended, we fear thinking about these topics, or expressing how we truly feel".

But he adds: "The festival invites discussion and debate and asks artists and audiences to think and feel together. It's an antidote to how divisive and polarising everything tends to be these days."

"We'd like audiences to walk away from this festival feeling a sense of community, pride and belonging."

This article was first published on June 7, 2016.
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