- Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, Vol. 6: Haresh Sharma: The Cultural Politics of Playwriting in Contemporary Singapore
Singapore publishing company Ethos Books is doing a valuable service to the field of literary and performance studies in Southeast Asia through its production of the Interlogue critical series. Series editor Kirpal Singh should be congratulated for undertaking this project to create a body of critical work in an area that is still understudied and underdocumented. Having published three volumes dealing with fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as one volume of interviews with prominent Singaporean writers, the series editor has now turned to studies of individual authors. Volume 5 is a study of one of Singapore's elder statesmen of literature, the poet, novelist, and playwright Robert Yeo. For volume 6, the attention is on Haresh Sharma, born in 1965, a prolific and challenging playwright from a younger generation than Yeo. Like Yeo, however, he is a playwright in search of a voice, both as an individual and as a Singaporean. This book does much to document and evaluate that search.
Author David Birch, having been involved in staging and writing about theatre in Singapore in the 1980s, is able to write about Haresh Sharma's development as a playwright from an insider's perspective. Birch's background knowledge about the social, political, and cultural strictures within which Singaporean theatre practitioners work enables him to do far more than provide a simple critical reading of Sharma's texts. Rather, he reads the texts against the sociocultural, political, and economic contexts within which [End Page 392] Sharma writes. The result is a multilayered reading that traces not just the development of a playwright, but also the progress and changes taking place within that playwright's society.
Birch takes a basically chronological approach to Sharma's works, looking back over a career spanning almost twenty years. He takes the reader from the roots of Sharma's career as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, where he was involved in the staging of plays by Woody Allen, Peter Barnes, and Olwen Wymark, right up to his current position in 2006 as one of Singapore's most well-known and hardest-working playwrights. In that time, he and his group, the Necessary Stage (TNS), have worked toward expressing a Singaporean identity in terms of theme (the pressure of social expectations, the search for an individual voice) and language (the use of Singaporean English and the many vernaculars available to Singaporeans of different ethnic groups).
At the same time, Birch also takes a thematic approach. Chapter 1, for example, deals with the emergent Singaporean voice of the 1980s, highlighting among other things Sharma's assured use of Singaporean English in his dialogue; in Lanterns Never Go Out (1989), protagonist Kah Wei switches from using basilectal Singaporean English with her friends, to standard English at work, to the Teochew dialect with her parents. Chapter 2 deals with the issue of individual voices needing space within which to voice their individual desires—a contentious point in communal-thinking Singapore; in More (1991), he takes a comically critical look at the Singaporean drive to acquire wealth—a drive subtly encouraged by the state, to ensure the continued prosperity of Singapore. Chapter 6 covers the writing (less successful, in Birch's opinion) done in Birmingham, England, where in 1995 Sharma did a master of arts degree in playwriting; Birch attributes the relative failure of these plays, such as There Is No New Thing under the Sun, to Sharma's separation from Singapore, the world that fundamentally drives his writing. Birch is unconvinced that Sharma "has anything particularly original to say about British characters or British life" (117), emphasising this point by showing in chapter 7 how Sharma's writing "recovers" when he works on community theatre in Singapore's "heartland." In 1995 Sharma and TNS worked on a play titled October, auditioning and interviewing ordinary people over the age of fifty and work-shopping their stories...