Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 372-374
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In one of his many discussions of theatre and liminality, Victor Turner quoted Thomas Hardy's observation that "if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst." One of the most fascinating aspects of theatre in Singapore is the oblique way in which it has tended to engage in social discussion in order to fulfill Hardy's admonition—sidling up to controversial political and social issues while trying not to upset the powers-that-be in the government, which has traditionally kept a tight rein on theatre through censorship. As a result of these pressures, many Singapore playwrights have become masters of implied discussion, using techniques such as allegory, the "devised play," and historical parallel to examine hot issues.
Robert Yeo (whom I knew slightly during the two years I taught in Singapore) is a fixture of the Singapore arts scene; indeed, he was chair of the Ministry of Culture's drama advisory group from 1977 to 1990 and was perhaps the first and one of the only playwrights to dare to treat political issues openly in his plays. (These two facts may not be unrelated.) In their concentration on the intersection of the personal and political, Yeo's plays bring to mind the works of such British dramatists as David Hare, Howard Brenton, and David Edgar, if on a smaller scale. The Singapore Trilogy, a collection of three related plays written from 1969 to 1995, follows a group of characters from their student days in London ( AreYouThere, Singapore?; 1969), to their return to Singapore ( One Year Back Home; 1979-1980), and then to the incarceration and release of one of the characters for his political beliefs ( Changi; 1997).
AreYouThere, Singapore?, the first in the trilogy, is undoubtedly the clumsiest of the plays in terms of plot construction and character development, but it is also the most appealing. We first meet the central characters as foreign students at the London School of Economics during the late 1960s, and Yeo is effective in portraying both the characters' homesickness and their excitement and ambivalence about their emerging nation. Hua, recently arrived from Singapore, becomes pregnant by an Italian man and must decide whether or not to have the child and whether or not to tell her parents. Meanwhile her brother, Chye, and her erstwhile suitor, Reg, argue about various aspects of politics in Singapore and decide to enter the political arena themselves on opposing sides. In OneYearBack Home, the characters having returned to Singapore, Chye is elected to parliament as a member of the ruling Political Action Party, while Reg runs against him as member of the opposition. Chye ultimately betrays his friendship with Reg and turns him in for expressing "pro-communist and subversive views during the campaign," saying: "He forced me to do it with his extreme speeches." In the third play, [End Page 372] Changi, named after the famous Singapore prison, we see the imprisoned Reg interrogated by the Internal Security Department under inhuman conditions and finally, in order to gain release, forced to compromise his beliefs by confessing to trumped-up political wrongdoings on TV.After going into exile in London, he returns to attend his father's funeral and cannot resist the temptation to enter opposition politics once more. Hua, meanwhile, becomes emotionally involved with Reg in the second play, even typing his political speeches, but ultimately ends up marrying Gerry, a young engineer who briefly contemplates leaving Singapore for Australia but ultimately stays to serve the country. Finally Hua ends up typing her brother's speeches while Reg is imprisoned and interrogated.
In truth the plays are schematic and not very well written. While Yeo certainly shows progress in plot construction over the course of the trilogy, there are too many instances of clumsy dramaturgy—secret tunnels and lost letters suddenly materialize; passports conveniently fall on the floor; characters come and go for no apparent reason other than to score...