Seven years on from Fear of Writing, Tan Tarn How makes a welcome return with this politically-charged, incisive commentary on the death of local journalism. 

Over the years, mainstream media has seen countless changes transform its purpose and perspective. From being seen as the fifth estate to becoming a government mouthpiece, to the advent of new media and alternative news sites to even today’s proliferation of fake news, the so-called free press has become a chimaera of ‘truths’ that no longer holds the same weight it once did. And so it is that in Press Gang, former journalist Tan Tarn How’s first play since 2011’s Fear of Writing, the media is thrust into the spotlight, and their role as a way to keep politics in check questioned.

Directed by Ivan Heng, Press Gang is set in the newsroom of the fictitious Singapore Times (ST) paper and follows a group of journalists as they prepare to write a massive supplement to commemorate a governmental anniversary. But everything is thrust into uncertainty when a devastating political rumour emerges, and their editor is sent on indefinite leave following a controversial opinion piece about potential abuse of power in the government. In the emerging power vacuum, office politics get heated up and the paper must decide if they are to run the story or not, fearing a potential government crackdown if they do.

Best known for cutting-edge, politically-charged pieces, Press Gang is a Tan Tarn How play through and through with its familiar themes of self-censorship and a flawed government, utilising the politics of the ‘publish and perish’ mentality as a lens by which to make clear the dangers of a government with nigh absolute power, willing to silence naysayers at the drop of a hat. The central rumour driving most of the play’s action becomes a terrifying guillotine hanging over every journalist’s head, and one truly sees the impossible position the modern writer finds himself in, forced to rephrase the truth and write between the lines to even hope for some kind of impact, building frustration over time. There is the sense that the newsroom becomes some kind of deathtrap as the tensions continue to rise and the story can no longer be contained, and Press Gang becomes a solemn warning that every move is being watched, and all it takes is a single slip-up to result in complete termination.

Tan’s writing features plenty of sharp, piercing observations, such as how Tan Tong Soon (Rei Poh) makes a passing comment on how the number of ads within the paper can reveal a lot more about the truth than the actual articles do. One’s enjoyment of Press Gang is also partially reliant on how much one chooses to keep up with political news and one’s knowledge of the local journalism scene. Tan writes his characters with a knowing wink, and one easily draws parallels to certain characters within our real life parliament and within a similarly abbreviated ‘ST’. ST ‘most read’ columnist Kerin Khoo (Amanda Tee, impeccably dressed each time she steps onstage) for example, is an easily recognizable figure with her proposal to start a weekly column featuring the personal lives of famous people, preferring to avoid politics altogether. Other characters take on more generic archetypes visible in most office environments, such as politically safe deputy editor Christopher Rozario (Shane Mardjuki, in a love-to-hate role), who would put a promotion over journalistic integrity.

Press Gang adopts a mostly minimalist set from Chris Chua, save for the ominous, towering pillar of newspapers that remains onstage throughout the play, and a backdrop of a giant ‘Singapore Times’ front page that hangs behind, acting as both a screen, and a reminder of the sheer presence of the press. Throughout Press Gang, there is a genuine air of fear and excitement that buzzes in the newsroom as the political rumour itself becomes secondary to the ensuing newsroom politics, helped in part by Paul Searles’ music, bringing to mind a literal hunt with its rhythmic drumbeats.

One is constantly kept on the edge of one’s seat as the deputy editors Christopher and Aminah (Oniatta Effendi) display their rivalry in plain sight, while other journalists plan their own subversive strategies to deliver the truth, leaving the audience never quite sure who to trust or whose side to take. Often, personal morality is pit against governmental pressure, with the journalists gagging themselves due to the severe consequences that might befall them, and left at a deadlock as to publish or not. When all hell finally does break loose, it becomes depressing how it is the ones that truly believe in the power of journalism that are hit the hardest of all, with both Yap Yi Kai as ex-ST journalist turned political blogger Mariam Wong and T. Sasitharan as incendiary old guard journalist Bhavan Muthu turning in strong performances that leave one feeling outraged and forlorn at the state of affairs.

Although Press Gang features a strong, well-cast group of actors, one character in particular feels somewhat underwritten – ‘protagonist’ Chua Kin Jek, an ex-MFA scholar who joins ST. Over the course of the play, Kin Jek’s role and intents are never made completely clear, at times appearing to be a beacon of hope for the media industry, and at others, simply feels like a non-player caught up in the storm. Although the character itself is played well by Benjamin Chow, one is ultimately left uncertain how we should see Kin Jek, leaving him overshadowed by other characters with more vocal views and eventual, heartbreaking dismissals.

Press Gang is an observant, unabashed depiction of the spectrum of former and current journalists making up the local media scene, delivering sobering social commentary that reminds us how our media landscape has become a mere shadow of its former self, with no easy solutions in sight. Timely, genuinely thrilling and boldly tackling a difficult topic, Press Gang is a welcome return from one of Singapore’s sharpest playwrights, and a numbing wake-up call to begin the 2018 Singapore Theatre Festival.

Photo Credit: Albert Lim K S

Performance attended 7/7/18 (Night)

Press Gang plays at the Singapore Airlines Theatre at Lasalle College of the Arts from 5th – 15th July. Tickets available from SISTIC

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