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Review: First Fleet (第一舰队) by Nine Years Theatre and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

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Steering audiences to believe in the redemptive power of art.

Written and directed by Nelson Chia, First Fleet marks a bold move for the Nine Years Theatre artistic director, clearly differentiating them from the rest of the companies producing works relating to Singapore’ colonial history this year. Taking inspiration from both historical figures and Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, First Fleet instead focuses on Australia’s colonial history. And more specifically, the colonisers themselves, and the fleet of British convicts that came with them.

But what results from this rather original and foreign-sounding premise is in fact, a powerful new work that convinces audience members of the inherent good in humanity, and succinctly covers a range of contentious contemporary issues, from elitism to corporeal punishment to censorship in art. Staged on the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium stage, the space ends up resembling a black box setting, with Lim Chin Huat’s minimalist set design giving just enough detail to imagine we’re on an actual ship, anchored by two sets of sails in the middle of the stage. Gabriel Chan’s lighting and Jing Ng’s sound design help transport us right to the heart of the ocean as well, from the sound of rolling waves to the vision of a ferocious thunderstorm.

Metatheatrical from start to end, First Fleet shifts constantly between two sets of characters, while even breaking the fourth wall from time to time. These changes in characterisation are easily differentiated thanks to Loo An Ni’s brilliant costume design, with naval pea coats that simply by inverting, allows the cast to transform into convicts.  Addressing the audience, the scene is set as the cast explains the history of the actual first fleet and the state England was in at the time – culled with draconian laws that discriminated against the lower classes, and a far wilder, more chaotic country than the one we know today. Flashforward to one ship in the fleet, and we learn that the Governor aboard the fleet has given an unusual instruction – or one of his lieutenants to rehearse a play with the convicts, with the hope of using the power of theatre to rehabilitate them.

It’s not long before we’re introduced proper to our motley crew of theatremakers – directing them is Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Timothy Wan), a more sympathetic officer who hopes that the act of staging theatre inspires hope in the convicts. He is joined by half-blind dream reader Liz Abraham (Mia Chee), carpenter Henry Mason (Hang Qian Chou), executioner William Paterson (Neo Hai Bin), Lady Anne Sheldon (Jodi Chan) and servant girl Mary Beckman (Shu Yi Ching), with the play they are to ‘stage’ being Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe (one that Nine Years Theatre themselves once staged).

Playing on Nine Years Theatre’s strongest asset, the ensemble work displayed in First Fleet is brilliant, and every member is given a chance to be in the spotlight – quite literally, as each performer gets their own monologue explaining their character’s tragic backstories, and how they came to join the fleet. There is genuine emotion in each of their voices as they recount each history, often a quiet sadness that laces each one we cannot help but sympathise with. Tempering this otherwise heavy material is the rehearsal process itself, filled with overacting, confused blocking and plenty of bickering, a welcome dose of humour amidst the otherwise serious play.

But beyond comic relief, the act of theatremarking has an even greater narrative purpose – under Lieutenant Ralph’s patience and guidance, it’s not long before each convict is visibly transformed by the power of art. As they learn about analysing the driving force behind each role and about how to infuse their acting with sincerity, each convict becomes increasingly confident of themselves, drawing strength from playing someone else and motivated to play their role to the best of their ability to put on a good show. First Fleet then becomes a startlingly convincing argument for rehabilitation over punishment, one that we cannot help but root for as we pray they find a way out of their tragic circumstances once they dock.

While we never do get to see the final play-within-a-play being staged, what we do see by the end of the performance is a theatre group that have miraculously, looked past their differences and backgrounds to bond with each other as a form of found family. These convicts are no longer simply criminals waiting to be imprisoned, but actual, fleshed-out human beings who deserve redemption and a chance at a better life, fearful yet optimistic as they draw closer and closer to the brave new world of Australia. Nine Years Theatre then steers us straight into one of the most brilliant, breathtaking endings of the year we’ve seen, and in a rare instance, leaves us only with a fervent belief in humanity and the redemptive power of art.

Photo Credit: The Pond Photography

Performance attended 18/7/19

First Fleet plays from 18th to 21st July 2019 at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (Level 9). Tickets available from SISTIC

Members of the 9-fans club will be able to purchase a single ticket of First Fleet at $28, with a 15% discount applied for subsequent ticket purchases. Audience aged between 16 to 25 years old will be able to purchase a single ticket at $18 under the Gen-9 club initiative.

 

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